Special Events, Exhibits on Their Way Back

Activities in central Illinois—like much of the rest of the country—have been on the back burner for over a year.  From the Peoria Riverfront Museum and its Dome Planetarium to the Wheels O’Time Museum and the Scottish Rite Theatre, the Peoria area is on its way back from Covid.

Everything from concerts to school sports have been affected by a pandemic that still dominates the news. But there’s also some good news: we’re on our way back.

The coronavirus isn’t behind us yet. State mandates still curtail crowds and limit gatherings. But over the past year, institutions and arts organizations have found ways to reach homebound residents. Some groups say the changes made will remain in place even after the danger of contracting the virus has passed.

Peoria Riverfront Museum

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is a case in point. “Nothing is the same as pre-Covid, except for the Giant Screen Theater, said Cathie Neumiller, the museum’s vice-president of marketing.

Bill Conger, the curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum, said that while the facility was closed for most of 2020, staff worked to create a virtual museum.

“I think we only had six to eight weeks last year when we were wide open,” he said, adding that while the doors may have been closed, information still flowed to the public in the form of online programs.

“The staff created all kinds of interesting programs from hour-long presentations called ‘The Viewing Room’ to briefer pieces. We really took the museum to the people and that continues,” said Conger.

The museum realized it had to be flexible during the pandemic and that flexibility will be on display when the “T-Rex-Ultimate Predator” exhibit opens May 29, he said.

“I’ve seen the (T-Rex) show twice in New York. It’s going to blow the doors off here,” said Conger, referring to the exhibit from New York’s Museum of Natural History that will make Peoria it’s first stop as part of a national tour.

“The mighty dinosaur will occupy space at the museum that once housed standing displays for the Illinois High School Association,” he said. “We were forced to re-imagine the IHSA space with its emphasis on hands-on displays because of the CoVid rules,” said Conger.

The museum looks to change things up more quickly than in the past. “Now, whenever anyone visits—whether after one month or six – they’ll see something new,” he said.

“The 101 Treasures of the Museum” is the present exhibit on display with a wide variety of items—from a horse mannikin from the 19th century to photographs of a youthful Richard Pryor taken in 1962 shortly before the Peorian embarked on his successful comedy career.

Other display items include Preston Jackson’s “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story,” a bronze and steel sculptural interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance period in the 1920s and 1930s as well as displays on two Illinois cities founded by former slaves.

Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Dome Planetarium

Peoria Riverfront Musem Dome Planetarium - Big Astronomy

If you ask Renae Kerrigan, planetarium director at the museum, what’s new in space these days, you’ll find out she’s extremely excited at the recent landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars.

But, closer to home, Kerrigan is also excited about new equipment being installed at the planetarium. “We’re upgrading our digital projector. Images will be much brighter with a much higher resolution,” she said.

Kerrigan said the first shows with the new equipment are scheduled for May 22.

Like other museum staff members, planetarium personnel also produced online programs while the museum was closed, she said. “I’m glad we were able to focus on continuing to teach while we weren’t open. We started a video series we plan to continue,” said Kerrigan.

One of the celestial events emanating from the planetarium when Jupiter and Saturn came in close conjunction with one another (only separated by 450 million miles) in December drew 88,000 views online, she said.

“It was the perfect storm. It was a popular event and we had clear skies here for our telescope,” said Kerrigan, whose team put on more than 2,000 shows in a year (when there’s no pandemic).

The planetarium has the benefit of offering flexible seating—something that comes in handy in this time of social distancing, she said. “Instead of 105, our capacity is 35,” said Kerrigan.


Wheels O’ Time Museum

Wheels O Time - 1947 Aeronca L-16 Grasshopper

When the Wheels O’ Time Museum opened on Saturday, May 1, it was the first time in 18 months that the sprawling facility was open to the public.

Located just off Knoxville Avenue at 1710 W. Woodside Dr. in Dunlap, Wheels, as the title implies, has long had a reputation as a transportation museum but the attraction has more to offer than cars and trains, said Bobbie Rice, who handles marketing duties for the museum.

“We have six buildings open to the public with 30,000 square feet of display space,” she said.

Exhibits include 40 vintage cars (including a Glide automobile made in Averyville, a Cord from the Jumer collection, and a number of electric vehicles), four fire engines (including a fully-restored Ahrens Fox fire truck that was in service in Peoria from 1931 to 1956) and three train cars (not counting the Pullman cars that diners once used at Vonachen’s in Junction City that is now being refurbished).

But there’s plenty more, said Rice, noting that other displays include Grandma’s Kitchen, a military exhibit (that now features a Grasshopper reconnaissance plane used in WWII and Korea), a facsimile of the old WMBD radio studio, and vintage Caterpillar equipment.

“There’s a lot of Peoria history on display plus you find art and music throughout the whole facility,” she said. More recent images are also on display, said Rice, pointing to entries from a local photo contest just completed entitled “a dose of hope in a pandemic.”

The Wheels O’ Time is the area’s own dose of hope, benefitting from the many contributions of museum volunteers and partner organizations, she said.


Scottish Rite Theatre (The Scottie)

Scottish Rite Theatre - Peoria Illinois

The pandemic didn’t stop Kim Blickenstaff, the developer who’s made such an impression in the area since returning to his native central Illinois, from breathing new life into a long-standing Peoria landmark.

The Scottish Rite Theatre (located at 400 NE Perry Ave. in downtown Peoria) is being developed as an entertainment center with hopes for an opening in July, said executive director Jenny Parkhurst, who has dubbed her charge “the Scottie.” Parkhurst also manages another Blickenstaff project, the Betty Jayne Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria Heights.

Built by Peoria-area Masons in 1924, the Scottish Rite is being renovated at a cost between $5 million and $7 million, said Parkhurst, noting that extensive electrical and plumbing work was required to bring the building up to code.

“Upgrading the stage cost $1.6 million alone,” she said, pointing to new rigging, lights, curtains, and a high-tech sound system now in place.

The Scottie can hold up to 800 people but seats on the theater’s main floor allow for flexibility, she said.

“You can bring in tables or provide standing space,” said Parkhurst. “We love the fact that it’s a mid-sized venue—not as cavernous as the Peoria Civic Center’s arena. But we don’t look at competing with the Civic Center. There’s plenty of opportunity for both in the event industry,” she said.

Shows of all kinds will be welcome at the facility, said Parkhurst, a former manager at Peoria’s Corn Stock Theatre. “It’s an honor and a challenge to renovate the facility so we can have different types of events here,” she said.

A tour of the Scottie with Parkhurst includes a view of reception rooms, a commercial-grade kitchen, wheelchair lifts, and the classic Steinway piano that sits in its own climate-controlled room awaiting a chance to entertain.

While the pandemic clouds the immediate schedule, Parkhurst is optimistic about the future. “We’re hoping we can get going by July but right now December is completely booked,” she said.

Find information about events at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the other venues mentioned above plus other Peoria area attractions on our Calendar.