Goodbye, Grandma Gnome

Founder and longtime manager of the Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park and Theatre died April 1 at the age of 99

Long before the Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park and Theater starting hosting “Concert on the Hill,” it held “Concerts in the Rough” – with the Joliet Junior College jazz band among the first to perform.

That was in 1973, before the theater/band shell complex was constructed.

The Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park was renamed in May 2000 to honor Billie Limacher of Joliet, the whirlwind behind the inception of Joliet’s community theater and president of the park board for more than 40 years.

Limacher was furious when she learned about the park’s renaming – until her first grandson was born that night.

“If that wasn’t an exciting day, to have a park named after you on the day your first grandson is born,” Billie said in a 2000 Herald-News story.

Lori Carmine, current park manager, called Limacher “a cheerleader for the city” and is impressed that “a woman in the ’70s got this place built” and that it “speaks to her tenacity and dedication.”

“It was amazing – all that she did as a volunteer,” Carmine said. “A lot of people thought she got paid, but she was always a volunteer.”

Jeff Barnes, president of the Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park Inc., said people were reminded of Limacher’s volunteer status whenever someone thought she should be fired.

“Billie was a fabulous woman,” Barnes said. “She wanted her way all the time. She tried to always convince the board of what she wanted, and 99 percent of the time we actually did it. She was a lovely lady, classy as all get out – and as mean as a junkyard dog when someone got on her nerves. She was a formidable opponent to anyone that went against her. A lovely lady.”

Limacher, who died April 1, “just two months shy of her 100th birthday,” Carmine said, received a Lincoln Award from the Illinois Office of Tourism in 2014 for her efforts all of those years.

As a child in Danville, Limacher was involved with the Danville City Band, Mickey Mouse Club and the Methodist Choir, according to her obituary. She worked as a professional model in Chicago after graduating from Danville High School.

Her first visit to Joliet was for a blind date with a dentist named William Limacher.

“He was gorgeous,” Billie said in a 2015 Herald-News story after his death. “The next day, I sent my mother a picture postcard of Louis Joliet in the library grass and said, ‘I met Bill and I’m going to marry him.’ ”

She did marry him in 1944. The couple had four children.

Billie said in the 2000 Herald-News story that her grandmother, who was born after the Civil War, spurred Billie’s interest in family history, which extended into researching Bill’s family history and grew into a love for Joliet history.

In the early 1960s, Billie tried and failed to save the Westphal Bank – “A delightful building, all stone and brick with iron gates,” Billie said in the 2000 story. In 1968, Billie agreed to chair the Illinois sesquicentennial celebration if she could have an office and a secretary.

In 1972 and 1973, Billie was offered the chairwoman positions of both the county and city bicentennial committees. In honor of the bicentennial, the committee decided to purchase about 5 acres along the waterway to create a theater and band shell for the performing arts, Billie had said.

“In the early ’60s, HUD came in and cleaned out all of the buildings from Jackson to Marion,” Billie said. “Developers put in senior housing and low-income housing. But they could not sell this piece of property because of fallen rock. We thought that since this was a historical site, Joliet’s first street, and that it was on the river, it should be preserved. The fact that they couldn’t sell it to anybody was to our advantage.”

Billie had said HUD wanted $210,000 for the property. So the county and city bicentennial committees formed the Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park Inc., which Billie said was the first such corporation formed in the U.S. from a Bicentennial committee.

She and her supporters sold buttons, flags, lemonade, popcorn and gold bricks to a nonexistent bandshell to raise the funds.

“The head of HUD in Chicago told us, ‘You people are wasting your time. You’ll never get that property unless you go to Washington,’ ” Billie said.

So they did, at their expense, Billie said.

“HUD told us to give them what we could afford,” Billie said. “All of us put in a quarter, and we gave them a buck. The next day HUD said that we could have the land if we raised enough money for the building, gave the building to a tax-supported body when completed, and took the dollar back.”

The park broke ground in 1976. On July 4 that year, a 100-year time capsule was buried. Goodson started “Festival of Gnomes” in 1977 with Billie playing the role of Grandma Gnome, which she would play for decades.

Bicentennial Park continued to grow. By 2000, it had added 7,100 square feet of space, which doubled its storage area. It also added a “green room,” office space, a permanent concession area, a larger lobby and entrance area. Stairs made the overlooks accessible. Viewpoints on the brick and concrete walking areas were named for prominent Joliet pioneers.

Billie insisted she’d never sell hot dogs for more than $1, even when the cost of hot dogs rose to $1.25, Barnes said. So the park also began selling a Chicago-style hot dog – a “Billie dog” for $2, he said.

Then Billie objected to selling nachos. So Barnes offered to buy the nacho machine and told Billie that if he earned back the price of the machine in three events, he’d donate the machine to the park.

“Well, that was the one time she let me win,” Barnes said.

Barnes said his own children grew up serving the park as volunteers and are now active in their communities because they learned to volunteer from Billie and that Billie “outlived most of her volunteers.”

In addition to the Festival of Gnomes and Concerts in the Park, Bicentennial Park held cars shows, drama classes, an Easter parade (under the direction of Wish Upon a Star), a heritage festival, KidFest, Pumpkinfest, Waterway Days and drama classes for kids. The theater seats 300.

Carmine was a student in one of those drama classes in 1977 and said, “It obviously had some impact on me.”

Billie stopped appearing as Grandma Gnome eight years ago for health reasons, Carmine said. But she’d send messages to the gnomes before the shows, Carmine said.

“She said, ‘You need to take care of your environment, be good and kind to everyone you meet, and give the birds a special treat,’ ” Carmine said.