Knight: "I Wish't I Was In Peoria" should get a new recording

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Jerry Klein, the dean of central Illinois feature writers let go by the Peoria Journal Star after decades of work (but still churning out thoughtful essays in the weekly Catholic Post) this winter shared a lyric sheet to the classic song "I Wish't I Was in Peoria," written 87 years ago by Broadway's Billy Rose, one of the 20th century's most famous figures from the Great White Way.

The title, a verse and the vague melody of the chorus are somewhat familiar, but the good-natured spoof of the then-wide-open town and Vaudeville proving ground is fuller and funnier than assumed.

"I Wish't I Was in Peoria" was one of several memorable tunes Rose penned with collaborators. He's also credited with "It's Only a Paper Moon" (with E. Y. Harburg), "Me and My Shadow" (with Al Jolson) and "Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" (with Marty Bloom).

Rose may be remembered mostly as the namesake for the Billy Rose Theater on 41st Street in New York City (now unfortunately called the Nederlander Theater) or for his 9-year marriage to comedian and singer Fanny Brice or for James Caan's portrayal of him in "Funny Lady," the sequel to the film "Funny Girl." But he was a lot more.

He was a producer (the talent behind the 1940s all-African-American cast of "Carmen Jones," based on the opera "Carmen"), an impresario (launching Times Square's famed Diamond Horseshoe nightclub), and talent scout (he not only hired Olympians Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams for his New York World's Fair show "Aquacade," he gave young struggling dancer Gene Kelly an early job as a choreographer).

For Peorians, of course, his comical nod to the River City is a hallmark, even if it chiefly survives as sheet music and piano rolls (stride piano player Clarence Johnson is credited for one such recording – regrettably instrumental only – available online at YouTube).

The tune has hilarious plays on words and rhymes, plus more than a few references to an active and entertaining, if corrupt, community where many famous performers honed their routines and talents before moving on to national circuits or New York.

More than a half dozen verses are just setups for variations on the chorus, which changed slightly:

Oh, how I wish't I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight
Oh, how I miss the "goils" in Peoria, Peoria, tonight
Oh, you can pick a morning gloria
Right off the sidewalks of Peoria
Oh, how I wish't I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight

Oh, how I wish't I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight
Oh, how I miss the mud in Peoria, Peoria, tonight
The present Mayor of Peoria
Works in the Five and Ten Cent Storia
Oh, how I wish't I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight

Such giggly, goofy lines and rhymes must've been crowd-pleasers decades ago; they're still amusing: Rose created "Toreadoria" to rhyme with Peoria, and came up with lines like "The pretty girlies think much more o' ya," "we've got sawdust on the floor-ia," and (a favorite) "That big hotel Waldorf Astoria gets all their porters from Peoria."

And Rose parodied the place, too, like, "The beauty contest, Miss Peoria, fought in the Revolution War-ia."

Oh, if someone would only record it again!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Here are a few videos of the song being performed by artists over the years. First, the Smothers Brothers:

If you prefer your songs with more banjo in them:

Nothing like this version from the 15th Annual Glacier Jazz Stampede in Kalispell, Montana! And we didn't even know there was such a thing as "Glacier Jazz":

And finally, a version by Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys. And yes, Spats, the beauty queens in Peoria WERE crowned during the Civil War-ia:

 

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.