The Music Man Square, Mason City, Iowa: A Tribute to Meredith Willson

Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand …

–Meredith Willson

Twirling a baton and marching to “Seventy-Six Trombones” in a parade when I was eight years old, I was unaware the song was from the movie The Music Man, an Academy Award winner in 1962 and prior to that, a Broadway hit. The catchy tune has stuck in my head for fifty years, but it was only this year, when visiting Mason City, Iowa, that I learned the classic musical’s fictitious River City was modeled after composer and songwriter Meredith Willson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa, and inspired by the city’s annual North Iowa Band Festival. Mason City pays tribute to likely the city’s most famous resident with The Music Man Square, which includes a museum with a reproduction of The Music Man movie set and his boyhood home.

Music Man Square Statue

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Meredith Willson Museum

Enter the museum, and you are on the movie set, made up of mostly facades. However, a few of the storefronts house real shops, like the ice cream parlor that offers ten hand-dipped flavors. The original movie set in Hollywood has been used in several other films, including Back to the Future.

Music Man setMusic Man set 2Walk through the Livery Stable doors to enter the museum..

Museum entranceWillson was awarded the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album in 1958. The award and the gold album are both on display in the museum.

Gold record The Music Man, the most well-known of Willson’s accomplishments, has brought much pomp and circumstance to Mason City over the years. The movie premiered here in 1962, complete with red carpet and stars in attendance, coinciding with the North Iowa Band Festival weekend. Stars Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Ronny Howard, as well as Willson, returned many times for the band festival, which at its peak, included a parade with bands from 100 high schools across the country. One display in the museum meshes the band festival with the movie.

76 Trombones 2Lesser known accomplishments of Willson’s career are represented in the museum, as well, including his time playing under John Philip Sousa and his score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”SousaChaplin

Meredith Willson home

Next door to the museum, the home in which Willson spent his entire childhood provides a glimpse of his formative years. The youngest of three siblings, he made his way into the world in a big way, born at 14 pounds, 6 ounces. With his father an attorney, the family wasn’t wealthy, but they were comfortable.

Meridith Willson homeHis mother taught piano lessons, introducing Willson to music at a young age.

Piano in home

The house has been restored, and many of the family’s possessions are displayed, thanks to Willson’s widow Rosemary, who donated a semi-load of items from the estate.

Dining roomRosemary was also financially instrumental in getting The Music Man Square off the ground, as she donated $5 million to the project, while an additional $5 million was raised by the community in an effort not unlike the way the community came together for a cause in The Music Man.

If you visit The Music Man Square

The Music Man Square, located at 308 S Pennsylvania Ave., Mason City, Iowa, is open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Check the web site for further details.

Accommodations: I stayed at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Write, during my visit to Mason City. Find the best deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor

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Disclosures: My visit to Mason City was hosted by the Iowa Tourism Office, but any opinions expressed in this post are my own.
This article contains an affiliate link, which means that if you book a hotel room through the link, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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4 thoughts on “The Music Man Square, Mason City, Iowa: A Tribute to Meredith Willson

  • August 8, 2016 at 8:39 am
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    WOW! What a wonderful article! We hope you don’t mind us sharing your blog post on our Facebook Page – @MasonCityIow . Please like us so we can tag you in the post! Thanks again! – Visit Mason City

    Reply
    • August 8, 2016 at 9:33 am
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      Thank you! I have now “Liked” VisitMasonCity from my personal profile. I had previously mistakenly only like it from my professional page. I would love for you to share the post.

      Reply
  • August 9, 2016 at 10:42 am
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    Next time you are in Mason City come visit Meredith Willson’s home church; First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 100 First St NE. Meredith’s mother, Rosalie, was the Sunday School superintendent and as the children left each Sunday she would say to each one, “May the good Lord bless and keep you.” Meredith wrote a song by the same name that we sing every Sunday. There is a hall in the church with Meredith Willson memorabilia, including a framed copy of the song.
    Pastor Chuck Kelsey

    Reply
    • August 9, 2016 at 11:20 am
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      Thank you, Pastor Kelsey. I’ll be sure to stop at the First Congregational United Church of Christ the next time I’m in Mason City.

      Reply

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