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Editor's note: This story by Register reporter Tom Longden is part of our Famous Iowans database, where we feature hundreds of notable names from actor John Wayne to astronaut Peggy Whitson.

Meredith Willson is Iowa's best-known "Music Man" and wrote the Tony-winning Broadway musical that is a perennial favorite. 

"The Music Man" opened Dec. 19, 1957, to rave reviews, and Willson said he felt like he was starting a "new career" at age 55. "I'm trying to equate sentimentalism and theatricalism," he explained in describing his melodic story about an Iowa town called River City in 1912. 

He based the production on memories of his hometown of Mason City. 

Willson was the son of John David and Rosalie Reininger Willson and grew up with two siblings at 314 S. Pennsylvania Ave. He started taking piano lessons at 7 before switching to the flute. 

"Mother thought I'd stand out better that way," he said. 

At 17 he left for New York to study the flute at what is now the Juilliard School of Music. Two years later he was on the road with the John Philip Sousa Band. 

At 22 he joined the New York Philharmonic. 

He moved to the West Coast and at 27 began writing music scores for movies such as "The Great Dictator" and "The Little Foxes." He became NBC radio's top musical director in Los Angeles, writing the popular hymn "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" to close Tallulah Bankhead's show. 

Also standing the test of time is his yuletide favorite "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas." 

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Willson's song book also includes "Iowa, It's a Beautiful Name"; the ballad "I See the Moon"; "Chicken Fat," which was used as a theme song for President Kennedy's physical fitness program for children; and "WIN," for President Ford's Whip Inflation Now program. 

Willson had other Broadway hits: "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in 1960 and "Here's Love" in 1963, based on the movie "Miracle on 34th Street." 

Willson married three times and was called a "walking commercial for Iowa." He died at Santa Monica, Calif., and is buried at Mason City's Elmwood Cemetery.


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