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‘George’ highlights the life-long work of a local legend

221206 George Movie.jpg
Mike Rundle
The Peoria Riverfront Museum will be offering daily showings of "George" through the end of December.

On the 76th anniversary of his business, George Manias of George’s Shoeshine and Hatters celebrated in a big way.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum hosted the premiere of “George” Tuesday night, a film offering a look at the life of Manias as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Crete, a Peorian, and a businessman. Directed by former Peorian Matt Richmond, “George” follows the title character as he navigates the operation of his longstanding business after the death of his sister, Angela.

Former Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, Colleen Johnson of the Peoria Historical Society, and columnist Phil Luciano were just a few of the voices featured in the film, all of whom agreed on one thing: Manias is a Peoria legend.

Born in Peoria, Manias is now 91-years-old and still going strong. He returned to Crete with his family in childhood, and survived everything from armed curfews to bomb blasts after Germany invaded the island in 1941. In the film, Manias recalls being forced to haul buckets of water to supply the Nazi military and seeing his father imprisoned twice by the Germans.

Upon their return, Manias sought work shining shoes, and was eventually able to start his own business in 1946.

Richmond says that what started as a look at how someone sticks to the same profession for more than seven decades turned into a character study as filming progressed.

“There’s something extraordinary about the way a business is a part of a community, and especially when it’s part of the community for years and years and years,” said Richmond. “[‘George’ is] almost an opportunity to present him to the community in a new way. This place that you’ve passed a million times on Adams, there’s something going on in there that everybody should probably know about.”

In the years Manias has been in business, he’s shined the shoes of everyone from your average businessperson to presidents—Bush, Obama, and then vice-president Biden to name a few.

Shortly after his visit, Biden even invited Manias and his family to the White House for a visit, due in part to the work of another long-time customer Ray LaHood.

In the film, Manias fondly recalls his visit with the future president saying, “I think he liked me.”

More recently, Manias has been considering reducing hours at the shop, and potentially retirement. He says business has slowed down, but he plans to stay open for as long as he can.

If the time comes when the shop does close, Manias and his customers can feel good knowing the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Peoria Historical Society have collaborated to ensure his legacy is known.

“Some of the greatest people in the world have sat in those incredible chairs,” said John Morris, President and CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum. “George has signed a commitment…that [the chairs] will be a public, beautiful addition to the permanent collection.”

Morris says the idea was spearheaded by Jim Carballido, a member of the Museum’s board of directors. Prior to the film screening, Carballido shared his ideas for the eventual display.

“The vision is to have those seats installed here at the museum where future generations can sit…and view Peoria’s history through the window of George’s Shoe Shine,” said Carballido. “Whether it be a video, or maybe…virtual reality, George’s artifacts will serve as an avenue to tell stories of Peoria’s rich history.”

Through the eyes of the Historical Society, Johnson says the chairs will be a one-of-a-kind addition to the museum.

“Having artifacts that can tell a story is everything to us at the Historical Society,” said Johnson. “It’ll be one of the few items that we ever would allow to be on permanent exhibit only because it would be at our wonderful partner, the Riverfront Museum.”

Until that day comes, Manias and his customers are encouraging everyone to visit the shop and get a shine from who Luciano calls “the hardest working man in Peoria, bar none.”

In the opening seconds of the film, Manias walks down a road in Crete, cane-in-hand. He stops to take in the view and a single bead of sweat sits at the tip of his nose, personifying the work ethic he has embodied throughout his life.

The Riverfront Museum is offering daily showings of “George” at the Giant Screen Theater through the end of the month.

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.