Meredith Willson Biography
Robert Meredith Willson was one of the most popular and acclaimed songwriters, conductors, arrangers, and radio/TV personalities of the 20th Century. Born on May 18, 1902 in Mason City, Iowa (immortalized in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man as “River City”), Willson proved to be a talented musician at a young age. Early in his life he studied the piano, piccolo, and flute. He attended the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (now named The Juilliard School) in New York City. He traveled the United States three times with famed bandmaster/composer John Philip Sousa as a valued member of the Sousa band, played flute and piccolo for the New York Philharmonic under legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, conducted symphony orchestras, wrote best-selling books, composed symphonies and wrote pop tunes that rose to number one on the Hit Parade.
He gained a wide reputation as a musical director in radio and eventually hosted his own shows: “Sparkle Time”, “Meredith Willson’s Music Room”, “The Meredith Willson Show”. He was also Music Director and a regular on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” and “The Big Show” starring Tallulah Bankhead. For those shows, he arranged, conducted, and wrote music for a who’s who of the world’s most beloved stage and film stars of the 20th Century. His six published books, three of them autobiographical, include “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” (an odyssey of The Music Man‘s trek to Broadway), “And There I Stood With My Piccolo” (reminiscences of his childhood and career), and “Eggs I Have Laid” (reminiscences of his early career). He also worked at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC Radio) as its West Coast Musical Director.
Meredith Willson’s many honors include The Tony Award, Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Big Brother Award (presented to him by President John F. Kennedy in 1962), and The Presidential Medal of Freedom (presented posthumously by President Ronald Reagan). He received two Academy Award nominations for his scores for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941). He received the first Grammy® Award ever presented for Best Original Cast Album in 1958 for The Music Man. Willson was also a familiar face to TV audiences in the 50s and 60s.
On the campus of Meredith’s college alma mater (The Juilliard School), due to a generous gift from Meredith’s widow, Rosemary, sits the Meredith Willson Residence Hall. It became the first on-campus residence hall when it opened in 1990 as part of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building. The hall houses nearly half of The Juilliard School students in any given school year, offering affordable, convenient, and safe accommodations.
Also, on the Juilliard campus is the Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theatre, a performance space appropriate for recitals, concerts and theatrical events.
On September 21, 1999, the United States Postal Service honored Meredith Willson posthumously with a postage stamp bearing his image.
The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s most famous work, premiered on Broadway in 1957, starring Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, and has twice been adapted for film, starring Preston and Shirley Jones in 1962 (Warner Bros.) and Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth in 2003 (ABC-TV). The hit ballad from that show, “Till There Was You”, has the distinction of being the only song from a Broadway musical ever recorded by The Beatles.
In addition to The Music Man, Meredith had two more shows make it to Broadway: The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love (now called Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical – which includes the perennial Christmas song favorite, “It’s Beginning to Look (a lot) Like Christmas”). His fourth musical, 1491 (centered around Christopher Columbus before his voyage to discover the New World), was produced by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and premiered in Los Angeles in 1969. The musical starred John Cullum and Chita Rivera. It then transferred to San Francisco where it closed before reaching Broadway.
Meredith Willson died peacefully on June 15, 1984 in Santa Monica, California at the age of 82. His funeral in Mason City included mourners dressed in Music Man costumes and a barbershop quartet that sang “Lida Rose”. He is buried at the Elmwood-St. Joseph Municipal Cemetery in Mason City.
Through the substantial body of work he left behind plus The Music Man Foundation, The Music Man Square, The Great American Songbook Foundation (where his papers are housed), books, recordings, and countless performances of his musicals and songs through the decades…the legacy of Meredith Willson shows no signs of slowing down. Truly, the Willson Parade marches on!