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Frizzi: A Tale of Three Cities

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What two things do Peoria, IL, Jamestown, NY and Vincennes, IN have in common?

1) They're the birthplaces of three of America's greatest comedians.
2) Nobody knows where they're located.

That sounds pretty callous from somebody who is not originally from Peoria. But I've lived here for a couple of decades and, as such, can comment. Besides, how many people in the Peoria-Bloomington Metroplex know where either Jamestown or Vincennes are located?

The three comedians are Richard Pryor (Peoria), Lucille Ball (Jamestown) and Red Skelton (Vincennes).

Kevin Kizer's recent "Peorian" article on the new Pryor book, "Furious Cool, Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him" (David Henry and Joel Henry – Algonquin Books), has reopened the question of why Peoria hasn't done more to honor Pryor. The article revisits the several excuses as to why. What is troubling is that, according to the article, the newly created Peoria Riverfront Museum does not mention Pryor on its website. Pryor is almost an afterthought in the museum's exhibits. If Peoria's hometown museum can't treat Richard Pryor with any more respect than they would a box of junk in Fibber McGee's closet, then something's sadly wrong.

When I moved here in 1992, I wondered the same thing. I was living in Dallas before I moved and my friends asked me where Peoria was. I told them that it was in between Chicago and St. Louis and that it was the international headquarters of Caterpillar Inc. I even explained to them what was meant by "It plays in Peoria."

But they were more impressed when I told them that Peoria was the birthplace of Richard Pryor.

Heddy (wife) and I were in Cleveland a couple of years ago. We visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a venue that put a place known as "The Mistake on the Lake" back into a positive light. And although Clevelanders had heard of Peoria, they didn't know where or what it was.

But they were impressed when I told them that Peoria was the birthplace of Richard Pryor.

Vincennes, IN is a city of just under 19,000 people. It was the site of one of many river forts that bounced back and forth from French to British hands during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Vincennes is in the southwestern part of the state. It sits on the Wabash River, right on the Indiana-Illinois state line.

By the time we moved to Vincennes, Red Skelton had a bridge named for him. He even came back to dedicate it in front of cheering crowds. The other bridge in town that spanned the Wabash was named after Abraham Lincoln. That bridge was built at the site where Abe first crossed the Wabash River into Illinois.

Skelton was one of the top radio and movie comedians of his day. His TV variety show was a household staple for twenty years, last airing in 1971. Skelton passed away in 1997 at 84.

According to Pryor's autobiography, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences" (1995, Random House), Richard said Red, as well as Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar, influenced his comedy routine.

A private residence, just two blocks from Vincennes University, was marked with a sign indicating that it was Skelton's birthplace. Red became friends with the residents. From time to time, when he would sneak into Vincennes, Red was welcomed to visit his old home.

When people would visit us, those would be the two places we would show them. And when they left, they knew that Vincennes was the birthplace of Red Skelton.

The city, in conjunction with Vincennes University, decided to honor its favorite son with a theater and museum. The Red Skelton Theater opened in 2006. The museum opened in July 2013 in celebration of Skelton's 100th birthday. Both sit on the campus of Vincennes University and are located just one block away from Skelton's birthplace. Every July, Vincennes hosts a Red Skelton festival complete with a parade and a show at the theater. A mural of Red and the many characters he played also exists on the side of a downtown building.

Jamestown is located in the farthest western portion of the Empire State. It has a population of just over 31,000. It is 75 miles south of Buffalo, 145 miles east of Cleveland and 171 miles north of my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. A few years back, we stopped in Jamestown on our way to Pittsburgh from Cooperstown, NY (Baseball Hall of Fame), mainly because Jamestown was the birthplace of Lucy.

The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum and Center of Comedy sits in the center of downtown Jamestown, right on the corner of Third and Main. The center features an annual comedy festival as well as a comedy film festival. Both are intended to influence up-and-coming young comedians. The center also sponsors a Legacy of Laughter Award that honors comedians who best exemplifies Lucy and Desi and the center's mission.

The street that Lucy grew up on was renamed Lucy Lane. Lucy lived there from the age of 8 until she moved to New York City to attend acting school. The house is still a private residence. However, the owners are planning to restore it to the way it looked when Lucy and her family lived there. It should available for tours in conjunction with the Lucy and Desi Museum. Lucy's birthplace, not far from her childhood home, is also a private residence.

Nearby The Lucy and Desi Museum is The Desilu Theater. It's a refurbished downtown theater with replicas of the sets that appeared on "I Love Lucy".
The show ran from 1951 to 1957 and was the number one TV show four out of six seasons. It's still considered the best television sitcom ever created and is still viewed all over the world.

Lucy died in 1989. She and her Mother were originally interred in a cemetery in Hollywood. Her children, actors Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., transferred the ashes of both to the family plot at Jamestown's Lake View Cemetery.

Like Richard Pryor, both Lucy and Red had rugged childhoods. Lucy's Father, a telephone lineman, died of typhoid fever when Lucy was 4 years old. She and her Mother moved in with her maternal grandparents, the Hunts.

Richard Red Skelton was an urchin. He never knew his father, a traveling clown who died two months before his fourth son's birth. His Mother worked as a janitor in a theater. Red went to work at the age of 7 as a paperboy to help make ends meet. In 1923, Skelton was hawking papers in front of The Pantheon Theater when a gentleman came up to him and asked him what there was to do in Vincennes. Skelton told him that a comedian named Ed Wynn was playing there and he had heard that Wynn was very good. The man asked Red if he was going to the show. Red told him that he'd like to, but had to sell his papers first. The man bought all of Red's papers and got him a ticket for the show.

Sitting in the balcony, Skelton was surprised to see that his new friend was Ed Wynn. He enjoyed the laughs Wynn got and decided to do the same for a living.

For years, the Pantheon Theater was used for various storefronts, with walls built within the lobby. In 2006, renovation began to return the theater to the way it looked back in 1921. I got to go inside the Pantheon Theater before they started remodeling. The "Colored Only" sign painted on the staircase leading to the segregated balcony, very similar to the Peorian theaters in Pryor's day, could still be seen on the staircase wall.

It was having to endure this and other indignities that helped mold Pryor's comedy and outlook on life.

According to his autobiography, Richard Pryor grew up at 317 NE Washington. His Grandmother's house was at 313. The site is where Eaton Street runs under Interstate 74 before it passes the Kelly Seed store. Just to the right of the site is Townsquare Media Inc. Peoria, which houses five radio stations, including 95.5 GLO and 97.3 River Country. Past that is Taft Homes of the Peoria Housing Authority. Yet, there is no marker or anything to indicate that Richard Pryor grew up there. The site is a scant seven blocks south of Peoria's Riverfront Park, which features a memorial to singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, also a Peoria native.

Back in January 2006, I worked with the Apollo Theater to organize a Richard Pryor Film Festival. It was a weekend event where three movies, "Live on the Sunset Strip", "Stir Crazy" and "Jo-Jo Dancer" were shown. I would've liked to have seen it become an annual and bigger event. Perhaps Kizer's article reignites such a festival.

I was lucky enough to watch "Live on the Sunset Strip" at the Apollo with the late Percy Baker, who, at that time, was director of Carver Recreational Center, where Pryor would hang out as a child and participate in plays under the guidance of his mentor, Miss Juliette Whittaker. We laughed hard and Percy was kind enough to share a story or two. He also was kind enough to include me in any plans they had to attempt to honor Pryor in Peoria. Baker himself passed away in 2008.

Albeit very slowly, Pryor is finally starting to get some credit from his hometown. A bust of Pryor, called "Olmec Pryor" was unveiled in 2012 at The John H. Gwynn Park in South Peoria. The bust sits across from Carver Center. A portion of Sheridan Road, running east of the center, was renamed Richard Pryor Place in 2001. The Peoria Housing Authority is located on South Richard Pryor Place.

Two years before his death in 2005, Pryor and his wife, Jennifer Lee, approved of local artist Preston Jackson to create a statue of Pryor. The statue has been completed. Fundraising to finance the bronzing of the statue continues.

Countless other towns have their own "favorite son or daughter" that they honor or remember in some way, shape or form. It might be a statue, a plaque on their childhood home, renaming a street in their honor or a festival. Galesburg, just about 40 miles west of here, marked the birthplace of and named a college and other buildings for poet Carl Sandburg.

Many communities did it for some financial gain acquired through tourism. Mostly, they were proud of their association for the local person who "made it big". And, as Kizer's article stated, there is no bigger person in the art of stand-up comedy that is bigger than Pryor. He became the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998. Incidentally, the small town of Hannibal, Missouri is very proud to honor Twain, who grew up there.

Whether it be the Civic Center or the legendary Jukebox Comedy Club, many stand-up comedians make it a point to "play in Peoria," mainly because Pryor is from here. Like it or not, Peoria, you are known in the outside world as the birthplace of Richard Pryor.

Pryor died in December of 2005. He's been gone nine years. A newer generation of Peorians have an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past.

When people visit Jamestown or Vincennes or similar cities where a famous citizen grew up, they expect to see the house where Lucy grew up or see Red Skelton's museum. Visitors are greeted with signs welcoming them to their respective cities, and, on those signs, are very proud to tell them that Lucille Ball or Red Skelton were born there.

Heddy and I get visitors from out of town. And when we show them around Peoria, the birthplace of Richard Pryor, we'd like to actually have something similar to show them.

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.