‘Will it play in Peoria?‘ is a figure of speech that is traditionally used to ask whether a given product, person, promotional theme, or event will appeal to mainstream (also called ‘Main Street’) America, or across a broad range of demographic and psychographic groups. The phrase was popularized during the vaudeville era and in movies by Groucho Marx. The belief was that if a new show was successful in Peoria, a main Midwestern stop for vaudeville acts, it would be successful anywhere.
Jack Mabley, writing in the ‘Chicago Tribune,’ concluded that ‘if it plays in Peoria it has good taste,’ but a more apt meaning is, according to James C. Ballowe, former dean of Peoria’s Bradley University graduate school, that ‘Peoria is a tough audience.’ The phrase subsequently was adopted by politicians, pollsters, and promoters to question the potential mainstream acceptance of anything new.
Although vaudeville left Peoria many years ago, the slogan was revived in 1969 when John D. Ehrlichman said to a newsman, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll play in Peoria,’ in reference to a decision by President Richard M. Nixon that seemed calculated to upset Easterners. Peoria, Illinois, cashed in on the free publicity with a successful advertising campaign to lure new business to the city.
In America, Peoria has long been seen as a prototypical American city, because of its representative demographics and its Midwestern culture, which is commonly perceived as mainstream. As a result, it has traditionally been one of the country’s leading test markets. In the 1980s and ’90s, comedians like Sam Kinison and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Metallica and Phil Collins all perfected and launched concert tours in Peoria. During presidential campaigns, major TV networks would visit Peoria to ‘take the pulse’ (gauge the response) of everyday Americans on national issues and candidates.
However, demographic changes have made the city less representative of America as a whole, and therefore less attractive as a test market. Its successors as leading test markets include cities such as Boise, Idaho; Albany, New York; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Santa Barbara, California.
The question ‘Will It Play In Peoria?’ derives from a theme repeated by characters in Horatio Alger, Jr.’s novel ‘Five Hundred Dollars; or, Jacob Marlowe’s Secret,’ which was first published in 1890. Alger was an immensely popular author in the 19th century, especially with young people, and his books were widely quoted. In the book, a group of actors play in Peoria, occasioning utterances such as ‘We shall be playing in Peoria’ and ‘We shall play at Peoria.’ Appropriated as symbolic of reception by mainstream America, these declarations were alluded to in paraphrase, eventually resulting in the question, ‘Will it play in Peoria?,’ with the particular intent it now carries.
Peoria, Illinois, has developed quite an unusual reputation over the years—such that a kind of folklore has grown around the name. The famous catch-phrase about ‘playing in Peoria’ has origins buried in vaudeville or burlesque. Don Marine, professor of theater at Illinois Central College (East Peoria), commented: ‘If one were to choose the city in the United States most victimized in jokes and anecdotes by theatrical personalities, the selection of Peoria, Illinois, would be a popular, if not likely choice. Two of the more popular quips are:
‘Say, I hear you got married. How did that ever happen?’ ‘I was playing a split-bill in Peoria—and it rained!’ and ‘Have you ever played Peoria?’ ‘Peoria? Oh, yes—I spent four years there one night!’ The widespread appeal of this verbal maligning by comics, actors and other performers suggests Peoria as a paramount example of the dull, banal, and provincial theatrical road stop. But the popularity of the ‘put down’ suggests as well that the city possesses a theatrical heritage of considerable longevity.’
Marine judged Peoria the way Peorians in the late 20th century usually seemed to judge themselves — that is, dull, banal, and provincial. Historically, however, whiskey, gambling, and prostitution gave the city a reputation as being ‘wide open.’ Only since the 1950s was the lid put on Peoria; but the reputation, and thus the gibes, has existed since vaudeville.
A 1945 comment in ‘American Notes and Queries’ offers a different point of view: ‘Peoria (Ill.) has been an old stand-by with comedians for years—but not only because of the ‘O’ sound. Nor because of the four vowel sounds that give it a nice noisy resonance. But largely, I suspect, because of the fact that it is a whiskey town and a river town and not particularly famous for what is known as the genteel tradition.’