From the archives: ‘Mr. Christmas’ Andy Williams was an Iowan to the end
Editor’s note: This story by the Register’s Michael Morain and Kyle Munson originally ran Sept. 27, 2012. Andy Williams, a Wall Lake native, died two days earlier in Branson, Missouri. Visit our Famous Iowans database, where we feature hundreds more notable names.
Millions of fans know Andy Williams as the velvety voice of "Moon River," the music icon who hosted holiday TV specials and wore Christmas sweaters without a stitch of irony.
But the act, apparently, wasn't an act — and it ended Sept. 25, 2012, at his home in Branson, Missouri, after a yearlong battle with bladder cancer. The Wall Lake, Iowa, native was 84.
"I've had so many calls this morning," the Wall Lake Historical Society's Betty Brotherton said after his death. The society oversees the house where Williams was born, which has been restored to reflect the time he lived there, back in the 1930s. Busloads of visitors stop by every summer.
The birthplace museum perches atop a hill on the south end of town. Inside, Brotherton and her friend Esther Bielema had stopped by to give a quick tour to a reporter. But the phone kept ringing.
"I just can't believe that he's gone," Brotherton said. "It's just ..."
"Surreal," Bielema interjected, finishing the thought.
Williams spent most of his last years in Branson, and he owned another home in La Quinta, California, where he was named an honorary mayor. But "Mr. Christmas" was an Iowan to the end — hardworking, sunny, humble to a fault.
He chipped in money to help build his hometown's community center and performed at its grand opening, in 2005, during his last visit. He also donated some personal items to his birthplace museum, including a red leather jacket and a portrait of his parents.
"My heart is still in Iowa," he told Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson, in what turned out to be the singer's last interview with the newspaper. The article appeared on Christmas Day in 2009, shortly after the release of Williams' memoir, "Moon River and Me."
"I don't think of myself as being as good as (Frank) Sinatra was, or Perry Como," he said. "I had producers who would give me material, and I would try to choose the best stuff."
He made some pretty good choices. The crooner racked up 18 gold and three platinum albums over the course of his storied career.
"You'll hear his music on any classic '50s or '60s station in the country. And when it comes to the Christmas stuff, he's an international star," Kate Garner, of KLTI-FM "Lite" 104.1 in Des Moines, said.
Every year around Thanksgiving, the station opens its stretch of 24/7 holiday programming with the gooey nostalgia of one of Williams' most popular hits. "You can't kick off the holidays without 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,' " Garner said.
The station's Facebook page lit up Wednesday with responses to the news of Williams death, and Cal Bierman, at sister station KRNT-AM 1350, set up a small shrine in the studio, with a Williams album, a flower and an ornamental microphone.
But long before fame and Facebook, Howard Andrew Williams sang with his three older brothers — Dick, Bob and Don — at the Presbyterian church in Wall Lake, a Sac County town about 20 minutes northwest of Carroll. (Its second-most famous export is Cookies barbecue sauce.)
The brothers earned $10 for their first paying gig at a farmer's daughter's wedding.
In 1936, when Andy was 7, the family moved to Des Moines, to a house at 3015 Kingman Boulevard. He attended Elmwood Elementary School, then Callanan Middle School, and, soon enough, the brothers landed a regular spot on WHO Radio.
Another rising star at the station, a sportscaster named Ronald Reagan, would one day call Williams a "national treasure."
Gov. Terry Branstad echoed the sentiment in a statement released Wednesday: "Andy Williams was an Iowa treasure. Andy's beautiful voice and musical talents were rare gifts, and rather than keep that treasure to himself, he shared it with the world and made it a better place. Andy was a great ambassador for the state of Iowa, and we are all proud to call him a native son."
From Des Moines, the Williams Brothers headed to Chicago, Cincinnati and Hollywood.
"They just kept moving up," said Marge Stickrod, 83, of Wall Lake, a longtime family friend. "We just assumed they'd reach the top. It was a slower process back then, but it was interesting to watch (Andy) go all the way."
The brothers joined Bing Crosby in recording the 1944 hit "Swinging on a Star," and Andy, barely a teenager, dubbed Lauren Bacall's voice for a song in "To Have and Have Not." His version was eventually cut, except for a few high notes she couldn't reach.
The brothers trained with MGM Studios vocal coach Kay Thompson (of future "Eloise" fame) and debuted their own show at the El Rancho Room in Las Vegas. At their peak, they earned $25,000 a week.
But after five years, the older brothers had tired of the constant travel and split off to start families of their own. Williams struggled to launch a solo career and was so poor, at one point, that he and his two dogs shared cans of Alpo. "It actually was damned good," he said in 2001.
Things turned around with a two-year stint as a regular guest on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show." Williams signed a recording contract and founded a record company of his own, called Barnaby Records, to release music by the likes of the Everly Brothers, Ray Stevens and Jimmy Buffett.
Although it was Audrey Hepburn who introduced Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" in the 1961 movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Williams made it his own when he performed it at the Academy Awards the following year. He went on to record a string of hit themes from movies, including "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Love Story."
He blamed the hectic pace of his career for the breakup of his first marriage to the former Las Vegas showgirl Claudine Longet, with whom he had two sons, Christian and Bobby, and a daughter, Noelle. The family often appeared with him on TV.
He was "the man who practically invented the heartwarming Christmas special," National Public Radio host Peter Sagal once said on the trivia show "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!"
The singer's $20,000 wardrobe for his namesake TV show in the mid-1960s reportedly included at least 100 sweaters.
But beyond the spotlight, Williams' life wasn't always so squeaky clean. His memoir includes details of taking LSD under the supervision of a Canadian doctor as a form of marriage counseling. A decade later, he stood by his ex-wife when she was convicted for the shooting of her boyfriend, the ski champion Vladimir "Spider" Sabich, in Aspen, Colorado. She spent a week in jail, for the lesser charge of negligent homicide, and Williams publicly supported her.
A lifelong Republican, Williams once accused President Obama of "following Marxist theory." But he also counted Robert Kennedy as a close friend and was in the Los Angeles hotel when the Democratic presidential candidate was shot in 1968. Williams choked back tears to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at his funeral.
"We chose that song because he used it on the campaign trail," the singer said later. "He had a terrible voice, but he loved to sing that song. The only way I got through singing in church that day was by saying, 'This is my job. I can't let emotion get in the way of the song.' "
But in most of his music, he poured it on thick — especially for Christmas. Radio hosts Garner and Bierman listed some of his most-requested songs, including "Happy Holidays," "Silver Bells" and "O, Holy Night."
"He's certainly one of our top spins," Bierman said.
Williams married the former hotel executive Debbie Haas in 1991. She survives him, as do his three children, his brothers Don and Dick, and six grandchildren.
When Williams was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, he vowed to return to Branson the following year for another Christmas series at his Moon River Theater.
He built the place with a dressing room the size of a small apartment, with plenty of room for sweaters, and it opened directly into the 2,000-seat auditorium.
For years, a handful of fans from Wall Lake have made an annual pilgrimage to Williams' Christmas concerts in Branson. They were planning to go again in a few weeks, which would have marked his 20th year on that stage and his 75th in showbiz.
"I don't ever want to retire, because I really like singing," he told the Register three years ago. "I like working in my theater. It's wonderful when you have everything the way you want it."
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