Mason City's Premier 'Music Man' : Composer Meredith Willson Left Mark on Iowa Town

Times Staff Writer

It's easy to visualize Meredith Willson guiding a marching band down Main Street here, playing "Seventy-six Trombones."

Leading the big parade at the North Iowa Band Festival in Mason City was a special treat for Willson during the '50s, '60s and '70s.

The north central Iowa farm center of Mason City, population 30,000, was the author-lyricist-composer's home town--his real-life River City.

Mason City's "Music Man," however, would probably not be pleased with what's going on in the town square; the old Cecil movie house, where Willson wiled away a lot of his youth, is being torn down.

Creator of the smash Broadway and film hit "The Music Man," Willson died June 15, 1984, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. He was 82. He is buried in the family plot in the Mason City cemetery where his tombstone reads: "Meredith Willson 1902-1984. 'The Music Man.' May the good Lord bless and keep you."

The epitaph was selected by his widow, Rosemary, who explained: "May the good Lord bless and keep you was his mother's blessing to children as they left her Sunday school class and the name of one of Meredith's songs."

His mother's name was Rosalie. She's the Rose in "Lida Rose," one of the songs from "The Music Man." Lida was Rosalie's sister, Meredith's favorite aunt.

Son of Town's Baker

Willson was born in Mason City and lived the first 17 years of his life here, said town historian Art Fischbeck, 67. "His father was the town baker. His grandfather was one of Mason City's first settlers."

His hometown provided Willson the background and the characters for "The Music Man." He would later recall: "I didn't have to make up anything. I simply remembered Mason City in Iowa as closely as I could the way it was when I was a boy growing up."

Willson played flute and piccolo at Mason City High from 1915 to 1919. Upon graduation he joined the John Philip Sousa Band, later became a member of the New York Philharmonic and went on to direct several orchestras and compose music from hit tunes to symphonies.

But he is best remembered for "The Music Man," which opened on Broadway on Dec. 19, 1957. The film version premiered in Mason City on June 19, 1962. Townspeople still talk about the movie premiere, held in conjunction with the annual North Iowa Band Festival. Willson lead 121 bands through the streets of Mason City on that day.

Not surprisingly, Mason City High School has one of the top high school music programs in the nation and the Mason City High School band consistently ranks among the best in America.

"Meredith Willson was a strong supporter of the program. The community, the kids, the school just don't dare to let that tradition end or die," said Everett Johnson, executive secretary of the Iowa High School Music Assn.

Iowa band law passed in the 1930s allow cities and towns to support municipal bands in annual budgets.

"Most communities of any size have a municipal band," Johnson said. "Every elementary, junior high, high school and college in the state has a band. Music is part of Iowa, part of the people's lives."

Gilbert Lettow, 43, music instructor at Mason City High School for 15 years and director of the school symphony, concert, marching and jazz bands during the last seven years, recalled how Willson would walk into the school's music building unannounced during rehearsals.

"He had a kind of enthusiasm that was absolutely fantastic. He never forgot his home town, his high school," Lettow said.

When Willson's widow, who lives in Brentwood, Calif., learned last year that the school needed 250 new band uniforms, she donated $27,000 toward the purchase. Interviewed the day after she returned home from a trip to Beijing for the May 8 opening of "The Music Man" in the Chinese capital, Rosemary Willson spoke of her husband's strong ties to his home town.

"We were forever flying to Mason City. We never missed the North Iowa Band Festival every June. At the drop of a hat Meredith would say: 'Honey, let's go home for a few days.' He loved Mason City and all his friends back there," she recalled.

"The Music Man" received excellent reviews in China, she added. "I thought it was well done. I don't speak Chinese, but they laughed in the right places. 'Shipoopi' was one number they really went wild about."

As the Mason City High School Marching Band ran through a practice session recently on the school grounds, Kate Wilson, 17, a senior in the band observed:

"Sure Mason City is special. It's River City. 'The Music Man.' We can all relate to that." Junior, Kevin Enabnit, 17, added: "Mr. Lettow is our Prof. Harold Hill. He isn't quite the con-man Prof. Hill was, but he sure runs a super music department."

Many businesses in town use the name River City instead of Mason City, including River City Auto Body Shop, River City Bowling Alley, River City Glass Co. and River City Home Video.

At funeral services for Meredith Willson at the Mason City First Congregational Church, Mayor Kenneth E. Kew remarked: "He was a small-town boy. He was Iowa stubborn. To me each time I hear 'Seventy-six Trombones' I get chills of pride.

"From this day forward, whenever I hear thunder rolling across the sky like timpani and bass drums, I'll say to myself there goes Meredith. He's leading another big parade."

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