Meredith Willson, who wrote The Music Man, was born and raised in Mason City. In fact, he drew heavily on his experiences growing up there to write the long-running Broadway play and movie.
He once said, “I didn't have to make up anything for The Music Man. All I had to do was remember.”
With his allegiance to Mason City, it’s not surprising that the community has reciprocated to keep the memory of Meredith Willson alive. In 2002, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, townspeople proudly opened a museum called The Music Man Square right next to Willson’s boyhood home.
Our jaws dropped in amazement as we stepped inside The Music Man Square…for there, right before our eyes, was a lifesize 1912 streetscape of River City. Just like in the movie!
There was a dress shop, dry goods store, ice-cream parlor, barbershop—and, of course, the Pleez-all Billiard Parlor, where pool and all of the trouble started in River City.
It was all so beautifully done that we literally expected 76 trombone players to come barging out of the River City High School gymnasium and march down the street like in the movie.
The museum is educational, too. We learned that Willson started working on The Music Man in 1951, and it opened on Broadway in 1957. He was also actively involved in producing the movie version, which was released in 1962.
Although The Music Man was his biggest success, Willson was hardly a one-trick pony. After graduating from Mason City High School, he studied music in New York and was soon playing flute with John Philip Sousa and then the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1940, he composed and directed the music for Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie and was nominated for an Academy Award. He was also the music director for the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Willson wrote two other musicals—The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love. His hit songs include It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas and May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.
Oh, and for good measure, he wrote the University of Iowa fight song!
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.