Meredith Willson is being honored this week by the radio classics station on XM and Sirius Satellite radio because he was born this week back in 1902. Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa and went on to fame and fortune, but never forgot where he was from. In fact the work he is best known for today, the musical The Music Man, is based on his Iowa childhood. He returned to Mason City many times. He had one of the openings of the movie version of The Music Man take place in Mason City and he was interviewed several times by Iowa Public Television. Today in Mason City you can see his restored birthplace, the Meredith Willson footbridge which replaced the one where he sets a scene in the musical after it got unsafe for use (one end is right by the public library – people with a fear of heights avoid this one, my mom took one look and informed me she’d wait in the car), Music Man Square, and even the local McDonalds and water tower have a Music Man theme.
Before his career on Broadway (a second only slightly less known hit of his was The Unsinkable Molly Brown), Willson was already a household name. He was the musical director for NBC radio. In that position, he appeared on numerous radio shows, including the Burns and Allen episodes that classic radio are playing in his honor this week.
A further word about Music Man Square. It’s a unique concept, so it’s a little hard to describe if you haven’t seen it. When I was there the staff showed little or not interest in the place, for example when we bought our tickets, they didn’t point out that the house closed a half hour before the museum so we might want to do it first and then when we did get ready to go through the house even though it was 10 minutes before it was supposed to close they said, well, you missed it. So don’t expect much help from them other than selling tickets, unless it’s improved radically in the last few years. That’s OK though because the complex really stands on it’s own. It’s in two parts. Part one is a recreation of the exterior of sets from the movie version of The Music Man. There’s the flivver like the one they drive, the livery stable, and you can really buy ice cream at the soda fountain (the interior isn’t nearly as cool as the outside unfortunately). They look like you’ve literally stepped into the movie and it’s worth the drive for any fan. The second part is a museum dedicated to Meredith Willson and music in general. Frankly, after dealing with the staff I wasn’t expecting much, but I was truly blown away. It is on my top 10 list of best designed museums I’ve been too. The balance between interaction and genuine artifacts, the way they broke complicated concepts down to simple understanding, and the way they reinforced their points through out the museum. It was simply outstanding. The birthplace I can’t comment on (see comment on staff above). However, it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.
I’ll also tell you that Mason City should be on the must visit list for Frank Lloyd Wright fans (it has the last hotel he designed that is actually still standing as well as numerous typical examples of his single family houses) and Sound of Music fans (the puppets from the famous puppet show scene are in a museum dedicated to their creator there).
Read more about Meredith Willson here:
Find out about Music Man Square here:
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.