Music Man Square is a world-class museum showcasing a world-class musician who brought the heartbeat of Iowa to the world.
And now the world is coming to Meredith Willson’s hometown, strolling through a $10 million complex that covers more than a city block. It was dedicated May 18, 2002, and tells Willson’s story from his birth on May 18, 1902, through his death on June 15, 1984.
Museum officials say visitors are lured largely by the Internet and word of mouth. From Sept. 8 to 11, for example, the museum’s two guest books bore signatures from London, Munich, Gettysburg, Boston, New Mexico, Ohio, California, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
River City is moving 2 ½ hours south to Cedar Rapids from Sept. 26 to 29, when Orchestra Iowa and Theatre Cedar Rapids present a concert version of the “The Music Man” at the Paramount Theatre. It’s the show that began in Willson’s boyhood home and made “trouble with a capital T” something to shout about in his 1957 Tony-winning musical and 1962 Academy Award-winning film.
“There’s something special about Meredith Willson’s writing. He’s able to capture Americana and put it on stage,” says Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids, who is directing the Paramount production.
Americana is what’s onstage in the Mason City museum, as well. From the outside, the limestone building is angular and modern, with lyrics from “Seventy-Six Trombones” carved around the top. Open the doors and you’re whisked back to 1912, as a Main Street recreation from the Warner Bros. film stretches the length of the 40,000-square-foot building.
Among the shops are a bank, ice cream parlor, barbershop, clothing store, music conservatory and two storefronts based on actual Mason City businesses — Glanville and Sons Dry Goods and Mercantile and the Pleez-all Billiard Parlor, from which the show’s woes bubble and boil: “Ya got trouble, right here in River City! With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for Pool.”
Robert Preston, who played the title role on stage and screen, glibly slid over a mouthful of words in that famous patter song. He set the bar high for all the subsequent actors playing the con-man who loses his heart and finds his way when instead of skipping town with a fistful of cash, he decides to make good on his promise to create a children’s band in River City, Iowa.
The role is “a doozy,” says Casey Prince of Cedar Rapids, who is one of the actors tackling the music in the Orchestra Iowa/Theatre Cedar Rapids event. “When you think of quintessential Preston, it’s been hard for most if not all the Harolds to live up to the example he set. Someday it would be fun to try to do that with the whole production, but for now, the challenge of taking on the lyrics and songs like ‘(Ya Got) Trouble’ is a plenty big enough challenge for me.”
Like Willson’s life, Music Man Square holds many surprises for visitors.
The gazebo and footbridge where Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian shared a kiss is depicted as a mural on the back wall of a huge room in which various music groups hold their regular rehearsals. Visitors can peer through the glass front wall and watch rehearsals of the New Horizons Band, barbershop and Sweet Adelines choruses, children’s music classes or summer band and music camps. In an especially whimsical nod to the show, 76 trombones hang from the ceiling.
A few steps away is the River City High School gym facade, which actually is used as a banquet hall for weddings, anniversaries, proms, reunions and business meetings. Tour guides say the room, dubbed Reunion Hall, is the facility’s “bread and butter,” since the museum doesn’t receive state or federal funding.
At the end of the street is Mrs. Paroo’s Gift Shop, stocked with “Trouble” T-shirts and sweatshirts, jewelry, mugs, music and more. It’s also where you buy tickets to explore the full range of the museum and Willson’s boyhood home next door.
Main Street is paved with 25,913 yellow Mississippi pine blocks coated with creosote, just like the real turn-of-the-century Mason City, to keep down noise and dust from horse-drawn carriages. A doctor’s buggy, circa 1898, is parked on one side, and a Ford Model T is parked on the other. It dates back to 1919, the year in which Willson graduated from Mason City High School. The sidewalk lining the street is made from century-old bricks.
These are all gems, but the real jewel of the complex lies behind the doors marked “Jacey Squires River City Livery Stable.” You won’t find horses there. You’ll walk into state-of-the-art interactive galleries harkening to the music and history that shaped Willson’s career path. The walls are lined with memorabilia from his life and his movies, including a 30-minute film narrated by Shirley Jones on the making of “The Music Man” film.
Willson’s various pianos are there, as well his musical scores, awards and photographs, donated by his widow and third wife, Rosemary Sullivan, who also gave more than $5 million toward the building of the complex. (He divorced his first wife, Elizabeth; his second wife, Rini, died in 1966; and he married Sullivan two years later.)
Step through a trellis arch, and you step into the realm of Civil War and settlers’ rare and fascinating musical instrument oddities — like over-the-shoulder cornets, alto, tenor, baritone and bass horns — as well as parlor instruments and keyboards. Take a seat in the Star Theater and watch a Charlie Chaplin movie, in a nod to Willson’s days of playing for silent films in New York City. Other displays tell of his radio days, his stints playing flute and piccolo with the John Philip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.
This Juilliard-trained musician left us with more than just “The Music Man.” He also wrote the musicals “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Here’s Love” (based on “Miracle on 34th Street”); symphonies and orchestral works; and the classic tunes “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.”
“He was a very accomplished musician and composer,” says Timothy Hankewich of Cedar Rapids, Orchestra Iowa’s music director, who played principal trumpet for his high school production of “The Music Man.”
“Being in high school in northern Canada, I didn’t even know where Iowa was at that time,” he says, adding that the towns in the lyrics to “Iowa Stubborn” were “just names to me then. I had no idea I would be driving through them almost every day.”
IF YOU GO
What: Music Man Square
Where: 308 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Mason City (146 miles north of Cedar Rapids, 164 miles north of Iowa City, via I-380 and Highway 218/27
Hours: Museum, 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; boyhood home tours, 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Admission: $6 adults, $3 students through age 18 at Mrs. Paroo’s Gift Shop inside the museum
Information: (641) 424-2852 or Themusicmansquare.org
Meredith Willson’s River City is actually Mason City in north-central Iowa. Lots of streams run through it, including the Winnebago River, with Willow Creek meandering behind the music man’s boyhood home.
The city, population 28,079, dates back to 1853 and was incorporated in 1870. Its history was built upon more than Willson’s legacy — although that’s a huge part of its draw. The Cerro Gordo County seat also boasts an important architectural legacy, thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright and his students. An entire neighborhood showcases his Prairie School of design, and the last of his hotels has been restored downtown.
Mason City has more points of interest than you can see in a daycation. It’s much easier to make it a weekend getaway — especially if you add a quick hop about 10 miles west to the shores of Clear Lake and the world-famous Surf Ballroom.
On the way, take a short detour into Nashua to see the historic Little Brown Church in the Vale, a working church that’s a favorite site for weddings and vow renewals, as well as the inspiration for the poem and hymn, “The Church in the Wildwood.”
Here’s a brief guide to Mason City’s highlights beyond Music Man Square. For more information, including an online travel guide, go to Visitmasoncityiowa.com
— Charles H. MacNider Art Museum: 303 Second St. SE. Showcasing American art, including Bil Baird’s puppets. One of the world’s foremost 20th century puppeteers, his marionettes were featured in the goatherd scene in the “The Sound of Music” film. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Free; $4 guided tour.
— Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank, 7 W. State St.: Built in 1910, the Park Inn is the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Restored working hotel; public tours 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11:30 a.m. Saturday; 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; groups by appointment 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. $10, $8 groups of 25 or more. Adjacent bank and pedestrian mall, with outdoor restaurant seating, shops and art, leading to enclosed Southbridge Mall shopping center.
— Prairie School Architectural Tour/Historical Walking Tour: 303 Second St. SE. Self-guided tour of the largest group of Prairie School homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his students, 14 blocks; additional 13 block historical tour; $5 guidebook at Music Man Square, Stockman House, MacNider Art Museum and Mason City Visitor Center
— River City Sculptures on Parade: Downtown. Outdoor sculptures displayed year-round.
— Stockman House and Architectural Interpretive Center, 530 First. St. NE: Built in 1908, the Stockman House is the first and only Prairie School home in Iowa designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Tours various times May to October, by appointment other months. Interpretive Center open year-round; $2 to $10.