A Jubilant Homecoming

A prosperous businessman brings his success back home... and the arts are front and center.

by Jonathan Wright
Kim Blickenstaff
Kim Blickenstaff behind the drums at the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts, December 2018. Photo by Jeffery Noble

He knew he was a drummer the night he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was February 9, 1964, and 11-year-old Kim Blickenstaff was captivated by the simple backbeats of Ringo Starr. “Everybody was in malaise after Kennedy died,” he recalls. “When we saw the Beatles, it was like, There’s hope again.” 

He initially carved his own pair of wooden drumsticks, and eventually took lessons at Byerly Music. “My parents finally bought me a snare drum for Christmas, and that was a huge mistake,” he chuckles. “They didn't realize the noise I was going to create!”

No doubt Kim Blickenstaff has created some noise since graduating from East Peoria Community High School in 1970, although most of it was in California. The healthcare entrepreneur has cofounded and led a number of highly successful companies, including Biosite, a medical diagnostics firm that sold for $1.8 billion in 2007, and Tandem Diabetes Care, where he remains executive chairman. More recently he has embarked on a new path in life—one centered around his old hometown. 

Betty Jayne Blickenstaff with sons
Betty Jayne Blickenstaff with sons Scott, Todd, Kim and Jon

Here in the Peoria area, Blickenstaff’s development plans—an expanding list that includes a boutique hotel, loft apartments, a performing arts center and several other venues—have taken the region by storm. They are at once personal, sentimental and civic-minded, the result of a man who’s clearly having fun giving back. As he reinvests in central Illinois, the arts are front and center—a lifelong familial connection that dates back well before his own childhood.  

All in the Family
“My mom kept a scrapbook that she never told us about,” Blickenstaff explains. “I was going through my brother’s stuff after he passed away, and out comes this fragile, green scrapbook with every performance of my mom’s, from the time she was about 13 all the way through her career.” 

Born in 1919, Betty Jayne Brimmer grew up in the waning days of Peoria’s much-vaunted vaudeville scene. Through an assemblage of photographs, playbills, programs, letters, ticket stubs and news clippings, her newly-discovered scrapbook details her life as a dancer in the Big Band Era. She performed at the Orpheum and other long-gone Peoria theaters; took the stage at banquet halls, country clubs, parks and schools; and was acclaimed as one of the finest acrobatic dancers in the country. Her “big break” came in the form of a newspaper ad: a national touring duo seeking an “acrobatically inclined young lady” to join their performance troupe.

Betty and Benny Fox billed themselves as “Sky Dancers: The World's Greatest Aerial Sensation.” Their act involved dancing on a tiny platform at the end of a long pole—doing the jitterbug and the Charleston hundreds of feet high in the air—and no net beneath them. On September 16, 1937, some 200,000 people congregated downtown to witness their daring performance, according to the Journal-Transcript, who called it “the largest crowd ever assembled in Peoria.” Among them was a young Betty Jayne Brimmer, fresh out of Peoria High School.

Newspaper ad for a performance by “Sky Dancers” Betty and Benny Fox, who took Betty Jayne Brimmer on the road with them.
Newspaper ad for a performance by “Sky Dancers” Betty and Benny Fox, who took Betty Jayne Brimmer on the road with them.

Soon she would go on the road with Betty and Benny Fox, performing all over the Midwest, into the Southwest and beyond. But fate would intervene in the form of marriage and the post-war arrival of five children—and her dancing career was cut short. But decades later, her name has acquired fresh prominence adorning a new arts venue in Peoria Heights. 

The Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts was the first of Kim Blickenstaff’s development projects to be announced. The community center and event space is notable for emphasizing the performing arts and arts education—a fitting tribute to his mother’s pre-marriage career. But she wasn’t the only performer in the family. His father Wyvern was a piano player, brother Scott played guitar, and brother Jon “could pick up any instrument and play it,” Blickenstaff recalls. “My sister danced, too. [My parents] made us all take lessons—that's where it all came from.”

A passion for the arts came early and naturally to the Blickenstaff clan. “We’d eat dinner, and Dad would sit at the piano and I’d sit down at the drums and play the brushes,” he notes. “When we got home from school, Jon and I would crank up the amplifier… He played guitar. I'll never forget hearing ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ for the first time—I thought my brother wrote it!” he laughs. “And then I heard it on the radio and [realized] it’s Roy Orbison.”

These creative connections were passed down to the next generation as well. “My son Paul is like my brother Jon—he can play anything he picks up,” Blickenstaff explains. “My other son is very into architecture... and my daughter is a fashion designer in New York City.” 

On a recent visit to Peoria Players Theatre, he found himself taking note of another striking family resemblance. “Randee is my brother Jon’s daughter—she’s into dance and acting. I saw her in A Chorus Line, and I swear it was like watching my mom when she was 22. She can do the same high kicks and splits... She’s very talented.” 

Preserving History & Culture
When Blickenstaff purchased the Scottish Rite Cathedral earlier this year—rescuing it from possible demolition—he knew it was an architectural gem. But he didn’t realize he was about to tap into one of his earliest childhood memories: attending a performance of A Christmas Carol when he was just a few years old. “I knew I’d been in the building… but it wasn’t until I walked in that I recognized where I was,” he explains. “It was gorgeous. And then we went downstairs and all the old costumes were there. I knew I’d seen them before—I remember those colors.

Blickenstaff plans not only to preserve the historic landmark, but to rejuvenate the building as a performance venue. An art gala for the neighboring Ronald McDonald House is already scheduled for this fall, while discussions with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra are well underway. And of course: “We’re going to put on A Christmas Carol,” he says with a grin.  

Just three blocks away at the corner of Madison and Fayette, Blickenstaff and his team are working with the Peoria Women’s Club to save its second-floor theater from falling into permanent disrepair. “All the chairs are there. The last set from the last play is still there,” he notes, detailing the historic room where his mother once danced and Peoria Players got its start. “We're going to pretty it up and have an assessment done on what it would take to restore it.

“Between that and the Scottish Rite, now we're getting a theater district,” he continues, revealing his hope that someone can help bring the Madison Theater back to life as well. “Along with the Apollo, we could have four or five theaters downtown… like we used to have.”

Betty Jayne Brimmer
At left: publicity shot of Betty Jayne Brimmer. Center: Portrait by Maurice Seymour, a Chicago-based photographer who captured images of top dancers, stage and film stars from the 1920s through the 1960s. Right: Brimmer performs at a variety show presented by the Caterpillar Employees' Men's Glee Club.

Meanwhile, amidst his bonanza of projects in Peoria Heights, Blickenstaff has characteristically unique plans for the former Hurschel Upholstery building at 4312 N. Prospect Road. With its rounded exterior, the adapted steel Quonset hut conjures images of the Robertson Memorial Field House—Bradley University’s longtime sports arena, built inside a pair of converted airplane hangars in 1949 and razed nearly six decades later.

“It’s going to be a miniature Field House,” Blickenstaff declares, a twinkle in his eye. “Isn’t that wild? We’ve got drawings already done for it.” To top it off, he’s encountered a host of Peorians with pieces of the old Field House—seats, benches, letters, scoreboard parts. “So we’re going to reassemble all of that and see what we can do.”

An architecture buff, he lights up when discussing design details of the Field House (“the vertical brick that was slightly cantilevered so the light came through”)—handiwork of the late Peoria architect Richard Doyle. As it happens, Doyle also designed the former Peoria Heights library (now The Betty Jayne) and Prospect Mall (future home of Blickenstaff’s Atrium Hotel), among other notable Peoria buildings. He was also a former bandleader, whose compositions are held in the Library of Congress.

“One of the things I want to do is get out those old recordings and find a big band that can play them,” Blickenstaff notes. It’s that kind of fun, whimsical approach to his work that has rapidly become his trademark.

Hometown Embrace
Having scaled the pinnacle of business success, Kim Blickenstaff was ready for something new—and he appears to have found it back in the central Illinois where he grew up. “I’ve been building companies, and frankly, I’m done doing that,” he concedes, though he is willing to share his business expertise for Peoria’s benefit.  

After shepherding Biosite through an 18-year run and $1.8 billion sale, then leading Tandem for a dozen years as president and CEO, Blickenstaff knows a thing or two about startups. He recently met with representatives from Bradley University, the USDA Ag Lab and Jump Simulation, among other institutions of Peoria innovation, and hopes to impart some of the practices that drove his success on the West Coast. After years in San Diego, he’s finding he can make an even bigger difference back home—and the Peoria area is welcoming him with open arms. 

Since his return, he’s been delighted by all the people who remember him and his family. Numerous Peorians have reached out to share their memories of his late grandfather, once a prominent local physician, and the affable Blickenstaff connects easily with them. “I didn’t know him well—he died when I was seven. So having the chance to hear from other people what he was like, rather than just as a picture in a book…” He trails off, obviously moved by the connection.

Kim Blickenstaff
Inside the Betty Jayne with Kim Blickenstaff. Photo by Jeffery Noble

Across the river in Spring Bay, where Blickenstaff spent his formative years, he hopes to bring back the village’s annual Melon Festival. “They remember me!” he says. “It’s just wild. In San Diego, sure, they know my name because I’m in the paper… but they don’t know me.”

Central Illinois, on the other hand, is getting to know the real Kim Blickenstaff: the fun-loving drummer and son of a dancer, the creative thinker and generous developer. He still plays the drums and owns multiple kits—a reminder of the profound impact the arts can have on young people. Because of his largesse, the Peoria area will soon be wealthier with opportunities for music, theater, dance and the arts. And because of him, no one here will ever forget Betty Jayne Brimmer. PM

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