Meredith Willson Marches On To Iowa-PBS.

Over the last two decades, Iowa-PBS has entertained the thought of filming a documentary on Iowa’s most famous Music Man – Meredith Willson, but it wasn’t until 2022, when the go-ahead was given. Iowa-PBS producer-director Tyler Brinegar says the concept of a Willson documentary was finally approved when two key pieces fell into place: 1) funding to secure the necessary music and film rights, and 2) the availability of the Willson collection as catalogued and preserved by the Great American Songbook Foundation’s Songbook Library & Archives. So, it’s with great excitement that on Tuesday evening – February 28, 2023 at 6:30 pm – Central Time, Iowa-PBS debuts…

Here’s Iowa-PBS’ Press Release: Dive deeper into the life and legacy of the renowned Iowan in the Iowa PBS documentary, Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man. He performed under Sousa and Toscanini. He scored films for the likes of Chaplin and wrote popular songs performed by Sinatra and The Beatles. And when the River City boys band marched on Broadway, Meredith Willson caught the whole world’s ear.

Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man will premiere Tuesday, February 28, 2023 at 6:30 p.m. (Central) on statewide Iowa PBS. It will be rebroadcast Sunday, March 5 at 12:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 11 at 5:30 p.m. In addition to the broadcasts, Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man will be available to stream on and the PBS App.
Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man is narrated by Sutton Foster – singer, dancer and actress best known for her work on Broadway. Her talents have earned her two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical. She recently ended her run playing Marian Paroo in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” on Broadway. Read more here.

Read more about a very rare & amazing Meredith Willson LP record – released in 1959 – and listen to it here!

Without a doubt, it’s next-to-impossible to cover – in 56 minutes – the amazing musical career of someone as versatile and creative as Meredith Willson. But, here’s a tip of the old hat to Iowa-PBS producer & director – Tyler Brinegar – and his creative approach in covering Meredith’s 50+ years in the music business!

“With this film, I’m most excited to see this narrative on the screen, with photos to know Willson, to understand him a little bit better, to hear his music,” said Iowa PBS Senior Producer and Director Tyler Brinegar. “I think this format is a great way to learn about Meredith Willson. Film is perhaps even more informative than the printed word, because he was, after all, a musician.”
Tyler Brinegar, producer of Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man, talks about the process of unfolding the story of Meredith Willson. Below, Brinegar highlights three significant musical compositions Willson wrote as part of his storied career.
“The Symphony of San Francisco” 
Meredith Willson led a productive and varied career. He played flute in the John Philip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic, but would quickly transition into conducting and composing. He wrote his first symphony in the 1930s in San Francisco. Willson was working as music director at NBC and CBS affiliates in San Francisco when he started composing his “Symphony No. 1 in F Minor.” He later recalled how he could see the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge from his office window and felt as if he were racing the builders note for rivet. Willson subtitled his work “The Symphony of San Francisco” and dedicated it to the “spiritual personality that is San Francisco.” He was a programmatic composer, which meant his music revolved around a program or narrative. In this case, it was the industrial uprising of San Francisco in the 1930s which inspired his lively and melodic first symphony. Willson became the youngest ever conductor of the San Francisco Symphony at the age of thirty three when he premiered his Symphony No. 1 on a live radio broadcast. He would go on to write a second symphony but his focus would shift from symphonic music as he found increased success with radio and popular songs.

Over the course of his career, Meredith Willson relied more and more on his personal biography to reach audiences. “The Music Man” is a good example of this but another is his 1944 popular song “Iowa.” At first, I struggled to see how “Iowa” would fit into the narrative of Willson’s career. But when I learned the context surrounding the song’s debut I realized it would be essential to our story. During World War II Willson served as music director for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He wrote “Iowa” and debuted it in 1944 on the “Mail Call” program. With lyrics like “it’s a robin in the willow, it’s the postmaster’s friendly hello,” Willson used his own childhood memories to inspire nostalgia and good cheer in soldiers stationed overseas. What initially seemed like a song meant just for Iowans would instead become a pivotal transition in the film’s narrative, as Meredith moved from a symphony player and conductor to a personal songwriter capable of reaching audiences using his own point of view.
“It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas”
I was shocked to discover Meredith Willson wrote “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.” This is a song I’ve known all my life and one that is still played everywhere each December. Debuted in 1951, the melody features the bouncy triplets he would utilize in “76 Trombones” and which are also present in the “Iowa Fight Song.” In fact, the “Iowa Fight Song” is said to be a contrafact arrangement of the Christmas number. Try singing them together and the similarities become clear. Meredith’s sentiment really comes through in the lyrics. “A pair of hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben. Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen. And mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again.”  The specificity in the list of toys and children’s names heightens the excitable anticipation of youth. He follows it immediately with the jaded exhaustion of parents. Willson relied on nostalgia in his work, but he also used humor and wit to express relatable truths. His final message – that the carol we sing in our hearts is what causes Christmas bells to ring – is interfaith and it articulates a secret every adult knows:  the holiday season is what we bring to it. Read more here.

Back in November, I received a cordial email from Tyler Brinegar, inquiring about a photograph of Meredith Willson (see below) we have posted on our Salute To Meredith Willson webpages. As you can see, the black-and-white picture was taken in 1951 and features Meredith hard at work at his piano. The photo was used in October of that year by NBC Radio to promote Meredith’s latest song – Three Chimes of Silver – written to celebrate NBC Radio’s 25th anniversary. Read more here.

(L-0114) Here’s a NBC promotional info sheet (below) – dated Oct. 20, 1951 – that accompanied Meredith’s picture of him working on music for “The Big Show.”
Tyler, who was just finishing up the editing process of his TV-production had never seen this photograph of Meredith – and in all my years of collecting Willson memorabilia, I hadn’t either, which is why I snapped it up on Ebay when I first saw it. It’s truly a wonderful reminder of Meredith’s career as he was transitioning from his highly-successful radio career to the unknowns of television & beyond. If you ever have a chance to read Meredith’s third autobiography – But He Doesn’t Know The Territory – published in 1959, you will find that, in 1951, Meredith and his wife, Rini, were about to step into a whole new world of the unknown, believing that there might just be a musical production found within his rich Mason City memories. But, alas, it would take six long and trying years to get his ideas onto the Broadway stage!

We were thrilled that our photograph was included in Iowa-PBS’s wonderful production!

In preparation for the February 28th television premiere of Meredith Willson – America’s Music Man – Iowa-PBS sponsored two premiere events prior to the kickoff. The first, of course, was on Saturday, February 11th in Mason City – Meredith’s hometown. The following day, Sandy & I, along with our son John, were honored to attend the Iowa City premiere – hosted by The University of Iowa School of Music at the beautiful Voxman Music Building. Below are just a few of the historical Meredith Willson pieces from the U of I Music Library collection that were displayed at the premiere…

Kudos to Iowa-PBS and Katie R. BuehnerDirector of the University of Iowa Rita Benton Music Library for the marvelous display of Meredith Willson memorabilia.
“With The Music Man, everybody assumes, well, Meredith woke up one day and wrote about his childhood, and from what we can tell from the Songbook collection, that’s not the case – this was a tough process,” Brinegar says. “Over four or five years, not only did he not give up, but he reinvented over and over again to get it across the finish line, so much so that some of the songs we know the most came in pretty late in the process.”
Kudos to the Great American Songbook Foundation’s Songbook Library & Archives. Among their most extensive collections is the Meredith Willson Papers, with contents including original photographs, personal and business correspondence, sheet music, arrangements, and audio and visual recordings from the musician-broadcaster-playwright’s personal collection. Entrusted to the Foundation in 2012 by the Meredith and Rosemary Willson Charitable Foundation – now The Music Man Foundation – the materials play a key role in the one-hour documentary – Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man, set to premiere in February 2023 on Iowa PBS and aimed for national distribution through the PBS network.
(M-0150) (L-0038) Part of both The University of Iowa School of Music collection and Our Iowa Heritage collection is a rare copy of the 1972 Music Man Program from the opening weekend of Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. I was honored to be a senior sousaphone player in the Hawkeye Marching Band that year, and with Mr. Willson in the audience, the HMB proudly served as The River City Boys’ Band at the closing of the show. Yes, my fellow sousaphone players and I “proudly took our place as the one and only bass, and we oompahed up and down the square!” Read more here.

Click here to watch the Iowa-PBS video – The History of the Iowa Fight Song.

Click here to watch the 30-second promo.

Born in 1902, Meredith Willson began his wide-ranging career as a young flutist for Sousa and Toscanini, found success as an NBC bandleader in the golden age of radio, composed scores for Hollywood films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator, and wrote popular songs including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
“If he had just done The Music Man, I don’t think there would have been much of a story,” Tyler Brinegar says. “But the fact is, The Music Man was really the pinnacle of a 30-year career in music.”

Here’s a hope and a prayer that the PBS national network will pick up on Iowa-PBS’s great presentation of Meredith Willson – America’s Music Man, and very soon, viewers from other cities around the PBS network will have the opportunity to enjoy the show as much as all of us here in The Hawkeye State!

DYK-February 20, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man Preview, Iowa-PBS

Iowa PBS Presents Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man, February 9, 2023, Iowa-PBS

Producer Notes: The Making of Meredith Willson, Iowa-PBS

‘Music Man’ collection draws researchers to archives, The Great American Songbook Foundation, April 14, 2022

Rita Benton Music Library, University of Iowa Libraries

Looking for more resources on Meredith Willson? Check out our suggestions here.

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