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Willson, Meredith
(May 18, 1902–June 15, 1984)

–a versatile and accomplished performer, composer, songwriter, conductor, musical director, radio performer, and playwright—was born in Mason City, Iowa, and retained a strong affection for his hometown throughout his life. He returned to visit it many times and frequently talked about it on the popular radio musical programs that he directed during the 1930s and 1940s. His most memorable appearance in Mason City occurred in June 1962 at the premiere of the movie version of The Music Man, his hit Broadway musical that had been inspired by fond memories of the community (reconfigured as "River City" on stage).

    Willson's parents instilled high expectations and a strong work ethic in their children. The eldest, Lucille ("Dixie"), became a noted author and screenwriter, and the second, Cedric, had a highly successful career as a civil engineer. Meredith, who learned how to play the piano from his mother, was early attracted to a musical career. His outsize and constantly sunny personality impressed people as much as his musical talent, contributing mightily to his success.

    That he repeatedly spoke about his family upbringing and school days in Mason City with great enthusiasm and affection, almost never noting any dark or negative elements, is odd, since his mother and father were highly incompatible, polar opposites in temperament and personality, and constantly at odds with each other. Rosalie (Reiniger) Willson, the most important influence on young Meredith, was strongly religious and musically inclined and was devoted to her children, her church, and her community. John Willson, a successful lawyer and also a talented musician, was more interested in baseball and games than in church activities. Somewhat aloof, he especially shut out his younger son, who believed his father had never wanted him to be born. Meredith never succeeded in winning the father's love that he so craved.

    Willson got out of town the first chance he had, leaving Mason City after graduating from high school in 1919 to go to New York, where he enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed the Juilliard School). After marrying his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth "Peggy" Wilson, in 1920, he obtained a position as principal flutist in John Philip Sousa's band. After three years of touring with Sousa, he spent five years with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and other conductors. His career began to branch out as he filled in as guest conductor for the American Philharmonic Orchestra in Seattle in 1929. Later he served stints with symphony orchestras in San Francisco and Los Angeles and composed symphonies that premiered in 1936 and 1940. The 1930s found him mostly serving as musical director for a variety of NBC radio programs on the West Coast. He also composed movie scores for The Great Dictator (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941). During World War II, his growing reputation elevated him to the head of the music division of the Armed Forces Radio Service, keeping him in Hollywood for the duration of the war.

    By the late 1940s, Willson had risen to the top of an industry that was in swift decline. Several of his songs had become hits, including "You and I," "Two in Love," and "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You."The last served as the theme song for NBC's last major radio variety program, The Big Show, which Willson directed from 1950 to 1952. Sometime during that period, after urging from friends such as Frank Loesser and Cy Feuer, Willson started writing a musical play about his hometown. Hitting Broadway in December 1957, after more than five years of work and dozens of rewrites, The Music Man played 1,375 performances, becoming one of the most popular musicals of all time. The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and Here's Love (1963) followed, with less success.

    In addition to memorializing his hometown in The Music Man, Willson wrote lyrical ballads about his home state of Iowa, fight songs for his high school team as well as for the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, and booster songs for President John F. Kennedy's physical fitness campaign and President Gerald Ford's anti-inflation effort. He also wrote three autobiographical volumes and a novel.

    After divorcing his first wife in 1947, he married Ralina Zarova, an actress and singer, the following year. Two years after her death of cancer in 1966, he married his former secretary, Rosemary Sullivan. He had no children. He died in Santa Monica, California, in 1984.
Sources There is one book-length biography of Willson: John C. Skipper, Meredith Willson: The Unsinkable Music Man (2000). Willson wrote three autobiographical volumes: And There I Stood with My Piccolo (1948), Eggs I Have Laid (1955), and But He Doesn't Know the Territory (1959).
Contributor: John E. Miller