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Pryor's Places: A Tour of Richard Pryor's Peoria

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Heddy (wife) came home after having a couple of drinks with a friend after work. Her friend is a member of the Peoria Historical Society. She told me that they had a tour about the history of Peoria's distilleries and would I be interested?

"Sure! When do we go?" Heddy knew that I liked history and that I liked distilled beverages.

"Well, we can," she said, "but they're looking for someone to conduct the tour."

I might actually do it, should I be asked. Why not? It should be fun. Besides, this past winter played havoc with my roof. After all the snow melted, I found pieces of roof tile in the yard, mixed with last autumn's leaves. I need a new roof and could use the extra coin.

I've never been on any of the tours here in Peoria. I hear the "gangster tour", involving the notorious Shelton Brothers, is pretty fascinating. I plan to go on both tours and would be curious to see if there are any more tours.

One tour I'd like to take is of "Mr. Pryor's Neighborhood". No official tour exists to my knowledge. I've spoken to people, researched articles and reviewed old maps of Peoria. I've read Pryor's autobiography, Pryor Convictions and just finished reading the latest bio, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. Both books provided loads of information for this article and, if you're a Pryor fan, are mandatory reading

Where was Richard Pryor from? I know he's from Peoria because he said so, in his own Pryoresque style on his album ...Is It Something I Said? On the track where he introduces Mudbone. But where was his neighborhood? Where did he grow up? Where did he become Richard Pryor? Where was the man born?

I'd like to walk the same sidewalks Pryor did. I want to look at the houses in his neighborhood. I want to try to imagine what it was like for this little kid to run down the sidewalks with his friends, just like in his movie, Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.

I'd also like to see where the young adult Pryor lived, knowing he was talented but wondering whether he would spend the rest of his life working at a meat packing plant or maybe get a factory job at Caterpillar. I'd like to see the sites of some of the night clubs where this talented young fellow would hone his art by working as a comic and moving up to Master of Ceremonies. It would also allow me to learn about the city where Richard Pryor spent the first 21 years of his life...and where I've spent the last 21 years of my life.

Where did Richard Pryor's characters live? Where in Peoria did the people in his act come from? Where were these night clubs and brothels? What places on this part of planet earth molded this skinny kid into the greatest stand-up comic that ever lived? It would be similar to taking of tour of where Charlie Chaplin grew up in the slums of London, which is on my "bucket list." It would also be similar to a tour of Red Skelton's childhood haunts in Vincennes, Ind. These three comedians led similarly Dickensian lives and tried to escape through laughter.

In 1984, Richard Pryor hosted a children's TV show. You heard me right. The show was called Pryor's Place. It was CBS's version of Sesame Street. Produced by Sid and Marty Kroft, the puppeteers who created H.R. Pufnstuf, the show's 13 episodes ran during the fall season on Saturday. Pryor played G-Rated versions of his stage characters.

When I was organizing the Richard Pryor Film Festival in Peoria in 2006, I was curious to see what Pryor considered to be his old stomping grounds. I asked several people as well as referenced Pryor's autobiography, Pryor Convictions. Most people I spoke to would say things like, "He went to Blaine-Summer" or "He lived over on Aiken's Alley". I had to explain that, not being from Peoria, I didn't know what a "Blaine-Summer" was or where "Aiken's Alley" was.

So, with the help of Google Maps, conversations with those from his neighborhood, reading various articles on the web, Pryor Convictions and the recent Henry brothers' biography, Furious Cool, I was able to come up with some sort of idea of where Richard Pryor's Peoria was actually located.

The Murray Baker Bridge was named for the man responsible for getting Caterpillar's headquarters put in Peoria. Heading west across the bridge on Interstate 74, just as you cross the Illinois River, are signs that direct you to Exit 93, Downtown Peoria. When you see these signs, you are directly over Richard Pryor's neighborhood.

According to his autobiography, Pryor says the "home where he grew up at" was 317 Northeast Washington, a two-story wooden house. His paternal grandmother, Marie Carter, lived at 313, a flat-roofed house. The house in between, 315, was home to a woman called "China Bee". All three dwellings were houses of ill repute. Pryor's grandmother, who he called "Mama", was a madam of one of the houses. Marie raised Pryor when his mother, Gertrude Thomas, moved back to her family in Springfield. After his parents' divorce, Richard went to 313 to live with his grandmother.

According to Pryor, he got his first laugh at 313 when he purposely fell off a railing of bricks. Discovering that he liked making people laugh, he continued to fall off the bricks. While running over to his grandmother, Pryor slipped in a pile of fresh dog droppings. He heard more laughter, so he did it again.

This neighborhood, which now includes Taft Homes of the Peoria Housing Authority, where I-74 runs through and where Caterpillar's headquarters now sits, was, in effect, Peoria's version of Harlem. Pryor's father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor and his brother, Richard's "Uncle Dickie," ran a club called the Famous Door.

The nightclub Collins' Corner was located at 405 Northeast Washington, on the northwest corner of Washington and Eaton. Pryor got his comedic start in Bris Collins' club. He performed standup here and at Harold's Club, which was just west on Washington. Pryor would be promoted to emcee at Collins' Club, where local musician Jimmy Binkley played the piano. Binkley later appeared as the piano player in Pryor's semi-autobiographical movie, "Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling." You can still see him perform at Klusendorf's Sky Harbor Restaurant on Wednesday and Saturday nights.

Collins' Corner was torn down on July 24, 1969.

Pictures of these sites can be found on the Facebook page Richard Pryor – More Than Just a Comedian. They appear courtesy of the Peoria Public Library. Stacy Peterson researched the photo for the page.

Eaton and Washington intersect just east of the Murray Baker Bridge and just west of where Foursquare Media and its group of radio stations are located. Just east of Foursquare sits Taft Homes.

According to Google Maps, the former addresses of 313-315-317 Northeast Washington are directly underneath the Baker Bridge, very close to the Easton-Washington intersection. A 1920 map of Peoria shows the 300 block of Northeast Washington to be a block east of Fayette Street.

The heart of this section is now a parking lot that's across the street from the Kelly Seed store. The lot serves festivities held at Peoria's Riverfront (Peoria's Oktoberfest and Blues Fest to name a couple). There is nothing in that area that even remotely suggests that Pryor either grew up here or that there were clubs where some of the biggest names in African-American entertainment history ever played here.

Richard Pryor was born on Dec. 1,1940 at OSF St. Francis Medical Center, about five blocks away from Taft Homes. Just south of St. Francis is Irving Primary School. Pryor attended the school after he was expelled by St. Joseph's Catholic School after the faculty learned of his grandmother's occupation. While a student there, he experienced another sad lesson in racism when he upset a parent by giving his daughter a toy.

Irving School sits behind the corner of Northeast Glendale Avenue and Hancock Street. Pryor uses the school in a scene from Jo-Jo Dancer. Most of the homes in that neighborhood existed during Pryor's childhood. In the movie, the adult Jo-Jo is sitting on a bench on the southwest corner of Fowler and Northeast Glendale as he watches himself as a child leaving school with his friends.

Another site used in Jo-Jo Dancer was 429 West High Street, just four houses away from West Main and across the street from Grant Oak Park. It's a big dark green house with an expansive front porch. Pryor chose the house because it reminded him of his Grandmother's house. The house to the left is also used in the scene where the neighbor lady is on the porch speaking with Jo-Jo's "Mama".

Heading downtown on Main will take you past the iconic Hotel Pere Marquette where Pryor once had a job shining shoes. The hotel sits on Main and Madison, across the street from the old Madison Theater and from the site of the old Palace Theater.

Continue down Main to Jefferson Avenue. A couple blocks down Jefferson is the Peoria Civic Center. On that site was the Rialto Theater. Built in 1913, the theater was originally named the Hippodrome. It was renamed the Rialto in 1931 until it was razed in 1979. In August of 1966, Pryor was on The Merv Griffin Show with Jerry Lewis. Pryor was obviously star struck upon meeting Lewis. He told Lewis that he fell in love with him after seeing him and Dean Martin in Sailor Beware at the Rialto. Seems his father had grounded him but let Richard go see the movie after seeing it himself and laughing hysterically. The Rialto was one of two movie theaters in Peoria that would allow African-Americans, although they had to sit in the segregated balcony.

The Woodruff Career and Technical Center is located north of downtown Peoria at 1800 Northeast Perry Avenue, south of Glen Oak Park and about 14 blocks away from Irving Primary. It was formerly known as the E.N. Woodruff High School. The school was named for Mayor Edward Nelson "Dearie" Woodruff, who was Mayor of Peoria for 11 terms. Woodruff was, by accounts, extremely lenient when it came to enforcing prostitution laws within Peoria city limits.

Pryor attended Woodruff High but was expelled after swinging at and missing his science teacher, Mr. Fink. Pryor would then attend Peoria High School but would drop out. Now known as Peoria Central, it's at 1615 North North Street (the street so nice they named it twice, to pinch a line from David Letterman). The school is northwest of OSF St. Francis Medical Center and can be seen from I-74. It's on the right hand side while heading west.

Pryor's Peoria haunts were not limited to the north side. Much of his Peoria years were spent on the south side of town. His stepmother opened a house on West Aiken Avenue. Back in the day, it was known as "Aiken Alley" and was a hotbed for local prostitution. Today, the Peoria branch of the NAACP sits on the corner of Aiken and North MacArthur Highway.

Living next door to Pryor's stepmother was local comic Ray LeRoy, who was known as "The George Burns of Peoria." LeRoy was emcee at Mike and Mike's Show Lounge and he opened his home to entertainers who were working the "Chitlin' Circuit." A 17 year-old Richard Pryor was allowed to come in and listen to their stories. Pryor later asked LeRoy if he could look at his prized gag joke book, to which LeRoy kindly consented.

Impact Hub Peoria is located at 9206 South Matthew Street, about nine blocks south of Proctor Recreation Center and about 14 blocks north of the stockyards where Pryor had his first adult job, folding and loading cowhide for shipment. The facility was once the Blaine-Summer Middle School where 12 year-old Pryor would attend when he felt like it. His 6th grade teacher, Marguarite Yingst Parker, noticed his ability to entertain his classmates on the playground, so she had an idea. If Richard attended school and applied himself, he could stand in front of class every Friday for 10 minutes and tell jokes.

The Proctor Recreation Center is located at 309 South DuSable Street and is also the site of the African-American Hall of Fame.

According to Pryor, the rough kids hung out at the Proctor Recreation Center, so "poor scaredbutts like me" would instead hang out at the George Washington Carver Community Center. The center was located about a block northwest of Aiken Avenue on North MacArthur Highway and West John H. Gwynn Avenue. The Carver Center's address is 710 West Third Avenue, now known as Percy Baker Jr. Avenue.

At Carver, Pryor was part of a quintet singing group known as "The Velveteers." The group would dress up in suits and ties and sing at Carver. As they would perform regularly there, they would update their appearance by wearing each other's suits and didn't bother to dry clean them.

The director of the center's School for Arts and Drama was a Peoria transplant named Miss Juliette Whittaker, who moved here from Houston. According to Pryor, Miss Whittaker was staging the play Rumplestiltskin in 1951 and Richard asked if he could be in the cast. She cast him as a small boy who sneezes. Richard learned the lines of all the other actors. When the actor playing the King fell ill, Pryor stepped in.

As Pryor states in his autobiography, "Miss Whittaker noticed my talent, quick wit and ambition and need – especially my need. She began centering skits and reviews around me. I had no trouble being the center of attention and generating laughs."

The late Percy Baker Jr., who was executive director of The Carver Center, gave me a tour of the center in 2006. The small auditorium and stage existed in much the same way as it did during Richard Pryor's skits and reviews. Over the years, Pryor would quietly contribute to the upkeep of the center.

In October 2001, by a slim 6-5 vote, the Peoria City Council changed the name of Spencer Street to Richard Pryor Place, which runs right by the Carver center. Eleven years later, the bust "Olmec Pryor" was unveiled on a meridian across the street from the Carver Center. Created by local sculptor R. Rashad Reed, the bust was created in the style of the Olmec civilization, which lived in what are now the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tobasco. The Olmec are one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas.

According to a plaque on the bust, the Olmec "started a tradition of creating large sculpted heads to acknowledge people of note within their culture." Pryor's eldest child, Richard Jr., was on hand for the unveiling.

Ms. Whittaker passed in 2007 at the age of 80. She rests in Parkview Cemetery. The cemetery is located at the corner of North University Street and West Nebraska Avenue, across the street from Bradley's Shea Stadium and the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research. She rests on the same grounds as Susan G. Komen and local gangster Bernie Shelton. A granite bench just off the road in the far north portion of the grounds marks the site. Take the road past the main mausoleum where Komen is interred. Make the first main right and follow the road as it runs through the northern part of the grounds. Going in this direction, the bench marking Ms. Whittaker's gravesite is on the left of the road.

The inscription on the bench is as follows: "Juliette Whittaker built a comic star and sent it around the world."

About a block south of the Carver Center is St. Joseph's Catholic Church, whose school Pryor attended until he was expelled because of his Grandmother's occupation. The church's address is now 103 South Richard Pryor Place. The Peoria Housing Authority is on 103 South Richard Pryor Place.

The New Morning Star Missionary sits just two blocks east of the Carver Center at 413 West John H. Gwynn Jr. Avenue. It was the site of the Morning Star Baptist Church. Marie Carter made Richard attend services with her there, hoping to "pray the devil out of him."

Goodwin Street no longer exists. It ran about 2 blocks east of the Carver Center and St. Joseph's. It seems to have run parallel to North Hightower Street, by the Kindred Hospital and pass the Crisis Nursery. On the northwest corner of North Hightower and W. John Gwynn Avenue sits the Morning Star Baptist Church.

However, Goodwin Street plays a large part in Pryor's life. In his autobiography, Pryor mentions his 1956 teenage love affair with a young girl named Susan. The two met in the garage of a house his family owned on Goodwin. The tryst resulted in the birth of girl named Renee. Pryor was told the baby wasn't his and could've been his father's. However, he accepted the girl as family. Pryor would later marry his first wife, Patricia Price in "the little corner house on Goodwin," although which corner is unknown. The marriage lasted just about a year. Price, who passed away in 2003, was the mother of Richard Jr.

In the book "Furious Cool," it mentions Pryor worked racking pool balls at "Pop's Pool Hall" at 6th and Sheridan. He would loiter here, late for an event at Carver until Miss Whittaker came for him. "Pop's Pool Hall" would be the first place she would look. North Sheridan no longer runs through this part of town, merging into West High Street. The corner would have been a block east of Union Street. Near the approximate site of the pool hall are the Peoria Mineral Springs. The local water source is considered the oldest landmark in Peoria and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The address is 701 West 7th Avenue, which is just north of West Martin Luther King Drive and due north of the Carver Center. The site is two blocks west of what was Goodwin Street.

Heading southeast on Richard Pryor Place takes you to Persimmon Street. Heading north on Southwest Washington Street and toward State Street takes you to another site where "Jo-Jo Dancer" was filmed. The buildings can be seen in the scene where Jo-Jo is thrown out of his hotel in Cleveland.

Founded in 1865, St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Peoria. It sits at 2105 West Heading Avenue in West Peoria, just west of Bradley University where West Main Street turns into Western Avenue. The cemetery is the final resting place of Pryor's father, who died in 1968. According to the Catholic Cemetery Association of Peoria, the family plot is at J-2, row 5, plot 8.

To locate the site, take the first entrance into the cemetery from Main. Then, take the first right and follow the road to the left. On the left side of the road is a large tree near a small obelisk marked "Prenger". Park by the tree. Walk straight toward the headstone marked "Staehler". Behind that is the Schlink family plot. Directly behind that is the Pryor family plot, which is marked with flat headstones. Buried there are Richard's "Uncle Dickie" (Richard Eugene), Richard's father, LeRoy "Buck Carter" Pryor, Jr. and his stepmother, Viola.

At the time of Viola's passing, his father's residence was at 1319 West Millman St. The site is now a vacant lot and is on the northeast corner of West Millman and South Louisa Street, about four blocks southeast of Proctor Recreation Center.

The final resting place of Richard's "Mama," Marie Carter is not in Peoria, but in Decatur's Greenwood Cemetery. Rithie Marie Carter Pryor Bryant, born in Decatur on Halloween of 1899, died in December of 1978. She had just turned 79 years old.

According to the website, Find A Grave.com, there is a Marie Bryant who died in 1978 and is buried at Block 18, Lot 146 of Greenwood Cemetery.

Further South on Western and a block north of West Martin Luther King Jr. Drive are the Courtyard Estates of Peoria. The assisted living complex, at 117 North Western, used to be Jumer's Castle Lodge. Pryor would stay there while visiting in Peoria.

Somewhere in Peoria, it is hoped, will be Preston Jackson's statue of Pryor. The design was approved by Richard Pryor and his wife, Jennifer Lee, shortly before Pryor's death in 2005. I've had the pleasure of seeing the clay statue. Pictures do not do it justice. This statue is so incredibly lifelike, it's jaw-dropping.

Kevin Kizer, who wrote an excellent "Peorian" article about the book Furious Cool has set up the website RecognizeRichard.com. This website will assist with collecting funds for the bronzing of the statue. (NOTE: The URL is "RecognizeRichard.com" with no "www."

You are also welcome to donate by sending a check or money order to:

The Richard Pryor Sculpture Project at the Community Foundation of Central Illinois

331 Fulton St., Suite 310, Peoria, IL 61602.

For more information about the project or to make a tax deductible contribution, call 674-8730.

That's the end of our tour of Richard Pryor's Peoria. I hope you enjoyed it. I provided actual street addresses so that you could take a virtual tour through Google Maps or, better yet, hop in the vehicle of your choice and go in person. You may want to take pictures so don't forget to bring your cell phone.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to be your tour guide. Maybe someday, I'll get to do so in person.

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.