A Publication of WTVP

In 1945, the largest listening audience in the history of radio tuned in to hear a married pair from Peoria tell tales of the misadventures of their homespun life. At its peak, Fibber McGee and Molly engaged some 40 million listeners each week. Polls rated them the top comedy team, finally surpassing Jack Benny and Mary Livingston, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Bob Hope.

On Sunday, August 24, local performers Mike Dentino and Mary Jo England will recreate elements of the popular show, with Lee Wenger and his wife, Denise Adams, performing music from the 1930s and 1940s, and historian and columnist Bill Adams providing background. Other local personalities will play some of the characters who populated Wistful Vista, the McGee’s fictional town. The program takes place at 2 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Illinois Central College.

"Fibber McGee and Molly: A Hometown Tribute" opens August 16 at the Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House Museum, located at 942 NE Glen Oak Ave. Curated by Gloria LaHood, this first Peoria exhibit honoring the couple features memorabilia from family members who still live here, as well as from other collectors, and includes a peek into Fibber’s infamous overstuffed closet. At 7 p.m., August 20, Bill Adams will present a talk in the auditorium of the downtown library.

Fibber McGee, born James Edward Jordan November 16, 1896, was one of four sons and three daughters of James W. and Mary Tighe Jordan, who lived on a farm just west of Peoria.

Molly, his wife, was Marian Driscoll, born April 15, 1898, the youngest of nine sons and four daughters of coal miner Daniel and Anna Carroll Driscoll, who lived on Peoria’s South Side.

Jim attended high school at Spalding Institute. Marian was a student across Madison Steet at the Academy of Our Lady, but they didn’t meet until December 1915 at a choir practice at St. John’s Church.

A talented tenor, Jim aspired to the life of an entertainer, but endured a series of jobs that included hardware salesman, drug company clerk, and mail carrier. Marian earned money by teaching piano, playing for church services, and singing. They married on August 31, 1918.

Drafted into World War I, Jim went to France. As illness kept him out of battle, he organized entertainment for the troops. After the war, he worked a succession of jobs, selling washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and life insurance. Finally the couple developed a stage show and traveled the vaudeville circuit. Their daughter, Kathryn, was born in 1920 and son James Jr. in 1923. Jim returned to clerking but continued to perform.

On a dare in 1924, Jim auditioned with Marian at WIBO in Chicago after proclaiming they could do better than what he was hearing on his brother’s radio. They developed an assortment of programs, including "Smackout," the saga of a perplexed proprietor whose store was always smack out of whatever a customer needed.

A biography and numerous Web sites recount their career. They starred in three movies with personalities such as Betty Grable, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Lucille Ball, and released several records, in addition to their thousands of programs and appearances.

In 1950, a LOOK magazine photographer followed them during a trip to Peoria that included a visit to St. Johns Church on Antoinette at Blaine; Norwood School, which Jim attended before graduating from St. Marks; and the home at 601 Bradley where they had lived (now a vacant lot near Glenwood behind the Chi Omega sorority house). The Jordans also presented a program at Bradley Fieldhouse. They owned a professional basketball team that played the Caterpillar Diesels in the Industrial League.

The last Fibber McGee and Molly program aired September 6, 1959, ending a run that began April 16, 1935. She died of cancer on April 7, 1961. The following year Jim remarried. He lived until April 1, 1988. Both are buried in Culver City, Calif.

Tapes of their radio shows are still selling. The Museum of Broadcast History in Chicago showcases their career, including the cluttered closet. They’re included in the Radio Hall of Fame and have a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Nephews Leo Jordan and Jerry Driscoll have been involved with the various tributes coming in August-ensuring Peoria remembers Fibber McGee and Molly.

Tickets for the August 24 performance at ICC cost $10 each. Proceeds benefit the Peoria Historical Society.

For more information, call 694-5136. AA!