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Iowa History Daily: May 18 - Mason City's Music Man

Iowa History Daily: Born in Mason City, Iowa, on May 18, 1902, Meredith Willson went on to become the state’s most famous Music Man. The notable composer, conductor, musical arranger, and author of iconic musicals “The Music Man” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” also composed songs for the University of Iowa (“Iowa Fight Song”) and Iowa State University (For I for S Forever).

Willson spent an inspiring childhood in Mason City flanked by his older brother John Cederick Willson and his younger sister, and famed children’s author, Dixie Willson. An attendee of Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art (now the famed Juilliard School) after graduation from Mason City High School in 1919, Willson joined John Philip Sousa’s band as a virtuoso flute and piccolo player from 1921-1924. Following a stint under Arthur Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Willson headed west to San Francisco to serve as a radio director.

After moving to Hollywood in order to work as musical director for NBC radio network, Willson’s compositions started to appear in a variety of award-winning films. A member of the Armed Forces Radio Service during World War II, the program “Meredith Willson’s Music” debuted on NBC starting in 1942. A variety of other notable projects including “Sparkle Time,” “The Big Show,” and many others kept Mason City’s Music Man busy over the 1940s.

In 1957, Willson created “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state” by spending over eight years and thirty script revisions in preparation for the Broadway debut of “The Music Man.” Willson wrote more than 40 songs for the film set in a fictional version of his North Iowa hometown of “River City.” The successful play led to two film adaptations, including the classic film starring Robert Preston as the unforgettable Harold Hill.

A winner at the first-ever Grammy Awards for Best Original Cast Album (now on display at Mason City’s Music Man Square), Willson also captured a Tony among many other awards, honors, and accolades. Mason City continues to celebrate their most famous son through the annual Band Festival (May 26-30, 2022), the Music Man Square, and the Meredith Willson Boyhood home. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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