My friend Sara Broers of Travels With Sara, had told me that her home town of Mason City Iowa was the birthplace of Meredith Willson, the composer, musician and playwright of the famous of play the Music Man. I knew that in Mason City there was a museum, and that the Meredith Willson’s home was there, but I had no idea the extent of what was in store when my mom and I came for a hosted visit to Music Man Square. We arrived just in time for the 80th annual North Iowa Band Festival!
Music Man Square
Janice Rod greeted us when we arrived at Music Man Square and I was amazed to walk into the street scape right out of the movie. Right away, I expected to see Robert Preston in one of his wild suits come dancing down the street singing “We’ve got trouble, right here in River City!”
The play which came in 1957 before the 1962 movie was based on Willson’s home town of Mason City which was sometimes referred to as “River City”. “This is a replica of the set and three stores are real places, the TR Granville & Son’s Dry Goods, the Livery Stable and of course, the pool hall,” Janice said. She added that the only one still remaining in Mason City is the pool hall which now is under the name Ransom’s Pleez-All which I didn’t see while I was in town.
The street set is made of wood and Janice added, “Some streets in Mason City were made of wood to muffle horse’s hooves.”
We had a great time going from store window to store window. The streetscape is set in 1912 and includes an ice cream parlor and gift shop. Janice added that they had to get permission from Warner Brothers to recreate the scene. One fun window included a collection of harmonicas and one fan favorite harmonica was the one shaped like a fish! Several instruments on display are on loan from the National Music Museum and many appear in the interactive museum highlighting Meredith Willson memorabilia and music-related exhibits and Exploratorium. There is also a great video that we loved that shared the story of filming the movie narrated by Shirley Jones.
One interesting fact that Janice shared was that the director wanted Frank Sinatra for the part of Professor Harold Hill, the star of the Music Man and Meredith Willson insisted on Robert Preston who before the movie had been more of a character and serious actor. “At first no one wanted to do the play, they said it was too corny, too Midwestern,” Janice added.
That is funny to me being a farmer’s wife and knowing that Iowa is one of the largest producers of corn and is dead center in the Midwest!
Meredith Willson Home
Sue was our guide of the Music Man’s 1895 beautifully restored Queen Anne house. The family money originally came Sue explained from gold that Meredith’s grandfather had discovered in the California Goldrush. Meredith’s father was a lawyer turned real estate agent and his mother taught Sunday school and kindergarten. Meredith was the 3rd child born and he was the largest baby born in Iowa at that time weighing in at a whopping 14lb’s 6oz!
The Meredith Willson house is large even by todays standard with five-bedrooms. After the Willson’s moved out, the home was a boarding house for many years.
The oldest of the Willson children was Dixie who became an accomplished writer. The second Willson child was a son and another musician, Cedric. The two boys shared a room until Meredith was 18 and left for New York. “He played the piano, banjo, mandolin, guitar and eukale,” Sue said. “At 18, he left for Julliard, then at 19, he played the flute in the John Sousa band, then played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.”
For a time Cedric joined him in the John Sousa band, but his love was engineering so he left and went to school and became famous for cement development.
Next for Meredith came a stint in the Army, and Meredith also worked in radio and television. He married his high school sweetheart, but Sue said because he was gone a lot, that it didn’t work out and he met and married his second wife Rini, herself a star in the concert, radio and opera business. They toured some together and they were married 18 years until she died from cancer. Sue said that Rini had encouraged Meredith to marry their secretary Rosemary and he did two years later in 1968. The two then remained married until his death in 1984.
According to the Music Man website, “Meredith Willson is best remembered for his Broadway musical “The Music Man”, for which he wrote the script, lyrics and music. This famous musical was a tribute to his hometown since the fictitious “River City”, featured in the Broadway hit, was based on places and people in Mason City. “The Music Man” became one of the five longest running musical plays in Broadway history and won several prestigious awards. The play has been revived both on Broadway and in the movies – a Walt Disney production of “The Music Man” stars Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenowetch. The Beatles even capitalized on the success of the musical with their cover of “Till There Was You.”
Willson also wrote symphonies and many hit songs including “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”. Other famous works by Willson include two other musicals, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Here’s Love”.
Meredith Willson is honored annually at the North Iowa Band Festival while The Music Man Square and Meredith Willson Boyhood Home in Mason City, stand tribute to his life and legacy. He will be remembered throughout the world for his famous melodies, but he will live on in Mason City, Iowa as “The Music Man of River City.”
Outside of the Music Man Square is a very cool statue of Meredith Willson. All throughout the town and everywhere I went in different museums, I saw tributes to the man and his memory. All weekend, bands were playing music and on Saturday morning a parade was offering a tribute to his memory and the glory of the Music Man in a parade. At one time a high school band performed a riveting performance of “Seventy-Six Trombones”.
Sara Broers nailed it when she said “you will love the Music Man” I did and so will you! He added magic to Mason City.