Willson learned to play the flute in Mason City, Iowa. Here he is with the Mason City Band (front row, second from the left) in front of the Cerro Gordo County Courthouse in 1919. Willson maintained a friendly relationship with Mason City throughout his life.
Willson toured as first flutist with the John Philip Sousa Band from 1921-1923. Here he is in his band uniform in 1921. John Philip Sousa also served as a mentor for the young composer Willson, who later frequently repeated the bandleader's advice on composing.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Willson served as host and performer on numerous radio and television shows. Here he is in the NBC studio with records from RCA Victor, likely recording an episode of Meredith Willson's Music Room.
Willson saved copies of the scripts for his many radio and television appearances, like this one from Meredith Willson's Music Room on October 13, 1952. Willson was known for introducing his audiences to a wide range of music, from long-hair (classical) to short-hair (popular).
Willson's biggest and arguably best-known hit was The Music Man, which premiered at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway on December 19, 1957. Early drafts of the musical told a much different story from the version audiences know and love today. Willson's collection of drafts and early scripts, like this one from 1954, show the evolution of his work.
After its Broadway run, The Music Man was performed around the world, including in China, Poland, Iran, and Czechoslovakia. In 1972, Willson traveled to Poland to see the production of the Warsaw Operetta, a gesture hailed as significant for musical and cultural exchange during the Cold War. Here he is being welcomed at the airport by Polish director Stanislawa Stanislawska.
After The Music Man, Willson wrote music and lyrics for other Broadway hits, including Here's Love, a musical based on the film Miracle on 34th Street. Willson's collection of newspaper and magazine clippings in his scrapbooks demonstrate the attention the musical received in the press.
Audiences and performers loved Meredith Willson and his music, and they showered him with fan mail. The collection contains this page from a card from the cast and crew of The Music Man for Willson's birthday on May 18, 1958.