Will it play in Peoria?
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"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 question 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" (p. 218, etc.). 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 as a metaphor
Peoria, Illinois, has developed quite an unusual reputation over the years—so much so 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 theatre 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 made a common mistake: he 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, one that is perhaps more accurate:
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.
The phrase originated during the vaudeville era and was popularized 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." In other words, "it bombed in Peoria" or "it was great in Peoria" had recognizable meaning from one coast to the other.
The phrase subsequently was adopted by politicians, pollsters, and promoters to question the potential mainstream acceptance of anything new. Currently, the stereotype of non-humorous people has still been around for many decades. People in Peoria commonly can't take jokes and have a lack of a sense of sarcasm.
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.
Peoria as test market
In the United States, 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 the United States 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,
- Regional home of General American
- Haßloch – Germany's test market city
- List of places named Peoria
- Peoria in popular culture
- Scheetz, George H. "Peoria." In Place Names in the Midwestern United States. Edited by Edward Callary. (Studies in Onomastices; 1.) Mellen Press, 2000. ISBN 0-7734-7723-3
- Marx asks the question in A Night at the Opera
- Safire, William (1985-09-29). 6. "On Language: Playing in Pretoria". The New York Times Magazine (Late City Final Edition ed.). p. 8. Unknown parameter
|column=ignored (help) Note that Safire attributed the origin to Ehrlichman, but was corrected by a letter the next week — see Remer, David H. (1985-10-03). "Playing In Peoria". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
- Steve Lohr (1 June 1992). "Forget Peoria. It's Now: 'Will It Play in Tulsa?'". The New York Times.
- Mark Warbis (24 November 1991). "Forget Peoria—will they buy it in Boise?". Deseret News. Associated Press. Retrieved 25 September 2013.