Visitors to Peoria’s Hotel Pere Marquette would probably never guess that helpful, professional Catering and Convention Services Director Bill Ciardini may be best known among central Illinois residents for his many memorable comedic turns in local community theatre productions.
Ciardini has been a fixture at the Hotel Pere Marquette for nearly 20 years—just about as long as he’s been involved in community theatre. “In the early 1980s, I was selling advertising for Tazewell Publishing. I was a layout artist and copywriter at Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co. and then finally a buyer for the same company. One day as I was picking up an ad at ICC from Dana Radamaker, he said I should really do theater. Besides his duties in the drama department at the school, he was directing The Little Foxes at Peoria Players, and he’d lost two actors playing the role of Mr. Marshall. He asked me to think about it. The part was a small role, but the play was opening in about two or three weeks, so I decided to pass. A week later he brought it up again, and I said ‘yes,’ though the idea of actually doing the play was terrifying,” he said.
Ciardini had always suffered from stage fright, and he said there were times at rehearsals he thought fear would get the better of him. “In spite of that, however—and above and beyond the awkward and scary rehearsals—I really enjoyed being around the theater and the other performers. Since that show, I’ve made some good friends because of the theater, and of course, I love the performances.”
It turns out performing is in Ciardini’s genes. As a child growing up in Seattle, he remembers being entertained by his father, an excellent singer, musician, and dancer, who spent some time on stage in New York City as a young man. “He loved opera and pop music, and I was always exposed to a lot of music, entertainment, and movies. I loved the dopey desk clerks, fussbudgets, and bumbling dithering types—all the second bananas and character people that enriched those great screwball comedies,” he said.
Once he found he could successfully push the fear aside, though never rid himself of it completely, he decided to explore the possibilities of living out the life of a theatre performer—something that had only been a fantasy before. “Here was a chance to play psychiatrists that were screwier than their patients, such as the doctor in Miracle on 34th Street; or a diplomat caught inside a nightclub called The Birdcage in La Cage Aux Folles, where the lady dancers are all really men, and then having to be sneaked out the back door in hilarious drag created by David Sanders,” Ciardini said.
Sanders is just one of the talented people the theatre has brought into Ciardini’s life in the past 20 years. “In La Cage, I would watch from the wings nightly as the brilliant Tanya Jenkins did a small comic bit I’ll never forget. Each play I’ve done had a little moment like that, such as watching the incredibly talented Tammy Frow jump around back stage just before one of our entrances in Annie as Warbucks and Annie. Other memorable moments include being on stage with the incomparable Mike Dentino and Sally Lawrence in Anything Goes at Cornstock Theatre. We all know how funny they are, but can you imagine being the only person in a theater of nearly 500 people and being the only one who can’t laugh at them? I’m still laughing now thinking about their goofy faces,” he said.
Ciardini is equally complimentary to other people he’s acted opposite. “Sandy Murphy has played my wife in several comedies. During the game in You Can’t Take It With You, we were in situations nightly where the audience laughs so long you have to freeze your dialogue. I, of course, had to stare past her because looking at her in a comic scene is deadly. That brings me to Lana Warner. I’ve always loved funny women, but she’s one of a small handful of people in this town who probably could have ‘made it,’ as we say in the theater. Try looking at her if you’re on stage with her. I cried from laughing each night before I made my entrance in The Nerd at Haberdashers. Even more hysterical was her first entrance in Annie Warbucks at Eastlight Theatre. As the duplicitous lawyer Simon Whitehead, I was already on stage and doing a scene when the doorbell rings, and you just know on the other side is Lana Warner. You’re thinking, ‘God help me to look at this woman and not fall on the floor.’”
Of course, none of these roles would have been possible if not for the foresight of local directors who saw Ciardini’s potential. “For that I can thank the wonderful Roberta Koch for the role of Ben Franklin in 1776 and the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance; Bob Clements for the chance to play Mr. Bigley in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying; Mike Reams for a very favorite role, Father O’Reilly, in Do Black Patent Shoes Really Reflect Up?; and Eddie and Carol Urish for two seasons of fun at Haberdashers.
“Connie Sinn, who besides Peter Pan, gave me the chance to be Dr. Chumley in one of the best plays ever written—Harvey—at Peoria Players several seasons ago. Cheryl Koenig let me play Coach Van Buren in one of my all-time favorite musicals, Damn Yankees, and being on stage with her as Captain in Dames At Sea, I got to do a hilarious tango, wear a moth-eaten toupee, and sing “Pensacola”––with the highest note I’ve ever sung. These and 60 or 70 other musical comedies and straight shows have kept me busy and in the company of the best people in town,” he said.
Ciardini said his community theatre career hasn’t exactly been planned, so he doesn’t know what the future holds. “In theater, you never know what’s around the corner. I don’t know what, if anything, will come my way, but at least I’ve had the singular honor of playing a giant steak named Sgt. Sirloin opposite the incredible Cheri Beever (wearing a banana suit) in a production of Whoop-Dee-Do. How many people can say that?” AA!