Meredith Willson’s Music and Memory Still Playing Well in Mason City

by John Skipper

When famed songwriter Meredith Willson was away from his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, it was never far from his memory.

Today, the community he loved honors his memory in the form of a magnificent $10 million structure fittingly called The Music Man Square in recognition of his greatest musical production.

Born May 18, 1902, in Mason City, Willson’s father was involved in land sales and owned a bakery for a period. Meredith’s parents encouraged cultural enrichment in all three of their children. His mother was superintendent of the First Congregational Church Sunday School for 30 years and Meredith was in church programs from the time he was a toddler. His sister, Dixie, said she remembered young Meredith playing with old pipes and pieces of gutter in their backyard, trying to make music.

Dixie, Meredith and a brother, Cedric, all learned to play musical instruments at an early age. Their mother accompanied them on the piano when they practiced at home.

Shortly after graduating from Mason City High School, Meredith left for New York and began a career in which he consistently associated himself with greatness. As a teenager in New York, he played in the band of John Philip Sousa and later played in an orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. His favorite instruments were the flute and piccolo.

He became the musical director of NBC Radio and landed an acting part on the Burns and Allen radio program, the most popular program in the country. It starred comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen.

In one of the first shows, Willson was to knock on Burns and Allen’s front door and say, “Hi, I’m Meredith Willson, your new neighbor.” Instead, Willson blurted out, “Hi, I’m Meredith Willson, your new neighbor – from Mason City, Iowa.”

When he first arrived in the Big Apple as a wide-eyed teenager, Dixie, who was 12 years older and living in New York, took her brother under her wing. She gave him a grand tour, showing him all the landmarks – the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Broadway.

As they rode past the big time/temperature clock in Times Square, Willson looked at the calendar date and said, “Dixie, you know what I just thought of?” Dixie couldn’t imagine what her star-struck brother might be thinking.

“The county fair started today in Mason City,” he gushed.

That was Meredith Willson. Paraphrasing an old cliché, he was a living example of the adage “you can take the boy out of country, but you can’t take country out of the boy.”