Willson in 1961
|Robert Reiniger Meredith Willson|
|Born||May 18, 1902|
Mason City, Iowa, U.S.
|Died||June 15, 1984 (aged 82)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Robert Reiniger Meredith Willson (May 18, 1902 - June 15, 1984) was an American flautist, composer, conductor, musical arranger, bandleader and playwright & author, best known for writing the book, music, and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical The Music Man. He wrote three other Broadway musicals and composed symphonies and popular songs, and his film scores were twice nominated for Academy Awards.
Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, United States, to John David Willson and Rosalie Reiniger Willson, and he had a brother two years his senior, John Cedrick, and a sister 12 years his senior, the children's author Dixie Willson. He attended Frank Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (which later became the Juilliard School) in New York City. He married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth "Peggy" Wilson, on August 29, 1920. Willson, a flute and piccolo player, was a member of John Philip Sousa's band (1921-1923), and later the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1924-1929). Willson then moved to San Francisco, California, as the concert director for radio station KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood. His on-air radio debut came on KFRC in 1928 on Blue Monday Jamboree.
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) (Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture).
During World War II, he 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 ditsy as well, basically a male version of Gracie Allen's character.
In 1942, Willson had his own program on NBC. Meredith Willson's Music was a summer replacement for Fibber McGee and Molly.Sparkle Time, which ran on CBS in 1946-47, was Willson's first full-season radio program.
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, soon to be known as The Music Man. The California Story spectacular was followed by two more state centennial collaborations with stage director Vladimir Rosing: The Oregon Story in 1959 and The Kansas Story in 1961.
Willson's 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 forty songs. The cast recording of The Music Man won the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or TV). In 1959, Willson and his wife Rini (he had by now divorced Peggy) recorded an album called "...and Then I Wrote The Music Man", in which they review the history of, and sing songs from, the show. In 2010, Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara played Willson and Rini in an off-Broadway entertainment based on this album.
His second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962 and 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, which lasted only a few months in 1963. His fourth, last, and least successful musical was 1491, which told the story of Columbus's attempts to finance his famous voyage. It was produced by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association in 1969, but was never produced on Broadway.
His Symphony No. 1 in F minor: A Symphony of San Francisco and his Symphony No. 2 in E minor: Missions of California were recorded in 1999, by William T. Stromberg conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Other symphonic works include O.O. McIntyre Suite, Symphonic Variations on an American Theme and Anthem, the symphonic poem Jervis Bay, and Ask Not, which incorporates quotations from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. In tribute to the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), he composed In Idyllwild for orchestra, choir, vocal solo and Alphorn. Willson's chamber music also includes A Suite for Flute.
In 1964, Willson produced three original summer variety specials for CBS under the title Texaco Star Parade. The first special premiered on June 5, 1964 and starred Willson and his wife, Rini; it featured guest stars Caterina Valente and Sergio Franchi, and featured a production number with Willson leading four military bands composed of 500 California high school band members. The second special starred Debbie Reynolds singing selections she had introduced from Willson's production, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown". Willson and Rini hosted the third special on July 28 and it featured a Willson production number with 1,000 Marine Corps volunteers from Camp Pendelton. Guest stars featured were Vikki Carr, Jack Jones, Frederick Hemke and Joe and Eddie.
Willson wrote a number of very well known songs, such as "You and I", which was a No. 1 for Glenn Miller in 1941 on the Billboard charts. It was also recorded by Bing Crosby, and by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra on vocals.
Three songs from The Music Man have become American standards: "Seventy-Six Trombones", "Gary, Indiana", and "Till There Was You". The last was recorded by The Beatles for their UK album With The Beatles (1963). (The album's American equivalent, Meet The Beatles!, was issued in 1964.)
Other popular songs composed by Willson include "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" (published as "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas"), "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You", and "I See the Moon". He wrote the University of Iowa's fight song Iowa Fight Song, and Iowa State University's "For I for S Forever". He also wrote the fight song for his hometown high school "Mason City, Go!" He honored The Salvation Army with a musical tribute, "Banners and Bonnets".
An oddity in Willson's body of work is "Chicken Fat", written in 1962. In school gymnasiums across the nation, this was the theme song for President John F. Kennedy's youth fitness program. It was time to get the country's youth into shape, and Willson's song had youngsters moving through basic exercises at a frenetic pace: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, torso twists, running in place, pogo springs, and plenty of marching. With an energetic lead vocal by Robert Preston, orchestral marching band, and full chorus, it was likely recorded during sessions for the Music Man film. Two versions of the song exist: a three-minute, radio-friendly length, and a longer, six-minute version for use in the gymnasium. In 2014 "Chicken Fat" was used in a television commercial for the iPhone 5S.
Willson wrote three autobiographies: And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948), Eggs I Have Laid (1955) and But He Doesn't Know the Territory (1959).
Willson was married three times. He was divorced by his first wife, Elizabeth, as reported in a news dispatch of March 5, 1947. They apparently had no contact after the divorce, and in his three autobiographies Elizabeth is never mentioned, though he surprised her by sending her roses on August 20, 1970, which would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.
After divorcing his first wife, Wilson married Ralina "Rini" Zarova, a Russian opera singer, on March 13, 1948. Following her death on December 6, 1966, he married Rosemary Sullivan in February 1968. He lived for years in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, California, and was fondly remembered by friends and neighbors as a warm and gregarious host who loved nothing more than to play the piano and sing at parties. He often gave out autographed copies of his record album, Meredith Willson Sings Songs from The Music Man. In 1982, both he and Rosemary appeared in the audience of The Lawrence Welk Show.
Willson returned several times to his hometown for the North Iowa Band Festival, an annual event celebrating music with a special emphasis on marching bands. Mason City was the site of the 1962 premiere of the motion picture The Music Man, hosted by Iowa Governor Norman Erbe, which was timed to coincide with the festival. Willson, like his character Harold Hill, led the "Big Parade" through the town, and the event included special appearances by stars of the film Shirley Jones and Robert Preston. The Master of Ceremonies was W. Earl Hall, editor of the Mason City Globe-Gazette, statewide radio personality and friend of many decades.
Willson was a member of the National Honorary Band Fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi.
From about 1948, to the end of his life he was an active member, a deacon, of Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles. He donated a stained glass window, known as "The Music Man Window", above the pew where he would sit, which represented various musical instruments. He drove a Rolls-Royce to church. He composed hymns for the church, including "Anthem of the Atomic Age", in 1953. He and the pastor, who was also from Northeastern Iowa, were close friends.
Willson died of heart failure in 1984 at the age of 82. His funeral in Mason City included mourners dressed in Music Man costumes and a barbershop quartet which sang "Lida Rose". Willson is buried at the Elmwood-St. Joseph Municipal Cemetery in Mason City.