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Meredith Willson, the Music Man, was born 121 years ago today
Meredith Willson leads the North Iowa Band Festival parade, June 19, 1962
Photo by Iowa Globe Gazette
Meredith Willson, composer of The Music Man, was born 121 years ago today.
A composer, songwriter, conductor and playwright, Willson wrote three other Broadway musicals, composed symphonies and popular songs. His film scores were twice nominated for Academy Awards.
Born in Mason City, Iowa, Willson attended Frank Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) in New York City.
A flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa's Band (1921–1923) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1924–1929). He then moved to San Francisco as the concert director for KFRC, the radio station, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.
His work in films included composing the score for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) (Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score) and arranging music for the score of William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941), where he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture.
During World War II, Willson worked for the United States' Armed Forces Radio Service. His work with the AFRS teamed him with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bill Goodwin. He would work with all three as the bandleader, and a regular character, on the Burns and Allen radio program.
He played a shy man, always trying to get advice on women. His character was dizzy as well — basically a male version of Gracie Allen's character. Returning to network radio after WWII, he created the Talking People, a choral group that spoke in unison while delivering radio commercials.
He also became the musical director for The Big Show, a prestigious comedy-variety program hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead and featuring some of the world's most respected entertainers. Willson himself became part of one of the show's very few running gags, beginning replies to Bankhead's comments or questions with, "Well, sir, Miss Bankhead...."
Willson wrote the song, "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You," for the show. Bankhead spoke the lyrics over the music at the end of each show. He also worked on Jack Benny's radio program and hosted his own program in 1949.
For a few years in the early 1950s, Willson was a regular panelist on the Goodson-Todman game show, The Name's the Same.
In 1950, Willson served as Musical Director for The California Story, the Golden State's centennial production at the Hollywood Bowl. Through working on this production, Willson met writer Franklin Lacey, who proved instrumental in developing the story line for a musical Willson had been working on to become known as The Music Man.
His most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). He referred to the show as "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than 40 songs.
His second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962. It was made into a 1964 motion picture starring Debbie Reynolds. His third Broadway musical was an adaptation of the film, Miracle On 34th Street, called Here's Love (1963). His fourth, last and least successful musical was 1491, which told the story of Columbus's attempts to finance his famous voyage.
Willson died of heart failure in 1984 at the age of 82. He is buried at the Elmwood Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City, Iowa.
Today, Paul McCartney, through his MPL Communications company, controls the rights to Willson's song catalog.
Here, Robert Preston performs Willson’s “Ya Got Trouble” from the film, The Music Man