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Peoria looks at better honor for Pryor

Peoria looks at better honor for Pryor

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PEORIA - The only real tribute to Richard Pryor in his Central Illinois hometown is a sign that hangs over a tiny, little-traveled street near where the late comedian grew up in his grandmother's brothel.

Even that modest recognition was nearly scuttled four years ago when the idea of renaming a street in his honor met resistance because of his raunchy act and history of drug abuse.

But some say this city's opposition to Pryor is mellowing after his death from a heart attack Dec. 10, less than two weeks after his 65th birthday.

"I think that always happens when someone passes away, they become less abrasive. Saintly isn't the right word, but they're remembered with fondness," said Amy Kelly, executive director of the Peoria Historical Society.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, who as a councilman voted against the renaming the street after Pryor, says he supports a broader tribute to the comedian.

"The guy is known worldwide, I think he deserves it … Regardless of whether you like his particular brand of humor, he was a pioneer in that area," Ardis said.

Pryor had a series of hit comedies and concert films in the '70s and '80s, which helped him to become one of Hollywood's highest paid stars. Also he was one of the first black performers with enough leverage to cut his own deals. In 1983, he signed a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures.

Longtime Pryor fan Don Frizzi wants there to be a large recognition for Peoria's native son. He suggested naming the city's airport after the comedian, just as Liverpool, England, did for John Lennon.

"Something more substantial should have been done a long time ago, something to show the rest of the world that Peoria is proud of Richard Pryor," said Frizzi, who is organizing a film festival in January as a tribute.

A statue of the comic is in the works and museum officials say it could be placed outside a proposed $100 million museum complex in Peoria that organizers plan to open in 2009. The city's African American Museum and Hall of Fame is to be part of that complex and Pryor already is one of the museum's inductees at its current facility.

With Pryor's approval, Preston Jackson, a Chicago Art Institute professor, began working two years ago on the statue that may go in front of the museum complex. He met the comic in the early 1960s when Pryor performed between sets when Jackson's band played at Peoria clubs.

Jackson recently launched a $150,000 fundraiser to complete the 8- to 9-foot bronze sculpture, which would portray Pryor on stage.

"This is for the entire world," Jackson said of the sculpture. "We want everyone to know that he was like Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong to jazz. He actually set standards."

Garrie "Pepper" Allen, who went to school with Pryor and now runs a barber shop on the street named after the comedian, says Pryor has long been a source of pride for most in Peoria. Detractors, he said, are vocal but few.

"I remember the good things, the laughter, the movies," Allen said. "I think he just lived for that and all the other things that surround him are not important. He made a lot of people happy."

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