Author Archives: Steve Tarter

Riding the COVID Roller Coaster in Peoria

Remember when each season brought a different array of events to follow in central Illinois? Explore Peoria remembers.

But that was before the pandemic. Now in the spring of 2021, as vaccinations spread across the community, there are signs of hope.

Yet this month (April) saw the coronavirus return with a vengeance. The Peoria area was labeled a national epicenter for COVID-19 by Dr. Doug Kasper, interim section head of infectious disease at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, who urged continued caution by area residents on WMBD, a Peoria radio station.

The Peoria area has become accustomed to the stop-and-go, roller-coaster ride that’s become the norm in the era of the coronavirus.

It’s been more than a year that restrictions have been put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. Work and school routines have been altered. The elimination of crowds and the closing of many places of business has become a routine.

Apparently, we’re not out of the woods yet. Despite these problems, however, the area’s sports light is flickering back on.

Consider Andrew “AJ” Funk, the 29-year-old substitute teacher from Morton who’s trying to bring arena football back to central Illinois in the middle of a pandemic.

The Central Illinois Royals play the Kurse from Kentucky this Saturday (April 24) at the Morton Park District Indoor Sports Facility, 324 S. Detroit Ave. in Morton. For more information, check http://royalsfootball.com

“We’ve worked on setting up arena football for a couple of years but COVID has thrown a curve ball into it,” said Funk, who played football at Eureka College.

In the newly-formed division, the Royals square off against teams like the Great Lakes Phoenix, St. Louis Bandits and Indianapolis Enforcers.

“We’ve had eight games on the schedule so far. After Saturday’s game we’ve got a home game at the end of May and another in early June,” he said.

With capacity limited to only a few hundred people at the Morton facility (when restrictions are not in effect), the Royals have sought to stream games to allow for more exposure. “We’re just trying to get things off the ground this year,” said Funk, who also serves with the Illinois National Guard and as a volunteer fireman when not organizing football games.

Funk said he hopes to recreate the excitement of arena football in the area that was enjoyed by the Peoria Pirates, who played at the Peoria Civic Center from 1999 to 2009.

Also looking to stir some excitement is Jason Mott, general manager of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We’re playing catch-up,” said Mott, referring to the fact that the team had to cancel its 2020 season in Peoria.

“We just hope we’re moving forward—not backward. We’re definitely excited to bring pro baseball back here,” he said.

“Everything is subject to change. We’ll adjust as we go. We’re expecting to be able to accommodate 25 percent capacity when we open. That’s about 1,250 people in the bowl,” said Mott.

Look for some changes to accommodate public safety, he said. “We encourage people to get tickets early. We’re trying to eliminate lines,” said Mott.

“We can’t do things on the field with the fans we used to do. We’re also working on some new food options. People can order online and pick it up at the stand (inside the park) or have it delivered to their seats,” he said.

The impact of the pandemic varies across the league, said Mott, noting that teams like the Quad Cities Bandits are able to go “wide open” when it comes to crowds at their home park in Davenport, Iowa.

Another area team looking to get back on track in 2021 is the Peoria Rivermen ice hockey team that kicks off its 40th season at the Peoria Civic Center in October.

“I would hope that by the end of October we’d be able to put enough people in the PCC to cover our annual operations budget of $1.7 million,” said Bart Rogers, the Rivermen owner and CEO.

Forced to cancel last year’s season, the Rivermen look to take advantage of pent-up demand, he said. “We have lots of good things planned. Three-quarters of our fans are casual fans who might come out once or twice a year. We want to draw them back,” said Rogers.

A new addition to this year’s schedule involve games with a new team in the league, the Vermilion County Bobcats out of Danville, he said.

“Not only will playing in Danville save traveling costs but it gives Rivermen fans around the state the chance to see more hockey,” said Rogers.

Part of the Rivermen organization since 1992, Rogers credited Bruce Saurs, the late former owner, with making the commitment responsible for the team’s success and longevity.

With promotions to honor the team’s 40th year already in the works, Rogers is proud of what the Rivermen have accomplished in Peoria. “We have the seventh longest streak for a pro hockey franchise in the country outside of the National Hockey League,” he said.

Meanwhile the Peoria Civic Center is hoping conditions improve enough to allow for activities before Rivermen games return in late October.

Rik Edgar, the Peoria Civic Center’s general manager, hopes to bring the arena back to life as soon as possible. “We should know more in the next 30 to 45 days,” he said in an email.

It was recently announced that the Center’s Carver Arena will host the Illinois Regional Basketball Tournament (TBT) from July 24 to 28. Among the 16 teams participating will be alumni squads from the University of Illinois and Bradley University.

Other area openings are also on the horizon. After being closed all of last year, the Wheels O’ Time Museum (located at 1710 W. Woodside Drive in Dunlap) plans to open on Saturday, May 1 while the Peoria Riverfront Museum, already holding events, is gearing up for the opening of a national exhibit, “T-Rex—the Ultimate Predator” on May 29.

Who Are the Peoria Mayoral Candidates?

Who are the 2021 Peoria Mayoral CandidatesFor the first time since 2005, Jim Ardis will not be the mayor of Peoria. Ardis, who served four consecutive terms as mayor, decided not to run for re-election this year. That leaves the field open to five candidates on the ballot and a couple of write-in candidates (Couri Thomas and Chuck Brown).   Of the five names that will appear on the ballot for the Feb. 23 primary, three are members of the Peoria City Council while two others are making their first bid for public office.

Interest in the mayoral primary appears to be running high, according to WEEK-TV. Peoria Election Commission head Thomas Bride reported a dramatic increase in early voting so far and looks for this year’s early tallies to “far exceed” early voting results tabulated in the 2017 mayoral primary, the station reported earlier this month.

We’ve scanned some of the Peoria Mayoral candidates coverage provided by Peoria media for the following rundown:

RITA ALI

AGE: 62

At-Large Member of Peoria City Council/VP of Workforce and Diversity at Illinois Central College

Ali , who was the largest vote-getter in the 2019 primary in Peoria, said she will step down from her post at ICC if elected to focus on the job as mayor.

“As mayor, I will prioritize jobs, economic growth and population growth, neighborhood safety, education and equity,” she told Peoria magazine.

“I envision Peoria becoming a ‘smart city,’ using digital technology to connect, protect and enhance the lives of citizens,” Ali told the magazine.

“I recently read about how Columbus, Ohio became the fastest-growing city in the Midwest—and one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Columbus is a smart city. It also developed a coordinated plan to create 150,000 jobs over a 10-year period, boosted entrepreneurship and small businesses and involved many stakeholders to work their plan,” she noted.

In a forum held at WCBU-FM, Peoria public radio, Ali related that “In many ways, the city government has to be more like a business in terms of modifying what you’re doing, thinking out of the box and being creative in ways to generate revenue.”

For more information about Rita Ali, visit https://ritaali.com

 

ANDRES “ANDY’ DIAZ

AGE: 42

Account manager at Caterpillar, Inc.

Diaz, who operates the Urban Acres farm and Springboard Market in the North Valley where he lives, is making his first run for public office.

On the WCBU forum, he said one of his goals is to make it easier for citizens to work with city management.

“As mayor, I will lead the council to fund basic city services before spending money on pet projects. We must also foster grassroots development, changing policy to empower local entrepreneurs to chase their dreams – and give them the ability to do so within the city,” Diaz told Peoria magazine.

“Our current situation is not unlike the 1980s when Jim Maloof ran to become mayor of Peoria. At that time he branded our council as the ‘do-nothing’ city council, highlighting the vacant buildings and boarded-up businesses at the time. Over the past year, with the added challenges of COVID-19, it appears Peoria has gone back to its past instead of embracing its present and future,” he said.

For more information about Andres (Andy) Diaz, visit https://www.diazformayor.com

 

JIM MONTELONGO

AGE: 53

4TH District Peoria City Council member/ CEO of EngineeringPeople

Montelongo spelled out some of the debts facing Peoria on the WCBU forum: “We have $330 million in pension liability, $150 million in combined sewer overflow, $40 million in the Hotel Pere Marquette debacle, a declining population and resources. Our property tax is one of the highest in Illinois.”

“We need less taxes and fees on business and more growth incentives. Peoria needs to adopt ‘economic gardening’ principles. We need to have a focused economic team, with business consultant resources, available to help every small and mid-sized business grow new customers and reach new markets,” he told Peoria magazine.

“We need to create a neighborhood-by-neighborhood plan and rating to address all of the ‘broken’ windows in neighborhoods. Peoria is at a pivotal moment in time, with some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced. We need a strong leader with a focus on jobs and economic growth,” Montelongo told the magazine.

For more information about Jim Montelongo, visit https://www.jimmontelongo.com

 

SID RUCKRIEGEL

AGE: 51

At-Large Member of Peoria City Council/ Entrepreneur in restaurant industry

Ruckriegel lists his top three issues as getting the city’s finances in order, job creation and safer neighborhoods.

“The public safety pension problem, however, is likely to be too large to be solved by spending cuts alone,” he told the Peoria Journal Star, referring to mounting pension costs for members of the city’s police and fire departments.

“We exist at a crossroad today,” Ruckriegel told the paper. “A steady hand is needed to navigate this crossroad and my record of experience demonstrates that I am the best candidate for mayor to lead through this crucial time.”

When asked about the possibility of a conflict since his longtime domestic partner is Andrew Rand, chairman of the Peoria County Board, Ruckriegel told the Journal Star: “I will be mindful of my duties at all times. I will address all matters between the city and the county as professionally as any fiduciary would. In my observation, working with the County of Peoria has been to the mutual benefit of each party and I think that is what the citizens expect.”

For more information about Sid Ruckriegel, visit https://sidformayor.com

 

CHAMA ST. LOUIS

AGE: 35

Community activist/President of Peoria Black Chamber of Commerce

Making her first bid for public office, St. Louis told the WCBU forum that she was running “because Peoria needs a mayor who wants to rejuvenate our economy by prioritizing scalable and startup businesses over big chains, and who is focused on fixing systemic issues, not continuing the status quo.”

“We should look into establishing a community safety department similar to the one in Albuquerque, N.M. The cabinet-level department responds to calls on inebriation, homelessness, addiction and mental health with civilian-led resources. Reimagining public safety in this way will reduce crime and take some of the burdens off our overburdened police department while making Peoria a more attractive place to visit, live and do business,” St. Louis told Peoria magazine.

“As a community organizer, I have knocked on thousands of doors and made thousands of calls talking with residents about issues that concern them,” she told the magazine.

“To move the city forward, we have to see Peoria not as it is, but as it should be,” St. Louis told the Journal Star.

For more information about Chama St. Louis, visit http://chamastlouis.com


Find Peoria area events on the ExplorePeoria.com Calendar!

Black History Month 2021 in Peoria

How does Black History Month impact Peorians?  You only have to think of Peoria’s underground railroad ties commemorated by Peoria artist Preston Jackson “Knocking on Freedom’s Door” attached to the Peoria Civic Center building which is located on a historical underground railroad site of the home of Moses and Lucy Pettengill, who courageously helped escaped slaves flee the South to claim their freedom.

And there’s also Peoria’s ties to Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.

Douglass wrote several autobiographies, notably describing his experiences as a slave in his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845), which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition, as was his second book, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855). Following the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881).

Douglass spoke several times in Peoria, noted Marilyn Leyland of the Peoria Historical Society, referencing Romeo Garrett’s research on African American history in the area. “Three days after Abraham Lincoln countered the arguments of Stephen Douglas here (in Peoria) in 1854, drawing the line against expansion of slavery, Douglass was scheduled to play that same role in Aurora,” stated Leyland.

In 1859, Douglass was at Rouse’s Hall in Peoria in late February and in early March delivering anti-slavery lectures from his personal perspective. By this time, Douglass had founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.

Douglass lectured again in Peoria on March 10, 1864, under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission. After the Civil War, Douglass returned to Rouse’s Hall, brought by the Library Association of Peoria. His last visit, on Feb. 7, 1870, was for the benefit of Ward Chapel AME Church.

And of course, there’s the most famous black Peorian of all, Richard Pryor.  Widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time, his legacy is commemorated by Preston Jackson, who created the sculpture of Pryor now on display at the corners of Washington & State streets in downtown Peoria.

Jackson’s “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” which will premiere at the Peoria Riverfront Museum this spring, showcases the stories of American migration and immigration, hope and opportunity, freedom and the struggle for equality.

Twenty-five years in the making, “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story,” created by Jackson, is a sculptural installation comprised of hundreds of unique small bronze and steel figures, relief sculptures, automobiles, buildings, streets and a truss bridge. Originally entitled “From Bronzeville to Harlem,” the cityscape is a simultaneously playful and serious contemplation of the individual stories that made up the urban centers from places such as Peoria, Chicago’s Bronzeville and the Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan.

Completed in 2020, in conjunction with the centennial of the start of the Harlem Renaissance, Jackson more than doubled the size of the original installation and retitled the piece, “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story.”

The period known in history as the Harlem Renaissance represented a cultural and artistic movement spanning the 1920s in the urban communities in the Northeast and Midwest during the great migration. “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” showcases the stories of American migration and immigration, hope and opportunity, freedom and the struggle for equality.

Installed as the climactic centerpiece of the Peoria Riverfront Museum Gallery known as The Street,  the sculpture provides an artistic experience unique among any in the nation.  An immersion for visitors into the Harlem Renaissance, the exhibit is set to period jazz music and brought to life with expert lighting and an audio narration by actors and the artist himself.   The museum kicked off the month with a special program on Feb. 6 in the museum lobby and African American Wall of Fame.  Find full details at http://www.peoriariverfrontmuseum.org

Peoria Public Schools is preparing the roll out of BH365, its new Black History curriculum in the fall, beginning at the high school level. Features from the comprehensive K-12 curriculum are running on the district Facebook page throughout February.  A state-mandated reform of social studies curriculum, PPS will offer classes with a greater focus on Black History and the contributions of other underrepresented groups to American culture.   “With the adoption of BH365 curriculum, Peoria Public Schools is ahead of the curve on meeting new curriculum standards,” said Lisa Gifford, the PPS Literacy and Social Studies Coordinator who has managed the process.

Some online Black History Month programs include “Eyewitness to History: Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harry Quinton” which will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 2 pm.  Celebrate Black History Month with a very special conversation between two members of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Dr. Harry Quinton is an original Tuskegee Airman, who spent three years in the Army Air Corps and served as an aviation mechanic during World War II. Dr. Quinton experienced the pain of discrimination, and the joy of seeing pilots fly for the very first time. This interview will be conducted by Howard Baugh, son of the late Tuskegee Airman Howard Baugh.

Quinton is a member of the Tidewater Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and Baugh is currently the President of the Howard Baugh Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. located in Petersburg, VA. Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and its chapters at https://www.tuskegeeairmen.org

Although free, registration is required and may be done HERE

Anther Black History Month event will take place on Friday, Feb. 19 at 6:30 pm when the University of Illinois Chicago presents political activist and son of the late Black Panther Party leader, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. on Zoom to answer your questions. Learn about his involvement in the Black Panther party and how the youth can play a role in preserving the culture.  Hampton’s father was slain along with Peorian Mark Clark in a raid by Chicago police in 1969.  Join HERE

Further Resources:

Among online resources to celebrate Black History Month (suggested by Judy Schmidt of Illinois Extension) are:

Reading Rockets: a national public literacy initiative with a vast collection of book suggestions, interviews, classroom activities and virtual resources that celebrate and educate about the lives and contributions of African Americans.

The National Portrait Gallery with over 1000 portraits of African American history makers.

–The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Find Peoria area events on our calendar.

IHSA Boys Basketball is Back in Town

March Madness is a term that’s become synonymous with Peoria in Illinois. That’s because this is the 25th year that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA Boys Basketball) tournament will be held at the Peoria Civic Center.

The Class 1A and 2A championship games will be played March 12-14 while Class 3A and 4A (the bigger schools) will square off on March 19-21.

“It’s become more than just a basketball event,” said Kurt Gibson, the IHSA’s associate executive director.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of things in Peoria—from youth clinics to wheelchair events. The March Madness Experience opened up new opportunities for the fans and the competing schools,” he said.

The March Madness Experience, a veritable basketball funhouse that operates in the Civic Center Exhibit Hall while games are played in Carver Arena next door, allows kids of all ages to take part in hands-on activities such as bungee basketball, Pop-a-Shot and Sky Ball. It also gives boys and girls the opportunity to try their hand at free throws or three-point shots. Gibson credited area volunteers and sponsors for making the Experience a popular attraction at each year’s tournament.

Royal Duncan, president of Royal Publishing, a Peoria-based company that publishes sports programs throughout the Midwest, is one of those that has followed IHSA Boys Basketball tournament games closely since the championships came to Peoria in 1996.

“I had an attendance streak of 332 straight tournament games (in Peoria) until I got the flu two years ago,” said Duncan. “I love high-school sports, especially basketball. I’ve had the opportunity to see great players compete here in Peoria such as Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer and Jabari Parker,” he said.

But just as competition is a way of life on the basketball court, the same is true when it comes to deciding where to hold the tournament. The IHSA plans to announce the site for both the boys and girls tournaments for the next three years when association board members meet in April, said Gibson.

While Peoria and Champaign both put in bids for the boys tournament, Peoria is also battling Bloomington for the girls tourney that’s been held at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena since 1992.

J.D. Dalfonso, CEO of the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes Peoria has a chance to host both tournaments. “With the new format coming for the IHSA basketball tournaments, we felt this is a great opportunity to put a strong bid in for the girls, as well,” he said, pointing to the fact that next year, the IHSA will have all four classes decide a champion team over one weekend instead of two.

Meanwhile, Dalfonso’s opposite number, the head of the Champaign County visitors bureau, believes that renovations made to State Farm Center, the arena old-timers knew as the Assembly Hall, gives that venue a chance to host the tournament held on the U of I campus from 1919 to 1995.

The IHSA is looking to stem a decline in attendance at tournament games in recent years, said Gibson, admitting that one of the reasons he’s heard is the change from a two-class tournament to four classes.

“There are a lot of dynamics at play. There are also more entertainment opportunities for individuals now than there were just 10 years ago,” he said.

It’s not just IHSA Boys Basketball tournament games that have been impacted, said Gibson, citing attendance declines at regular-season games throughout the state.

While coaches and school officials work out plans to put more fans in the seats, one thing is certain: the excitement is building as March Madness arrives again in Peoria.  Find details for the IHSA Boys Basketball games on the ExplorePeoria.com events calendar.

Making Magic with Big Bird

Brandon Wagner takes the role of Big Bird seriously, knowing his character has brought happiness to kids since the “Sesame Street” TV show first went on the air 50 years ago.

Wagner has performed as Big Bird in over 250 shows since 2018 as “Sesame Street Live! Make Your Magic” has played at arenas across the country. Big Bird will be joined by other favorite “Sesame Street”characters like Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster in two performances at the Peoria Civic Center on Sunday, Jan. 26.

No stranger to entertaining the young, Wagner, a 30-year-old Los Angeles native, started as a stilt-walker and puppeteer at Disneyland at the age of 19.

After a stint at the Magic Kingdom, he spent four years performing on board Disney cruise ships in different roles.

“There wasn’t much need for a stilt-walker on a cruise ship,” Wagner noted.

He came by his present position after attending an audition for a live show with the Marvel Universe, another Disney enterprise. While he didn’t wind up on the Marvel team, Wagner caught the eye of a “Sesame Street Live” director. Before long, he was traveling the country as Big Bird.

It’s a part Wagner is very familiar with. “I grew up watching ‘Sesame Street’ on TV. At the age of four, I was telling random strangers that I had a ‘Sesame Street’ tape,” he laughed.

Wagner enjoys the traveling–by bus and plane–involved with the live show, noting that, when he’s not performing, he takes the time to capture highlights of different locales on video that he shares with family and friends.
“There’s a message for kids and adults who get captivated by the show,” he said.

“Sesame Street Live! Make Your Magic” explores the magical qualities of everyday  life, said Wagner. “With Big Bird, shadows come to life,” he said. Other “Sesame Street” characters explore their own magic in the live show such as Abby Cadabby, who experiences the transformative abilities of caterpillars, and Cookie Monster, who uncovers the science and fun of baking.

While Wagner must mimic Big Bird’s mannerisms and maneuver the eight-foot costume through high-energy dance routines, he doesn’t have to reproduce Big Bird’s distinct voice. “All our character dialogue is recorded so that audiences hear what they’re familiar with,” he said.

Big Bird was voiced and played by the late Caroll Spinney for nearly 50 years. Spinney retired in 2018 when Matt Vogel took over the Big Bird role on the television program.

Wagner looks forward to performing in central Illinois. “I’ve never been to Peoria; I’m excited to visit,” he said.
Meet-and-greet opportunities for central Illinois “Sesame Street” fans will be available an hour before both Peoria performances, added Wagner. “For a small upcharge, you get to meet the characters up close,” he said. 

Tickets for “Sesame Street Live! Make Your Magic: start at $15. All seats are reserved, and tickets are available at the Peoria Civic Center box office or online www.sesamestreetlive.com
 For group rates and information, call 309-680-3551.

 

GospelFest is Back with Christmas in the Country

The Santa Claus Parade, Yule Like Peoria and the Festival of Lights Parade are all great holiday programs for central Illinois but you need to add the annual GospelFest holiday program held at the Caterpillar Performing Arts Center at Five Points Washington to that list.

The GospelFest program has become a popular showcase for traditional holiday music for the area with a different theme provided each year. This year’s theme is “Christmas in the Country,” said Shawn Degenhart, who’s been directing the concerts for the past 15 years.

“The stage settings bring back the flavor of hauling your Christmas tree home back from the tree farm in your 1938 Chevy pick-up,” he said, adding that an old sleigh and a homemade hot cocoa stand will be additional  visual attractions when the show runs from 7 to 9:15 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at Five Points.

“Every year we try to come up an original theme. We’ve presented it as a 1940s radio program in the past,” said Degenhart.

What remains consistent from year to year is the Christmas music. “We have our favorite holiday songs along with southern gospel numbers,” he said.

Degenhart not only plans the event but sings along with the GospelFest Singers, a group of 10 individuals, most from the Peoria area. “Eric Walker comes up from St. Louis to join us for the Christmas program,” said Degenhart, 44, who noted he got the music bug as a youngster while attending school in Washington.

Piano lessons in junior high were followed by singing in the high school choir, he said. At Illinois State University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition and music history along with a master’s in choral conducting.

Degenhart also met his wife Anne at ISU while she was working towards her master’s degree in music education. Normally on stage at the annual Christmas shows, Anne will miss this year’s program to spend time with the couple’s four children, he said, promising she’d be back singing with the group in the future.

Attending a Bill Gaither concert in 1997 fueled his own desire to present gospel music, said Degenhart. Gaither, who started his popular series of Homecoming concerts in 1991, is often credited with helping revive southern gospel in the 1990s.

Along with planning and producing GospelFest programs, Degenhart’s own radio show, “The GospelFest Hour,” is now heard on 165 radio stations around the world. The program is heard locally on Pekin station, WBNH-FM 88.5 Saturdays at 6 p.m.

WBNH station manager Jim Huber called Degenhart “a unique breed of cat.” “The guy’s talented. He’s able to do everything himself when it comes to producing a musical show. Shawn’s done the research; he’s got connections in Nashville and loves music from the 40s and 50s,” he said.

For a number of years, Degenhart also produced “The GospelFest Hour” from 7 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WBNH, said Huber. “Three years ago, he had to cut back on the weekday programs. His show is unique, an example of a national show that originates here,” he said.

Once again, admission to the Christmas program is free, said Degenhart, adding that those attending can make a free-will offering if they choose.  Doors open at 6 p.m. – and while the show starts at 7 p.m.- Degenhart encouraged arriving early. The 1,100-seat Five Points auditorium has filled up fast in the past, he said.

But that’s not the only area holiday show that Degenhart presents this year. He’s staging “A Great Christmas” at Grace Presbyterian Church, 8607 Illinois Route 91, from Dec. 6-8 (at 7 p.m. Friday and at 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday) “with a big choir and orchestra.”

Disney on Ice

PEORIA — One of the Green Army soldiers from “Toy Story 3” that will swarm into the Peoria Civic Center arena this weekend as part of Disney On Ice:  Worlds of Enchantment is Leocadia Lellig, a 19-year-old champion skater from Reading, Pa.

Leo, as she’s called, also plays a seahorse during the “The Little Mermaid” sequence at the Disney show that will offer six performances Friday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Peoria Civic Center where tickets start as low as $15.

She calls it a dream job, traveling from city to city with the 40 other skaters in the show on a schedule running from September through May. “We’ll be in Lincoln, Neb. after Peoria but we’re going all over with dates in New Mexico and California planned,” said Lellig in a telephone interview.

On ice since she was four, Lellig was a competitive skater for eight years, capping her career with two weeks of performances at an indoor ski park in Brazil two years ago.

In her second year on the “Disney on Ice” tour, she hopes to skate her way to the top. “I’d like to work my way up to have a principal role with ‘Disney on Ice. I also look forward to going overseas,'” she said.

Disney on Ice: Worlds of Enchantment

As one of the longest-running ice shows around in the world, “Disney on Ice” is a globe-trotting sensation. “It started in the 1980s. But there’s always something new. It’s been revamped many times over the years,” said Lellig, one of the some 100 individuals that fill four buses as the show makes its way across the country while 10 semi-trailers are required to transport the lights, fixtures and props used in each production (that takes 12 1/2 hours to set up each time).

A ballet enthusiast, Lellig enjoys life on the road. “We usually have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off to explore the cities we visit,” she said.

How can you recognize Lellig, who’s among the Disney skaters who like to eat chocolate before a performance? Simple. She’ll be the one wearing a pair of her mom’s diamond earrings. “I’ve done that at every competition or show I’ve performed in,” she said.

ExplorePeoria.com fans can get a $5 off select tickets for the Friday, September 27th 7 pm show, the Saturday, September 28th 7 pm show and the Sunday, September 29th 5 pm by using the code WORLDS5 at Ticketmaster.com  Valid through September 29, 2019 on price levels P4 & P5 0nly.

Comedy is coming to the Betty Jayne

PEORIA HEIGHTS —  Greg Batton, Peoria radio host featured on the “The Greg and Dan Show” on WMBD-AM/FM 1470/100.3, will do a comedy turn as the host of an evening of standup comedy on Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria Heights.

While offering some stories of his own, Batton will present a comedy feature featuring headliner Dr. Gonzo along with Matt Smith, referred to Peoria’s funniest lawyer, and Eddy P, the KungFool Comic.

“I got the standup bug shortly after the Washington tornado,” said Batton, referring to a benefit program performed in 2013. “I have no fantasy of doing it as a permanent gig.

“I might do it for a few times in a month and then not do anything for a couple of months,” he said.

“I’m a radio guy so I love telling stories. I’m a story-telling kind of comic, not a punchline kind of guy. I’m a talker,” said Batton.

Dr. Gonzo aka John Means

Dr. Gonzo, a comedian from Mason City who honed his act performing with rock stars like Huey Lewis, Jackson Brown and Santana in the 1980s, will bring his guitar and lively sense of humor on stage at the first of three comedy acts at the Peoria Heights center this fall.    Dr. Gonzo is the stage name that John Means has used for the past 40 years, finding his niche as the funnyman at rock concerts in the 1980s, opening for headliners like Joe Walsh and Jefferson Starship. “I was the cartoon before the movie,” said Means.

When he’s not practicing rock humor, Gonzo serves as a substitute teacher in Mason City, the central Illinois city where he grew up. “I also paint–buildings, murals, whatever I can. It relaxes me,” he said.

Means, 63, recently returned from comedy dates in California where he led the crowd in a singalong of “Lime and the Coconut,” the old Harry Nilsson song, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at the city’s 39th annual Comedy Day, an event he’s been a part of almost from its inception. “They were all stoned. The smell of pot was everywhere. It’s legal in California,” he said.   “Wait until next year when I play Peoria,” said Means, recognizing the recreational use of cannabis will be legal in Illinois in 2020.

As for the material he’s planning for his Heights performance, Gonzo said it all depends. “I’ve been going back to my youth for some things but I still do impersonations of rock acts,” he said.  Means said that traveling back from California by train allows him to meet people on the way as well as gathering experiences that might wind up as stage material.

The comedy lineup on Oct. 18 includes Matt Colgan, Michelle DeSutter and Matt Blind Stein. “Matt lost his sight three years ago and has developed a great routine,” said Batton.

On Nov. 16, the evening of comedy will feature Jeff Govednik, Edgar Sandoval and Joe Roderick.”Edgar works the comedy routine hard. He’s on the road a lot so he’ll perform at open mike nights in Las Vegas when he’s there,” said Batton.

As for the  Sept. 28 show, Batton said raunchy humor wasn’t on the menu. “I’d say we’re somewhere between PG13 and a soft R but this definitely isn’t for kids,” he said.

The audience is invited to stick around after 9 p.m. when the comedy acts are over, he said. “The crowd is invited to stay and have cocktails. The comedians will be around. That’s not the usual routine for a comedy club,” said Batton.

Tickets for all of the Stand Up in the Heights at the Betty Jayne shows are on sale now at https://www.thebettyjayne.com/calendar/stand-up-in-the-heights

Peoria Players Theatre Prepares for Their 2nd Century

PEORIA – Nicki Haschke is a good person to talk to about the community theater scene in central Illinois.

As business administrator for Peoria Players Theatre for the past 27 years, Haschke, who turns 47 next month, spent time on the community theater stage as a youngster, starting out with a Corn Stock Theater production of “The King and I” when she was just five years old.

It’s a family thing for Nicki. After all, her mother, Sherry Haschke, serves as bookkeeper for Peoria Players and has been a mainstay with the theater group for 41 years.

There’s plenty of history associated with the Peoria Players organization which starts its 101st season next week. That makes it the longest running theater in Illinois and 4th oldest in the nation.

The 2019-2020 season includes “Tarzan” (the Disney version), “Million Dollar Quartet”, “Matilda” (by Roald Dahl), “Kinky Boots”, “Raisin in the Sun” and “Mamma Mia.”

“Mamma Mia” is the Abba-filled musical “that’s our box-office record-breaking show from two years ago,” said Haschke, noting that musicals have proven to be crowd favorites when it comes to filling seats at the Players theater in Lakeview Park.

Coming off the 100th anniversary year when theatergoers were able to vote on some of their favorite shows to be performed, five of the six shows offered this season are musicals.

“We try to find the right balance, blending family musicals with something new,” she said. Haschke made the point that Players personnel are already working on the 2020-2021 season.

Central Illinois is blessed when it comes to community theater talent, she said. “Three years ago, Eastlight, Corn Stock and Players all had auditions around the same time. We don’t usually overlap but every show had a huge cast,” said Haschke, adding that it takes an average of about 50 people to put on a Players production.

“It’s part of the great arts community we have here,” she said.

Haschke’s familiarity with the Players’ stage means she can recall program highlights such as the trained dog act imported from Ohio that made such a hit in “Will Rogers Follies” in 1997 and big production shows like “Music Man” (2010) and “Beauty and the Beast” (2016).

But having just unveiled a new season, Haschke is looking ahead, encouraging the public to take advantage of a season ticket offer—a seat for all six shows for $100. Individual tickets are $20 for adults while youth tickets are $15 each.

Those that haven’t been to a Players show in a while will be happy to discover that comfortable theater seats were installed last year, she said. Both the front lobby and box office have also been remodeled, noted Haschke.

For more information, call the Players box office at 309-688-4473 or visit https://www.peoriaplayers.org