The man behind 'The Music Man'

11/20/2017 1:06:35 PM

The Songbook Exhibit Gallery's new installation,The Unsinkable Meredith Willson, features rare items from the composer-playwright's personal archives. Among them is a program (below) from the 1940 Hollywood premiere of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, for which Willson composed the Oscar-nominated score.

Great American Songbook Foundation exhibit showcases
personal papers and artifacts from estate of Meredith Willson

The Great American Songbook Foundation has mounted an interactive public exhibit of rare items from the personal archives of Meredith Willson, creator of The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and other pop culture touchstones.

The Unsinkable Meredith Willson is open now in the Songbook Exhibit Gallery at the Palladium concert hall in Carmel. The exhibit examines the life and career of Willson through never-before-seen photos, scripts, correspondence, audio recordings and other artifacts.

Willson – who began his music career as a member of John Philip Sousa’s band in the 1920s – is best known for The Music Man, which claimed six Tony Awards including Best Musical after opening on Broadway in 1957. Now a staple of American musical theater, the show spawned a popular 1962 film, a 2000 Broadway revival and a 2003 television adaptation.

However, there is much more to Willson’s career. In addition to writing four musicals, he conducted orchestras, scored films and wrote books, symphonies and popular songs, including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” He was a national radio star in the 1940s, including a wartime stint as musical director of the Armed Forces Radio Service and regular appearances on The Burns and Allen Show. Though he later hobnobbed with politicians and other celebrities, he never forgot his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, a locale that looms large in his work and in the exhibit.

Highlights on display include an early script draft and character sketches for The Music Man, as well as private letters from such figures as Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and Bing Crosby, who tells Willson, “I don’t know anybody who has done so much for popular American music.” Upon Willson’s death, his wife received condolence messages from Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham, who included a sketch of his famous character with a tear in his eye.

“This exhibit really helps you see into the mind that created The Music Man,” said Lisa Lobdell, archivist for the Great American Songbook Foundation. “You can see how all of his previous experiences were wrapped into his most famous musical, from his boyhood in small-town Iowa to his orchestral and radio work, his military service and even his love of trains.”

All the materials come from the Songbook Foundation Archives, which The Music Man Foundation entrusted with its Meredith Willson Collection in 2012. Though scholars from around the world have visited to view the collection, this is the first public exhibit of the items.

“We are pleased that we chose the Great American Songbook Foundation as the repository for the Meredith Willson archives,” said Tom Camp, executor for the Los Angeles-based Music Man Foundation. “The Songbook Foundation’s commitment to cataloging, conserving, digitizing and displaying the elements of the archive has proven just how right the choice was.”

The gallery exhibit follows the recent launch of the Songbook Foundation’s Meredith Willson Digital Collection (songbook.historyit.com), which puts many of these materials online for viewing by performers, scholars and fans. The Foundation also has developed a traveling exhibit for use by local schools and community groups.

The Unsinkable Meredith Willson runs through Nov. 2, 2018, in the Songbook Exhibit Gallery, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and one hour prior to all Jazz and Songbook series concerts at the Palladium, 1 Center Green, Carmel.

Meredith Willson's second wife, Rini (left), looks on as Willson receives the Big Brother of the Year award from President John F. Kennedy in 1962.