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Meredith Willson, the Music Man's Music Man

Monday, April 4, 2011

Recently, McCook was treated to a Community Theater production of "The Music Man" at the high school auditorium. This was at least the third time since we came to McCook in 1957 that "The Music Man" has been presented, each time to delighted audiences. It seemed like a good idea to take a look at the fellow, Meredith Willson, who conceived the idea of this classic American musical and brought it to life.

Willson said that his musical was "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." Most Iowans would agree that he succeeded admirably.

Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902, the son of a baker. The youngest of three children, at the time of his birth he was the largest baby ever born in Iowa, weighing in at a whopping 14 pounds 6 ounces.

Meredith's mother began teaching him the piano at age 8, and he was found to have a great aptitude for music, all music. In high school he became an accomplished flute and piccolo player, even garnering high praise from John Phillips Sousa, who directed the Mason City Band on one occasion, while on a nationwide tour of the USA.

Following high school Willson furthered his musical education by studying the flute at the famed New York Music Conservatory, Julliard, under a famous European teacher. After Julliard Willson renewed his friendship with Sousa, spending three years as lead flute/piccalo with the Sousa Band, before moving on to play flute in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (and with theater bands on his days off).

But it wasn't just as a performer that Willson excelled. In the late '20s he was composing music for dance bands and for background music for a couple of silent films. Radio was becoming the popular entertainment of the day and he accepted an offer to go West to become the musical director for a San Francisco radio station, and finally for the NBC Radio network.

Willson was a very innovative musical executive and came up with ideas for a number of hit shows in the late '30s and early '40s, two of which were "The Lucky Strike Hit Parade," and "The Good News Radio Hour." He had a knack for writing theme songs for these shows that became hits, i.e. "You and I," sung by Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Band, and "Two in Love," a big hit for the Glenn Miller Band.

Willson not only took care of the music on his radio shows, he was also one of the performers, trading quips with the stars, like Burns & Allen and Tallulah Bankhead. He appeared as a regular, with recurring gags that audiences anticipated with great pleasure.

In 1940 Willson and Edgar Bergen (& Charlie McCarthy) both worked on radio programs sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee. Both happened to be at the Maxwell House Coffee booth at the New York World's Fair, at the time that the Sehnert family was attending that fair. Maxwell House Coffee and Fleischmann Yeast were both part of the General Foods family. As a favored yeast customer, my father had a VIP pass to the Maxwell House booth. My 6-year-old sister and I were thrilled to "meet" Charlie and of course Edgar and Meredith and we all thoroughly enjoyed the banter and impromptu show the three put on. Meredith Willson played the piano and a girl sang a couple of songs, but I must confess that it was Charlie McCarthy that captured our hearts that day.

During World War II Willson served as a Major in the Army, a musical director for the United States Armed Forces Radio Service. His work in this capacity brought him into close contact with George Burns and Gracie Allen, which, after the war led to his joining Burns & Allen as the musical director and as a regular cast member of that show.

In the '50s Willson was much in demand for writing music for State Centennials. These were major productions, with casts of hundreds, and much appreciated by large audiences. "The California Story," the Golden State's spectacular was presented to large audiences in the Hollywood Bowl in 1950. Similar successes followed with "The Oregon Story," in 1959 and "The Kansas Story" in 1961, but before he could get to the other 47 states, another musical that had dogged him for years burst forth upon the scene.

For a long time the germ of an idea for a musical set in Iowa had festered in Willson's mind. He touched on the theme a bit in his autobiographical book, There I Stood With My Piccalo, but it was not until 1948 that he began the work seriously. The trouble was that no one else thought much of the idea. Between 1948 and 1957 Willson made some 40 revisions to the play, which had more than 40 musical numbers. Finally, in the mid '50s Franklyn Lacey helped him with the story line and the musical came together. The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957. The musical was an immediate success, winning five Tony awards, running for 1,375 performances, and winning a Grammy for the Best Original Cast Album. It has continued to delight audiences throughout the world for more than 50 years. As Jay Nordlinger said in National Review, "The Music Man is totally, almost lustily, American!"

Robert Preston was the first and definitive Music Man, but there have been many memorable successors, including Eddie Albert, Bert Parks, Van Johnson, Dick Van Dyke, and most recently McCook's, Doug Ohlson.

Willson had a number of musical experimentations in The Music Man. Of the more than 40 songs he wrote for the play 28 were discarded by the time it reached Broadway. The "Ya Got Trouble" number was originally a long dialogue, which Willson decided could be put to music and became one of the hit songs of the show. The stirring march, "76 Trombones" and the lovely ballad, "Goodnight My Someone" are the same song, one written as a march in 4/4 time, the other as a waltz, in 3/4 time.

All the characters in The Music Man are drawn from acquaintances in Mason City; the Harold Hill character, a con man, is a composite of a number of "salesmen." The shy Winthrop is Willson himself. Marian, the piano teacher, is his mother.

Willson kept writing music for as long as he lived, producing two more musicals, symphonic works, hymns, and popular songs. Bing Crosby made his "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" a perennial favorite, and "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You," from his mother's admonition each Sunday, is part of American culture.

Willson continued to remember his hometown roots. When the movie version of The Music Man premiered in 1962, in Mason City, Willson was on hand to lead the 121 bands in perso -- with great gusto. He and his wife have been generous contributors to a marvelous museum and entertainment complex, Music Man Square, in Mason City.

Meredith Willson was also a great humanitarian, though a modest one. He was an active member of The Big Brothers, an organization that provides support for fatherless boys. He was honored for his work in that organization by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Iowa Governor, Brandstad. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom (posthumously) by President Reagan in 1984.

Meredith Willson died of heart failure in 1984, at the age of 82. He is buried in Elmwood St. Joseph Cemetery, at, (where else?), Mason City -- River City USA.

Source: Mason City web page, Center Stage Mag. Winter 2000

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Wonderful story about Meredith Wilson... The Music Man always reminded me of Wisner's Herman J "Red" Eickhoff... who had darker sides than the music man but charisma galore. But those times in Wisner were of a darker era.. corporal punishment of school miscreants (like myself)frequent and considered admirable...an old brick building built in 1888 for the elementary school.. about 150 to 180 boys in the building during school hours.. 2 recess periods of about 10 minutes each .. with only one cold water tap (no hot water..no soap)in the boy's room with scarlet fever, mumps, diptheria, measles, polio,making their presence known in that community from time to time....so the times and customs affected the people who worked under them. Tom Koerber

-- Posted by tjbkoerber on Sun, May 29, 2011, at 1:11 PM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By