Iowa’s Own Music Man – Meredith Willson.

Did You Know? the audio version.

Allow me, here, to take you through the life and work of Iowa’s very own Music Man, Meredith Willson…

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(S-0071) 1999 Broadway Songwriters Stamp Series. Featuring some of Broadway’s biggest names: George & Ira Gershwin, Alan Lerner & Frederick Loewe,  Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, and of course… Meredith Willson.

(S-0062) (C-0195) (C-0197) (C-0198) Meredith Willson was born May 18, 1902 in Mason City, Iowa and distinguished himself as a writer of symphonic works and popular songs. His most famous work – The Music Man – premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film – 1962 and 2003. Over the decades, there have also been numerous revivals of the stage version as well. In 2022 – even in the midst of COVID – the famed actor, Hugh Jackman, has brought yet another successful run on Broadway. Read more here.

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The idea for The Music Man began in 1949, when Meredith Willson was reminiscing with friends about his childhood years in Mason City, Iowa. In an interview later in life – Willson referred to the show as “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state.”

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(P-0184) The Music Men of Mason City featured on this turn-of-the-century postcard. Why march in a parade when you could ride? No sensible musician would pass up a spot on the band wagon. But for a parade vehicle of this era, horse power had a new meaning when the Mason City Band – 15 members – plus the driver – rode in a brand new motorized Overland touring bus. The band was directed by Harry B. Keeler, president of the Mason City College of Music.
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Meredith Willson got his start in professional music by playing piccolo in H.B. Keeler’s band.
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(P-0185) Mason City – The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Orphan’s Home Band. The I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellows is a benevolent organization that has been part of American civic life since 1819, and continues today in its activities of charitable and educational projects. The three link logo on the bass drum stands for their motto Friendship, Love, Truth. In May 1902, the Odd Fellows Lodge of Mason City laid the cornerstone for a new home for orphans to be built just outside the city center.
(P-0283) Here’s a rare photograph of Meredith Willson (in chair) watching his older brother Cedric presenting a history lesson to his mother Rosalie in the Willson home – 314 S. Pennsylvania – in Mason City – Circa 1912.

(P-0186) (M-0031) Mason City memorabilia – Yes, some picture postcards back in the day (above) were made of leather. This 1907 poinsettia card makes for one colorful greeting from Mason City! Below is a Transit Token from Mason City.

Meredith Willson in 1929.

After leaving Mason City, Meredith attended the Institute of Musical Art – later called the Juilliard School of Music – in New York City, and was a flutist in John Philip Sousa’s band (1921-1923). He also played with the New York Philharmonic (1924-1929), and worked at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in radio.

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(C-0196) John Philip Sousa  Famous Americans  – Composers Series.
(M-0032) NBC Radio “Stars” Card – Meredith WillsonClick here to read about The Big Show – NBC’s last big attempt to salvage radio in the early 1950’s

(L-0041) (L-0042) Opening on Broadway on December 19, 1957, The Music Man ran for a marathon 1,375 performances. Willson’s award-winning score includes the songs “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Trouble,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” and “Till There Was You,” (a huge hit for the Beatles in 1963).

The Music Man centers around the theme of an unscrupulous con man named Harold Hill, who tries to sell non-existent musical instruments to the citizens of River City, Iowa, but he ends up falling in love with the town librarian instead.

Back in the day, one knew that they had arrived when your face or your life’s work appeared on the cover of Time Magazine (L-0046). So it was when a Dell comic book (L-0027) was issued in your honor, or Life Magazine (L-0047) did a big spread (below) on you.

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(M-0070) This LP features Meredith Willson at the piano, informally commenting on the show, telling its story, and singing the songs with his wife Rini. The recording effectively recreates the backer’s audition Meredith and Rini presented to producer Kermit Bloomgarden which secured the production a home on Broadway. Following the release of the album in 1959, Meredith and Rini embarked on a 20-city tour of the United States, recreating the story of ‘The Music Man’ in talk and song. The album release also coincided with the publication of Meredith Willson’s third autobiography But He Doesn’t Know The Territory.

(L-0110) Meredith Willson was a prolific writer – producing several entertaining books – …And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948), Who Did What To Fedalia? (1952), Eggs I Have Laid (1955), The Music Man (1958), But He Doesn’t Know The Territory (1959), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960)

After the huge response on Broadway, several national tours took Meredith’s smash across the country. Bert Parks headed up one team, while Harry Hickox – who played Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, both on Broadway and in the 1962 movie – led another. (L-0070) Here is an 8×10 glossy ad used in San Francisco, at the Orpheum Theatre, featuring the artwork of Sam Norton, famous Broadway artist.

It was June 19, 1962. Meredith returned to his hometown of Mason City, Iowa. Only this time, he brought all of Hollywood for the world premiere of the long-awaited movie version of Willson’s Broadway smash, The Music Man.

(P-0187) High school bands came from all over the country – 121 of them – to march in this very first North Iowa Band Festival. The Festival included a parade down Federal Avenue, a tradition that continues to today.

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A special commemorative coin (M-0033), a souvenir pin (M-0034), and a participant’s badge (M-0102) celebrated the event!

After Music Man, Meredith Willson wrote three other Broadway musicals – The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), Here’s Love (1963), and 1491 (1969). Molly Brown was successful, being made into a hit movie in 1964, while Here’s Love – a musical based on the Christmas classic – Miracle of 34th Street, was less so. Sadly, 1491 – a musical look at Columbus and his voyage to America – was a flop, closing before reaching the Broadway stage.

We have this rare souvenir program from 1491’s debut performance in Los Angeles in 1969. (L-0094)

Read here about Meredith Willson’s on-going relationship with the University of Iowa – writing its most popular school rouser – The Iowa Fight Song – in 1950.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite Meredith Willson song, my heart always goes to Meredith’s 1950 classic that he introduced on national radio: May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You. It became an immediate hit and still finds a place in people’s hearts today. Click here to read more.

Listen to this version of May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You, as recorded by The Old Gold Singers – circa 1960.

Iowa’s own Music Man, Meredith Willson, died June 15, 1984 at the age of 82. His funeral in Mason City included mourners dressed in Music Man costumes and a barbershop quartet which sang Lida Rose. Meredith is buried in Mason City, his beloved hometown.

In 1988, Meredith Willson was posthumously awarded The Iowa Award, the highest honor given to an Iowa citizen. An award well-deserved – click here for more information.

Circa 1960’s – Iowa’s Music Man, Meredith Willson, introduces his wife, Rini, to Iowa’s March King, Karl King – another winner of the Iowa Award. Read more about Karl L. King here.

(M-0139) In 2017, two Meredith Willson cards were issued in the MegaMix “Lights of Broadway” series.

In 2020, as we were moving from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, I decided to take some of my Meredith Willson collectibles and donate them to The Music Man Square in Mason City. Below is a wonderful response letter (M-0035) they sent me…

Click here to read my personal story of Meredith Willson and how his work influenced my life.

I suggest you make a trip to Mason City and take in all the memories. Thank you, Meredith Willson…and May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You!


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

The Music Man Square, Mason City, Iowa

The Music Man Square Facebook page

Photos: Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster Take Bows in The Music Man, Bruce Glikas, BroadwayWorld.com

Meredith Willson, Wikipedia

Meredith Willson, Find-A-Grave


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