Thursday, November 28, 2013


                            PEORIA’S  LITTLE THEATER


                                  NORMAN  V.  KELLY


After spending over three decades studying Peoria’s incredible history one thought always came back to me and that was the people.  The men and women who way back as far as 1845, and even before that, had a vision for this city and they fought long and hard to bring their dreams to fruition. So many things that our local hard working folks talk about as to our future was already thought about and in many cases part of our history long before these folks were born. Let’s start with just one example. The building of our current Civic Center cost us our beloved Rialto Theater.  There were many of us that thought that the Rialto should have been left standing and that the Civic Center should have been built by including it within the structure of the Civic Center.  I must admit that for me personally I stole that idea from a building I am about to tell you about.


The Peoria Women’s Club, from an idea brought to them in 1919 decided that they wanted a place to house The Peoria Players Theater.

So they formed a committee back in the days when a committee was formed to actually accomplish something, not to just “Kick the can down the road,”  All that hard work of about 400 people with dynamic leadership struggled and often failed in their attempts to finance the building they had in mind.  But they never gave up and finally in 1930 they had ceased asking for outside help, and locally they raised the money and the building was built for $5,100.  They had many leaders and with a lot of support one glorious day, April 2. 1933 their Little Theater was dedicated and opened for public view.


The truth is the building was designated The Civic Art Center, which included other activities within the building other than the productions by the Peoria Players.  The beautiful, efficient building had a spacious stage and would comfortably seat 363 patrons with a lot more room left over for many art and cultural activities.  As I mentioned this idea started way back in 1919, so when it came time to debate the Civic Center here in Peoria there were some folks that thought that having the Rialto Theater right there inside the Civic Center was a damn good idea…I guess we were wrong, huh?  So many of our wonderful, historical buildings have ‘bit the dust’ over the last fifty years that tearing down one more old theater was no obstacle. I realize it is always a matter of money, but some things just seemed more important to Peorians than just the money. Oh, by the way for you snobs out there the Little Theater was not spelled theatre when it was opened.


                          PRESIDENT  GEORGE  LYON  JR.


As I mentioned there were a lot of people responsible for the Peoria Player’s First Building there on Jackson Street but the men and women that lead this dynamic group were the driving force behind it. I decided to tell you about a real civic leader, a leader of men, and a man that was highly respected and admired here in Peoria during that era.  His name was George Lyon Jr.  Mr. Lyon was President of the Peoria Players at that crucial time.   I picked him because not only was he the man I just spoke of he became a hero as well. Since I have written volumes of true-crime stories I wanted to tell you about George, an army veteran and one tough guy.


Mr. Lyon was a wealthy man and lived in a magnificent house he called Breeze Crest.  On June five, 1933, his household was awakened by an intruder that demanded his wife’s jewels and he and his father-in-law’s billfolds.  The man confronted the sleeping folks with a very scary gun.  George didn’t say anything, he just listened. Suddenly from behind his back he pulled out his trusty army .45 and fired one shot.  The massive slug smashed into the side of the culprit and slammed him backwards where he tumbled down the steep stairs.  Just prior to that, perhaps as a reflex, he fired his own gun and that bullet tore into the right side of the heroic homeowner’s neck, causing a very serious wound.


Dr. Vonachen soon arrived and George was whisked off to the hospital where his life was saved.  The police identified the intruder as Edward Areingdale.  His wife was brought down from Chicago to identify the body.  She was asked where she wanted the body shipped for burial.

With a hard stare, she was quoted as saying, “The County can just keep him.”  As for George Lyon, he received accolades from his many friends and of course the local newspapers.  The folks in Peoria considered George a local hero and so do I.

Editor’s Note:   Norm is a local author, historian and monthly contributor to News and Views and welcomes your comments or questions.