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Meredith Willson: The Man & His Music


The composer and lyricist Meredith Willson (1902-1984) began his musical career learning the piano and flute as a child in Mason City, Iowa. After high school, he moved to New York to study flute at what is now the Julliard School of Music, and in the 1920s, he earned positions with the John Phillip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Willson began composing in the 1920s too, writing numerous pieces and songs that would go on to become standards in the Great American Songbook. After serving as a Major in the Army during World War II, Willson hosted several radio and television variety shows. The Music Man, which premiered on Broadway in 1957, was Willson's first big hit. He followed this with the musicals The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here's Love, and 1491. Willson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1982.


Press play to hear a clip of Meredith Willson singing
an early version of "Seventy Six Trombones."

Growing Up in Mason City, Iowa

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.

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Touring with the John Philip Sousa Band

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.

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Hosting Radio and Television Variety Shows

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.

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Hosting Radio and Television Variety Shows

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).

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Writing Musicals: The Music Man

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.

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Traveling Musicals: The Music Man Abroad

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.

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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.

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Receiving Fan Mail

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.

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Receiving Awards and Accolades

Willson was recognized for his generosity too. Throughout his career, he received many awards, both for music and for his philanthropy. Here he is accepting the 1961 Big Brother of the Year Award from President John F. Kennedy.

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