Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa’s Music Man – Meredith Willson.

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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 junior high school in Mt. Pleasant, I started playing the baritone in the school band.

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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, one day, I heard 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).

At the time, the only record I owned was, of course, a Hawkeye Football LP called, Hooray for the Hawkeyes…

(M-0071) 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 movie soundtrack.

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(M-0073) I played this LP record non-stop. While others were playing The Beatles, I was humming Seventy-Six Trombones. And when the movie finally showed up at The Temple in Mt. Pleasant, I went overt the theatre 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 and the arts faster than one can say, Wells Fargo Wagon, Shipoopi, or bang-beat, bell-ringin’, big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothin’, rip-roarin’, ever-time-a bull’s-eye movie!

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(M-0074) So, thank you, Meredith Willson. And thank you to Harold Hill, Marian Paroo and Mrs. Paroo, her Irish mother, Winthrop, Amaryllis, Mayor Shinn and his lovely wife, Eulalie, the School Board, Marcellus, Tommy and Zaneeta, Charlie Cowell – the anvil salesman, and of course, all the wonderful townspeople of River City, Iowa.

You really ought to give Iowa a try…

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(S-0071) 1999 Broadway Songwriters Series. Featuring: 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 (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). The idea for the show began in 1949, when he was reminiscing with friends about his childhood years in Mason City, Iowa. 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.

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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. Meredith Willson got his start in professional music by playing piccolo in 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. Is this where Meredith Willson got the idea of a River City Boy’s Band?

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(P-0186Mason City – A very rare leather Greetings postcard from 1907. Yes, picture postcards back in the day were also made of leather. This poinsettia makes for one colorful greeting from Mason City!

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Mason City Transit Token.

He later 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 in radio.

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(C-0196) John Philip Sousa  Famous Americans  – Composers Series.

Six Classic Books by Meredith Willson and NBC Radio “Stars” Card – Meredith Willson.

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.

After it opened on Broadway in 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,” which was a huge hit for the Beatles in 1963.

Time Magazine – July 1959 & Dell Comic Book.

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(M-0070) The LP record “…and then I wrote The Music Man” 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-0047) From Life Magazine – January 20 & July 14, 1958.

The Music Man takes to the road. After the huge response on Broadway, several national tours took Meredith Willson’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.

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(M-0033) Mason City’s annual “River City – 76 Trombones – Music Man Festival Parade” was very special in 1962.

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(M-0034) It was June 19, 1962. Composer Meredith Willson 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.

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(M-0102) Warner Brothers, the movie studio that produced The Music Man movie, sponsored the June 19, 1962 extravaganza in Mason City. Here’s a very rare Official Host Band medallion given to members of the Mason City High School marching band, which led the big parade in downtown Mason City.

Movie Stills from The Music Man Movie Press Release Kit.  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.


Meredith Willson and the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Game Program Insert and UPI Photo: 1958. Meredith Willson would make frequent trips from his home in California to Iowa City to guest conduct The University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band. 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.

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 from SUI. 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. Meredith Willson guest-conducted the Hawkeye Marching Band at several Rose Bowl appearances (1957, 1959, and 1982).


Circa 1960’s – Iowa’s Music Man, Meredith Willson, introduces his wife, Rini, to Iowa’s March King, Karl King. Read more about Karl L. King here.
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(L-0038) Hancher Auditorium – November 9-10-11, 1972. The Hancher Auditorium Grand Opening featuring Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.

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.

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(P-0181) (P-0182)  Meredith’s final appearance with The Hawkeye Marching Band was at the 1982 Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite song, my heart always goes to Meredith’s 1951 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.

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.

The Iowa Award.

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.


(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…

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