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Iowa PBS documentary shows the rise and decline of 'Music Man' Meredith Willson

A black and white image of Meredith Willson conducting an orchestra.
Mason City Public Library
Meredith Willson conducts an orchestra in 1938.

What do the Iowa Hawkeyes' fight song and the holiday classic "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" have in common? They were both written by Iowa's Meredith Willson.

Willson, who grew up in Mason City, is best known for writing the book, music and lyrics to the Iowa-set Broadway musical The Music Man which was adapted into the Oscar-winning 1962 film. His footprint on the Great American Songbook remains to this day, recently with the Hugh Jackman-led Broadway revival of The Music Man in 2022, and soon his life and career will be showcased in a new documentary by Iowa PBS.

Meredith Willson: America's Music Man, narrated by Tony award winner Sutton Foster who co-starred with Jackman in the revival, documents Willson's life and impact from his birth in 1902 to his death in 1984.

Tyler Brinegar, senior producer at Iowa PBS and director of the hour-long documentary, actually was not familiar with The Music Man before embarking on the project. In school he watched some of the film with his classmates, but doesn't recall finishing it. He did, however, become obsessed with the tune "Trouble" from The Music Man when editing a broadcast where a Yankee Doodle Pops vocalist sang.

A full-length documentary hadn't been done before by Iowa PBS on Willson's life, but a conversation with a colleague who had done a brief segment on the musical genius drove them to finally put his legacy on film. And with the Broadway revival in full swing, the timing seemed perfect.

Brinegar's team dug into Willson's music, donated by his late third wife to the Great American Songbook Foundation. They poured through his manuscripts and compositions at Juilliard, where he studied, piecing together his career and musings through his writing.

Willson was a talented flutist, but his many different interests and career choices shaped what would later become The Music Man. He grew up in Iowa, studied classical music in New York, then became the director of the Armed Forces Radio Network to record songs and ship them to military bases to entertain troops during World War II.

"One of the privileges of telling this story and working with this story is that it all happened in the backdrop of the American century," said Leo Landis, the state curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Much of the documentary focuses on Willson's life growing up as an Iowan, and the Iowa connections he kept throughout his lifetime. Although it is known that Willson was eager to leave Mason City, The Music Man's fictional River City was based upon it. He was also known for mentioning his hometown on his NBC program Meredith Willson's Music.

"He never forgot Mason City," said Janice Rod, who works at the Music Man Square museum in Mason City.

Meredith Willson rides in a car with a woman in the centennial parade in Mason City.
PAR 16, 6/9/53. Centennial parade. Safety film, Umbarger collection

Rod actually met Willson when she was 20 years old, during the city's 1976 bicentennial celebration. Willson, who returned to direct the municipal band in Mason City, had asked for her flute during the performance. He talked to her about it for a bit, then played a few bars of "Stars and Stripes Forever." She's kept the flute to this day.

"What has stayed with me since that was his manner. He was so charming, so personal, just so nice," she said.

Rod said Willson is Mason City's pride and joy.

"He's our famous son. Mason City is about 26,000 people. We're not a huge place, we don't have dozens and dozens of famous sons and daughters."

Whenever he performed live, Willson always had a new song ready to go, and his Iowa connections ran deep. One of his songs would become the University of Iowa's fight song, "Fight for Iowa."

His musical reflects Iowa at a point of prosperity during the early 1900s, when farms and small towns thrived, and while a caricature in some ways of the closed-mindedness of rural Midwesterners, Willson himself called the musical, "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state."

"This is a period in Iowa history, and Midwestern history that Meredith is representing that is a golden age for Iowa communities," Landis said.

Meredith Willson: America's Music Man premieres on Iowa PBS on Feb. 28.

Iowa PBS is a financial supporter of IPR.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.