Maybe it was that lively jig that did the trick. Or that deep lovely singing voice, a contralto - the lowest range for a female - that really stood out. Whatever it was that caught Jim Jordan’s fancy that December night 1915 in Peoria, he was smitten. He was also very shy. He urged a pal to introduce him to the young lady named Marian.
Jim Jordan grew up on a farm, you see, just outside of Peoria. “Half of the kids were farmers and the other half were coal miners,” he recalled. Most kids in Jim’s class dropped out of school to help with chores on the farm or pull coal from the mines during the winter months. Jim found another way. “I had an advantage. I would sing for someone and get a job.”
Jim was especially fond of his father who entertained the Jordan siblings, four boys and three girls, with wildly exaggerated stories. Once telling a captive audience that before getting married he ventured down south (to Texas) “to skin buffalo” and make a little side money. The story was true, but the elder Jordan would spice it up a bit by explaining how he survived dangerous hunts alongside the famous Buffalo Bill. Jim would listen and learn.
Jim sang and acted in plays at his small school near Kickapoo. Then at the age of twelve, a career break of sorts. Jim’s dad packed up the Jordan brood and moved to Peoria. The big city was only a few miles away but it meant so much more to an aspiring young actor. “There was always something magical about Peoria,” he later recalled. “In vaudeville, burlesque and road shows, performers couldn’t wait to get to Peoria.”
Theaters like the Hippodrome, Madison, Majestic, Orpheum and Rialto were brimming with flashing lights and lines out the door. “There was a lot of life there then,” Jim said, “it was a wide open town – pretty wild.”
But Jim was just a teenager and school came first. He went to St. Mark’s elementary and later Spalding Academy. He perfected his craft in school plays but now on a much larger scale. “I carried a spear, more or less, but it was pretty exciting,” he remembers.
Then in 1915, during a Christmas choir practice at St John’s Church on Peoria’s south side, Jim saw Marian Driscoll, a “pretty blue-eyed, brown haired, slightly freckled” coal miner’s daughter who played piano, violin and loved to sing. “Introduce me to her,” the reserved Jim asked a friend.
They met and liked each other but Jim was too shy to escort her home that night, or even ask. Eventually he got the nerve. They spent more time together and soon fell in love. Then much to Marian’s parent’s disappointment, Jim dropped out of school and joined a touring vocal group. In 1917, he left for Chicago to pursue a singing career. But he was homesick for Marian. So he returned to Peoria and went to work at the Post Office.
The war was on and Jim was on the draft list. So far he hadn’t been called. He wanted to ask Marian to marry him but feared his number would come up. It was August 1918. “The war is winding down,” a friend explained, “you’ll never be called. Go ahead and get married.” So they did. Their honeymoon was a trip to St. Louis to visit Marian’s sister. That’s when the summons came. Jim was going to France.
The war was easy on Jim. He got assigned to an entertainment division and performed for troops in camps and hospitals. Meanwhile, back home in Peoria, Marian taught piano and waited.
Shortly after the war ended, Jim returned to Marion in Peoria and worked odd jobs before deciding to get back into show-biz this time as a couple. They went to Chicago and got on the radio. At first with a musical troupe, but soon Jim’s chops as a character actor broke through. Marian joined in too. Before long, with an act playfully exploiting an espoused couple’s follies, they became Fibber McGee and Molly.
In April 1950, after nearly 30 years in the business and a weekly radio audience of forty million, Fibber McGee and Molly came back to Peoria. They visited the place they first met, St. John’s Church, and their old schools. The kids and staff were enthralled to see their favorite radio stars up close and in person. Marian joined in with the choir as Jim sat in a desk, playfully “lost in a daydream,” as one writer put it.
Peoria had become a part of their act. “We had a lot of references to Peoria,” Jim recalled. “Fibber’ed would talk about Main Street hill, canoeing on the Illinois River and various characters in town.”
Even today the name Fibber McGee and Molly is synonymous with the river city. More so, some would say, than the fictional town of Wistful Vista.
Maybe it was their Midwest sentimentality that made the act work so well. It certainly kept the audience wanting more. An audience that could only sit in front of their radio and hear the trials and tribulations of a harried couple struggling to make ends meet and more often than not getting in each other’s way trying.
Behind the scenes it was a different story. At the end of each radio program, in secret, and never revealed to their listeners, Jim and Marian Jordan aka Fibber McGee and Molly would silently hold hands.
“Goodnight y’all,” Molly would say signing off.