And so, we close Our Iowa Heritage journey by remembering the one Iowan who probably impacted my life more than all the others. Back when I was in elementary and junior high school in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (the early 60’s), I started playing the baritone in the school band. (Read more here) Below are a couple of news stories featuring my earliest performance days.
And, it was just about at this time of my life when I was looking for a place to belong. Being a fat kid with pimples, I got a lot of teasing. But then, it happened.
One day, in band, our director told us about a new movie that was coming out in the summer of 1962. It was called The Music Man and it was written by an Iowan named Meredith Willson (two l’s please). So, I asked my Dad for an early advancement on my allowance and ran overt the record store and bought my own personal copy of the new movie soundtrack.
(M-0073) (M-0074) I tell ya. I played this LP record non-stop for the next year! While others were listening to Elvis Presley and doing the Twist, I was humming along with Marion the Librarian and marching up and down Henry Street to Seventy-Six Trombones.
(P-0316) And when the movie, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, finally showed up at The Temple in Mt. Pleasant (see above), I went overt the theater and sat in total amazement. The technicolor big-screen version of this classic Iowa love story, touched my heart and charted my course in music faster than one can say, “bang-beat, bell-ringin’, big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothin’, rip-roarin’, ever-time-a bull’s-eye movie!”
So, thank you, Meredith Willson. And thank you to Harold Hill, Marian Paroo and her Irish mother, Mrs. Paroo, Winthrop, Amaryllis, Mayor Shinn and his lovely wife, Eulalie, the School Board, Marcellus, Tommy, Zaneeta, Charlie Cowell, and, of course, all the wonderful townspeople of River City, Iowa.
Because of The Music Man, I found my place in life, and with it, a tribe. And throughout my high school years at City High School in Iowa City, and then at the University of Iowa, music became my life, and other musicians – my comrades. Graduating from Iowa in 1973, I became a band director, moved to the Chicago area, met my bride, and never looked back. And it all started with the drop of a phonograph needle on Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Thanks, Meredith. Without you and your Mason City recollections, I just don’t know where my life might have gone. Read more here.
So, on this page, allow me to take you through the life and work of Iowa’s very own Music Man, Meredith Willson…
(S-0062) (C-0195) (C-0197) (C-0198) Meredith Willson (May 18, 1902 – June 15, 1984) 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 last decades, there have also been numerous revivals on Broadway. In 2021-2022, even in the midst of COVID, the famed actor, Hugh Jackman has brought yet another successful run on Broadway.
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.”
(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.
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.
(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 he or she 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.
(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.
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.
A special commemorative coin (M-0033), a souvenir pin (M-0034), and a participant’s badge (M-0102) celebrated the event!
Over the years, Meredith Willson would make frequent trips from his home in California to Iowa City to guest conduct The University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band. Above – here he is with the sousaphone section at the 1958 Homecoming game vs. #8 Northwestern on October 25, 1958. The #2 Hawkeyes won the game 6-0, securing their first-ever #1 UPI ranking after the game. The Hawkeyes went on to a very successful season, winning the 1959 Rose Bowl 38-12 over California.
This 1958 show featured many creative pictures in conjunction with the favorite musical selections from The Music Man: a fancy drill routine set to the popular tune “76 Trombones,” a horse-drawn wagon set to “Wells Fargo Wagon,” and even a rotating barber pole set to an acappella vocal rendition of “Lida Rose.” Meredith guest conducted the band in The Iowa Fight Song as well as his popular “May the Lord Bless You and Keep You” as a sort of benediction to the 1958 football season.
Meredith Willson also guest-conducted the Hawkeye Marching Band at several Rose Bowl appearances (1957, 1959, and 1982) – with his final appearance at the 1982 Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Click here to read more about Meredith Willson & his association with the Hawkeye Marching Band.
Looking for a football revival, Meredith Willson, Iowa’s favorite Music Man, wrote The Iowa Fight Song (1950) upon request. He premiered the song on his NBC radio show, The Big Show, on December 31, 1950 with a 47-piece orchestra and sixteen singers. The song was introduced on campus on February 12, 1951 at the Iowa-Indiana basketball game. Click here to read more and to hear a rare recording of that 1950 radio debut.
When I was part of the Hawkeye Marching Band (1969-1972), Meredith made another trip to Iowa City to be a part of the gala opening of Hancher Auditorium. Willson guest-conducted the HMB band at newly-renamed Kinnick Stadium (November 11, 1972 vs. Michigan) and then appeared with us on stage at the big finale of The Music Man performances at Hancher. If you’re familiar with Willson’s Broadway classic, the final scene is a show-stopper as River City’s motley boys’ band transforms into a glorious marching unit that brings down the house with 76 Trombones. The HMB had the honor of being “the band” on the stage of Hancher.
A musical highlight I will never forget.
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.
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.
(M-0035) 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. Here’s the wonderful response letter they sent me…
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.