On April 25, 1950, the devoted readers of LOOK magazine, billed as “America’s Family Magazine,” opened the latest edition and were treated to a four-page feature filled with photos and titled “Back to Peoria with Fibber & Molly.”
Pathway to Airwaves
“Fibber and Molly” were, of course, the radio superstar couple who entertained nearly 20 million listeners each Tuesday night from their fictional home of Wistful Vista, U.S.A. In real life, the show’s two stars, Jim and Marian Jordan, were from Peoria. Jim was born and raised on a farm just west of town, moving to Peoria as a teenager, while Marian Driscoll grew up in the city. Both had big families, and both went to Peoria Catholic schools. As teenagers, they met at a choir practice and fell in love.
The Jordans, like many of the nationally recognized entertainers we know from Peoria, left town before becoming famous—but they always embraced their roots. Their quips about life before Wistful Vista were perhaps the most truthful part of the show. “We had a lot of references to Peoria,” Jim recalled. “Fibber would talk about Main Street hill, canoeing on the Illinois River and various characters in town.”
Molly: What’s that little key there for?
Fibber: Uh, well, that’s a padlock key.
Molly: What padlock?
Fibber: Well, for the backyard gate we used to have in Peoria.
Molly: What are you keepin’ that for? Are you homesick?
Fibber: No, but if we ever moved back to Peoria, I’d try to rent the same house ‘cause this key fits the padlock there. You got to think ahead in these things.
Growing up in Peoria was challenging but rewarding for the Jordans. After they married in August of 1918, Jim was drafted and spent most of the war years entertaining troops in hospitals. Back in Peoria, Marian taught piano and waited. When Jim returned to Peoria he took on a variety of jobs, including work in a machine shop. But he missed performing.
So, together, Jim and Marian formed a vaudeville-style traveling revue company. In 1925, while visiting Jim’s brother in Chicago, they auditioned for a job performing on a new medium: radio. From there, they went to NBC in New York City and eventually became “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
A Peoria Homecoming
Then in 1950, nearly 15 years later, the two superstars were coming home. Actually, they had come back to Peoria before—mostly in private to visit family and friends. But LOOK magazine had a better idea: send the two lovable radio characters back to their hometown to “see relatives, the old gang, the old quartet, the old opera house, their honeymoon house and to pull taffy and bob for apples.” It was all in good fun, and LOOK photographers would be there to record every adventure.
“He couldn’t lift me over the threshold,” Marian remarks, as she is shown playfully being hoisted by Jim at the entrance of their “old house.”
Pictured at Peoria’s Orpheum Theater, Jim recalled his first stage appearance. “You can still see the marks where the missiles went wide,” went the caption.
The highlight of their weeklong visit was an evening at the Robertson Memorial Field House on the campus of Bradley University. During halftime at a charity basketball game, Jim and Marian appeared center court, took the mic and did an impromptu bit from the radio show. “Taint’ funny, McGee,” Marian said to uproarious laughter. Then Jim thanked the crowd for their support and played a mock minute of basketball with the traveling team. “I hope none of our boys fall off that elevated floor,” he joked.
Nearly 40 years later, in May of 1988, the Peoria Journal Star’s Bill Adams wrote about the 1950 visit in his column “Yester Days”. LOOK had asked Adams to open the shuttered Orpheum Theater so the photographers could get a shot of the Jordans on stage. Adams recalls that after they left, Jim couldn’t stop laughing. When Adams asked what was so funny, Jim said it was because he never played the Orpheum—only the Palace Theater nearby. “Then why let LOOK take the pictures?” Adams asked. “Oh, let them have their story,” Jim slyly replied.
Although it was as much fun for the Jordans as it was for their hometown fans, the LOOK visit would be one of their last public appearances together in Peoria. In 1959, the radio show ended and shortly after, Marian got ill. She died three years later, just shy of her 63rd birthday. After Marian’s death, Jim retired from performing, moved to California, remarried and passed away on April Fool’s Day of 1988. He was 91.
“Two great Peorians,” Adams said of the legendary radio couple who never forgot where they came from. PM
Ken Zurski is a longtime radio broadcaster, historian, storyteller and author. Follow his blog at unrememberedhistory.com.