‘Moon River’ memories of the kid from Wall Lake
In contemporary language, an icon refers to someone who stands far above the crowd, through his or her achievements and status. Based on such a definition, there is no doubt that Andy Williams was an Iowa icon, and perhaps an American icon, as well.
Born in Wall Lake, Iowa, on December 4, 1927, he passed away on September 26, 2012, at his home in Branson, Missouri. His death was covered by major television and radio stations all across the nation. The following day, Iowa’s largest newspaper – the Des Moines Register – devoted half of its front page to Mr. Williams, including a beautiful color artwork and a sub headline that declared, “Known as Mr. Christmas, the Wall Lake native was an Iowan to the end.”
Yes, Andy Williams was an Iowan, through and through. In our first year of existence, Iowa History Journal devoted a long article about his rise from small town singing sensation to icon status. That issue, with the beautiful actress Donna Reed on the cover, has long been sold out, sad to say. (The fact is that all Iowa History Journal issues have become a hot collectors item as folks scramble to purchase back issues. Almost all of the first twelve issues are now sold out.)
Andy Williams was the fourth son born to Jay and Florence Williams. All four boys were blessed with satin singing voices and they began making appearances in small venues around Wall Lake when Andy was only six years old.
Soon, they were showcased on WHO Radio in Des Moines, and were invited to appear on the legendary WLS station in Chicago. From there it was on to Cincinnati – where lightning struck when Bing Crosby, the top crooner in the nation at the time, invited them to work with him on a record called “Swinging On a Star”. It was a huge success and skyrocketed the boys to national fame.
They appeared in several films and in 1953 Andy was given a solo spot on the Steve Allen Tonight Show. At that point, there was no stopping the kid from Wall Lake. A string of huge hits followed – including “Canadian Sunset”, “Butterfly”, and, of course, “Moon River” – which was the Oscar winning theme song from the 1961 movie hit, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
Andy made several films but found his greatest success with album sales, and on television, with his own variety show. His Christmas specials set viewing records and made him a household name. On the show, he shared the spotlight with such guests as Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Ann Margaret and Andy Griffith, and launched the career of the Osmonds.
He was headliner in Las Vegas for two decades and hosted the Grammy Awards. He was such good friends of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy that Ethel asked him to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Bobby’s funeral after he was assassinated in 1968.
In 1992, the kid from Wall Lake opened the Moon River Theater in Branson. It was a state-of-the-art, $12 million facility and quickly became one of the most popular attractions in the entire community. My wife, Bev, and I saw his show there several years ago, and were very impressed by his ability to still perform at such a high level though he was pushing 80 years of age.
His memory lives on in the Andy Williams Birthplace Home and Museum in Wall Lake, which is located in the center of Wall Lake, a community of some 820 persons in the west central part of the state. He last visited Wall Lake in 2006 for the celebration of a new community center, for which he was a large donor.
And his memory will endure with millions of Americans who love his records and were so impressed with his easy-going, Iowa-bred style and charm. In an article that appeared in the Register on Christmas Day of 2009, Andy told columnist Kyle Munson these powerful words: “My heart is still in Iowa.”
It is safe to say that Andy Williams will remain in the hearts of Iowans for decades to come. He was one of the finest ambassadors the state has ever seen.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)