Robert Meredith Willson (spelled with two l’s) was born on May 18, 1902, in Mason City, weighing over 14 pounds—the largest baby born in Iowa at the time! But this chubby baby boy is remembered not for his birth weight but for his contribution to the world of music.
Too Big for Iowa
Growing up in Mason City, Meredith’s education included music lessons on the piano and piccolo. In fact, his first paid musical job during high school required a piccolo. He had to make $12 weekly payments on the $96 bill. His entire eight weeks of wages paid for the tiny instrument. Then during an exciting musical intermission the last day, he sat on his brand new instrument!
After high school, Meredith joined his sister in New York City to pursue his musical dreams. “I was a gangly 18,” he recalled, “when I began to feel my britches were getting too big for Mason City. So I decided to expand. New York was just about the right size.” Meredith completed two goals while in New York: studying at the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (now called Julliard School of Music) and performing with John Sousa’s band. Sousa’s marching band had strict discipline but the best reputation, ending each concert with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Meredith always worked hard at his profession. His life’s accomplishments included composing two symphonies, three Broadway shows, and over 400 songs. The best seller “You and I” became a number one hit in 1941. The entire song was one extended sentence.
He once worked in film, coordinating music in Charlie Chaplin’s movie titled The Great Dictator (1940). “When it comes to music,” Meredith described in 1941, “I am one of those people who lives strictly in the present. Nothing is more important to me than the composition or orchestration I am working on at the moment.” He was an orchestra leader, composer and comedian—all roles in which he liked to have fun with the audience.
A Simple Plot
Meredith decided to write a musical comedy about his Iowa home town and began work in the early 1950s. The original title of this comedy was The Silver Triangle. The musical’s plot seemed simple: a traveling con-man posing as a band instrument salesman arrives in River City, Iowa. He intended to sell fake instruments and uniforms for the town’s children. Instead he falls in love with the town’s librarian and cannot con the town.
With no income and little encouragement, Meredith worked on his play for five long years. The original musical was much too long at three hours and needed to be cut; Meredith had written 40 songs, but 22 were dropped. He and his wife continuously auditioned with producers throughout the years, promoting the musical. Hopes were up, hopes were dashed.
Finally, the play caught on. The most memorable songs were “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Trouble” (with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool). The Music Man officially opened in December 1957 on Broadway. The play ran for 1,375 Broadway performances—almost four years—and won eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical and Best Actor). The musical was made into a movie in 1962.
A parade in Mason City in 1958 celebrated Meredith’s success with a special Music Man Band of 208 musicians from 22 high schools. The Hollywood opening of The Music Man in 1962 was held in Mason City, complete with movie stars Shirley Jones and a young Ron Howard.
Meredith’s other Broadway production, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was a story of a woman who had survived the sinking of the Titanic. This musical opened on Broadway in 1960. His third musical—Here’s Love—never opened on Broadway because critics considered the work far too sentimental. As Meredith once stated, “Nothing prepares you for Broadway.”
Meredith died in 1984 California. He was buried in the family plot in Mason City’s Elmwood Cemetery. At his funeral, Reverend Robert Stone tried to describe Meredith’s life: “Meredith was unique but kind. Meredith lived his life in his own particular impossible-to-duplicate style. He was a sucker for anyone who asked for help. He was Iowa stubborn but he was also Iowa generous.”
Meredith Willson described his life’s work this way: “I’m still trying to write something by way of music that might have a chance of lasting longer than I do.”
- Skipper, John C. Meredith Wilson: The Unsinkable
Music Man. Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing Company, 2000.