PEORIA — Even after 17 years, organizers of Prairie Folklore Theater’s annual Historic Springdale Cemetery Tour aren’t even close to running out of subjects.
“There are still so many stories I want to tell,” said event director Laurel Huston, who took over the event from her father, storyteller Brian Fox Ellis, four years ago. “Some of our best stories are from people who come to these tours and say, ‘you know who you should do?’”
For two weekends each fall the theater group brings a few people buried in the cemetery back to life. Some are well-known and some are not, but all of them are interesting. On Saturday visitors learned about a leader in the Sunday school movement, a musician in the Civil War who later made maps of Peoria streets, the wife of a Civil War veteran, a highly respected minister from Peoria’s first Presbyterian church, and the first director of the Peoria Zoo.
While Huston gets suggestions about some of the people they feature, she also finds subjects through research. Huston’s husband sparked the idea of featuring the zoo director when they were brainstorming. He wanted to do a skit featuring one of the zoo’s deceased lions. When the idea was deemed impractical, Huston thought of another way to tell the story of the Peoria Zoo.
“I thought surely there was someone buried in Springdale Cemetery that was connected to the zoo, so I asked Linda Aylward,” said Huston.
As the special collections assistant at Bradley University’s Cullom-Davis Library, Alyward manages a treasure trove of historical documents and items related to Peoria history. She is one of Peoria’s most knowledgeable historians and a great help to Huston. Aylward discovered the zoo’s first director was buried in the Glen section of the cemetery.
“In 1935 I was hired to work in the maintenance department of the Peoria Zoo, and I eventually became the first director,” said Richard “Dick” Houlihan, 1911-1961, who was brought back to life by actor Chip Joyce.
Houlihan told the audience how the Peoria Zoo came to be in 1955, and how prior to that animals were housed in parks all over the city. In the mid-1940s city leaders began talking about building a formal zoo.
“There was lots of meetings about it because nobody wanted it in their own backyard,” said Joyce.
In the end, the new zoo proved to be very popular. On May 15, 1955, 7,000 people visited during the grand opening. At that time, admission was 25 cents for adults and free for children under 14.
Joyce and several other local actors are regular participants in the annual tour, an endeavor that can require some research.
“With seasoned actors, I will spend an afternoon at the library and then hand them the character, and they will do more research,” said Huston. “With younger actors, I will write up a script for them.”
When choosing actors, it’s always helpful if he or she looks a bit like the person they are portraying, said Huston.
“The Rev. Addison Coffey was a long, slender man, and Sam Lin was perfect for that role.”
Tours continue Sunday at noon and 2 p.m., and will return next weekend with shows at 6 p.m. Oct. 11, and noon and 2 p.m. Oct. 12 and 13. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. A special rate of $25 is available for families of four.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.