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Posts Tagged ‘Meredith Willson’

One of the people I got to know when I lived in Iowa was actor Gary Kroeger who was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Kroeger left Iowa to attend Northwestern University where he started an improv group with Julia Louis Dreyfus. The two ended up with Second City in Chicago and then on Saturday Night Live.

Kroeger went on to work on various TV shows (LA Law) and movies (The Big Picture) and co-wrote the script for The Chameleon before returning to Iowa in 2003 to work as a creative director. And he continues to do theater, TV and films. A few years ago I saw an exceptional theater performance by Kroeger as “Professor” Harold Hill in The Music Man–written by Meredith Willson from Mason City, Iowa. (I wrote about it in the post Talent and Trouble in River City.)

In 2004 he had the opportunity to work with Seinfeld creator Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  (The two met while working on Saturday Night Live.) Since I’ve been blogging about golf the last few days I thought a fitting scene to show was one from Curb Your Enthusiasm where Gary Kroeger (as a weatherman) and Larry David have a nice confrontation.

Today I asked Kroeger about getting the role and how it was shot and here’s his reply:

“I auditioned for Larry by improvising a weathercast. Once on the sets there is no script, only an outline for where the scene needs to go.  When I got to the golf course I was told ‘This is where Larry will confront you with his notion that you say it’s going to rain to empty the course.’ I wasn’t even told whether or not my character consciously did that, it was left to me to decide. They roll a camera on each actor and just ‘go.’ Every line is made up. Larry and a producer may then make a couple of suggestions and we’d do it again.”
Gary Kroeger

 

P.S. It’s interesting how many times Northwestern has come up on this blog. Here’s some other talent that’s come from Northwestern.

Scott W. Smith

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“At one time Dixie and Meredith [Willson] were equally famous.”
Tom Longden
Des Moines Register 2004

MeredithWillson

When I took the tour last week of the childhood home of writer/composer Meredith Willson (The Music Man) I learned that he wasn’t the only writer in the family. His sister Dixie Willson (1890-1974) was a novelist and screenwriter. And it’s not just that she sold some books and earned some IMDB credits, she actually influenced one of the great American writers of our time.

Back in 2003 Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities) in the article The Books that Made the Writers published by Yale Alumni Magazine wrote some of the logical infleunces of one writer on another—”Balzac ignited Zola” and then added:

“Speaking for myself, I was… galvanized… by a writer who never rated so much as a footnote to American literary history: Dixie Willson.

Dixie Willson wrote, and Maginel Wright Barney illustrated, a book called Honey Bear in 1923. My mother used to read it to me at bedtime long before I knew one letter of the alphabet from another. Over and over she read it to me. I was small, but like many people my age I had already mastered the art of having things my way. I had memorized the entire poem in the passive sense that I could tell whenever Mother skipped a passage in the vain hope of getting the 110th or 232nd reading over with a little sooner. Oh, no-ho-ho… there was no fooling His Majesty the Baby. He wanted it all. He couldn’t get enough of it.

Honey Bear is a narrative poem about a baby kidnapped from a bassinet by a black bear. Maginel Wright Barney drew and painted in the japanais Vienna Secession style. To me, her pictures were pure magic. But Honey Bear’s main attraction was Dixie Willson’s rollicking and rolling rhythm: anapestic quadrameter with spondees at regular intervals. One has to read it out loud in order to be there:

Once upon a summer in the hills by the river
Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew.
There were caves as dark as midnight—there were tangled trees and thickets
And a thousand little places where the sky looked through.

The Willson beat made me think writing must be not only magical but fun. It isn’t, particularly, but Honey Bear was fun, and I resolved then and there, lying illiterate on a little pillow in a tiny bed, to be a writer. In homage to Dixie Willson, I’ve slipped a phrase or two from Honey Bear into every book I’ve written. I tucked the fourth line, above, into the opening chapter of The Right Stuff (page 4) from memory as I described how not-yet-an-Astronaut Pete Conrad’s and his Jean Simmons-lookalike wife Jane’s little white brick cottage near Jacksonville Naval Air Base was set in a thick green grove of pine trees with ‘a thousand little places where the sun peeks through.’ Peeks… looked… Ah, well, hey ho…”

There’s no question that Meredith’s successes outshone Dixie’s, but maybe they should change that sign at Meredith’s boyhood home to say “Childhood home of Meredith and Dixie Willson.”

Scott W. Smith

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There’s an Iowa kind of special,
Chip-on-the shoulder attitude,
We’ve never been without.
Iowa Stuborn from The Music Man
Song & play written by Meredith Willson

Composer, conductor, songwriter, and playwright Meredith Willson is most well known as the creative forced behind The Music Man. He was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1902 and educated at what would become The Julliard School. What’s less known about Willson is that he composed the scores for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes——both of which earned him Academy Award Nominations.

He also wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown which had a two-year run on Broadway and became a film starring Debbie Reynolds. His radio program ran between 1935 and 1953. And since it’s December, I should point out that he also wrote the classic holiday song It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas.

But Willson’s real legacy is The Music Man which took reportedly took him seven years to write and premiered on Broadway back in 1957 and has twice been made into films. Though I’ve lived in Iowa for almost ten years, this week was the first time I toured his childhood home in Mason City and The Music Man Square which pays honor to the man that paid tribute to his home state.

There’s too many layers to pull back at this time about The Music Man, but you can file Willson’s bio in the folder titled, “Talent Comes from Everywhere.” And let me just end this post with a clip of future Hollywood director Ron Howard singing the Wells Fargo song in The Music Man (1962):

Scott W. Smith

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Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Ya Got Trouble. lyrics from The Music Man

There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Iowa Stubborn, lyrics from The Music Man

This weekend I went to see the Cedar Falls Community Theatre production of The Music Man. I had watched the movie before but had never seen the play. It was an overall great experience.

The story takes place in fictitious River City, Iowa which was inspired by Mason City, Iowa where the author of The Music Man, Meredith Willson, was raised. The Music Man first opened on Broadway in 1957 and won five Tony Awards and went on to be performed 1,375 times on its first Broadway run. (There have been two revivals of the play on Broadway, 1980 & 2000.) The film premiered in Mason City and today if you go there you can tour Willson’s boyhood home and visit The Music Man Square museum which celebrates Mason City’s musical tradition.

(As a sidenote, Mason City had a part in what Don McLean called “the day the music died.” In 1959, Buddy Holly and three others took off from the Mason City airport and shortly afterwards during a snow storm their plane crashed in a field eight miles away killing all four.)

Willson was actually nominated for two Oscar awards in his career, though neither were for his work on The Music Man, but rather for The Little Foxes (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture) and the classic Chaplin film, The Great Dictator (Best Music, Original Score.) In 1958, the music from The Music Man beat out West Side Story to win a Grammy  Award (Best Original Cast Album).

The original play The Music Man starred Robert Preston as con man Professor Harold Hill. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and also starred in the 1962 movie. The local production here starred Gary Kroeger who was a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live between 1982-1985. I agree with the people who saw the play and know Kroeger (who lives here now)— it was a role made for him. Some people even remember when he had the lead in the same play back when he went to high school here. His co-star in the play is Kristin Teig Torres, who can be seen on the demo reel at RiverRun.tv from a project we shot a couple years ago.

And while I’ve been to plays in large theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles there is something special to walking eight blocks from your home to downtown Cedar Falls to have dinner, and then watch a play in a restored 100 year old theatre. It’s nice to sit close enough to see the faces of actors you know who are performing words and songs written by someone who was raised an hour and a half away, knowing that that play has been performed and entertained people all over the world for more than 50 years.

So before the Field of Dreams, The Bridges of Madison Country, and Sleeping with the Enemy there was The Music Man to pave the way for future stories set in the quintessential heartland.

By the way, Nancy Price, who wrote the novel Sleeping with the Enemy, was at the performance Friday night which added a little extra reminder that every once in a while something other than corn comes out of the state of Iowa.

So wherever you live check out the community theater in your area. There’s magic and talent in community theaters all over this country. (I hear even Charlie Sheen is getting into the community theatre spirit by volunteering his time to work with a quaint small town in Colorado.) I think as films become less and less expensive to make you will not only see a growing regional film movement, but one that is the equivalent of community theater. Keep in mind that our local community theater raised $1.2 million to renovate a historic theater a few years ago, so there are people and businesses ready and willing to invest in the local arts community.

Oh, and speaking of The Music Man, remember a little kid named Ronny who played Winthrop Paroo in the 1962 movie? Hard to forget him singing, “O the wells Fargo wagon is a’comin’ down the road, O please let be for me.” He went on to act in a few more productions such as The Andy Griffith Show, American Graffiti and Happy Days. These days that young Oklahoma-born actor  is more well-known as the director Ron Howard.

On Saturday in Chicago he’ll be honored for a Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. And what a career it’s been—Apollo 13, Cocoon, Parenthood,  Splash, Frost/Nixon (Oscar Nomination), and two-Oscars wins for A Beautiful Mind (Best Director, Best Picture).

* The Music Man photo taken by Bill Sikula. More shots at www.facebook.com/osterregent

Scott W. Smith


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Driving from Minneapolis to Cedar Falls feels like a long commute because the three and a half hour drive literally involves heading south on Interstate 35 and making one turn. It’s a pretty mellow drive. There’s not much worth looking forward to once you’ve made the slight detour to visit the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (where Buddy Holly played his last concert),and  The Music Man Square in Mason City (A museum dedicated to hometown writer Meredith Willson who wrote The Music Man).

There are a couple casinos along the way but they personally bore me. I am still fascinated by the hundreds of wind turbines scattered along the way, but my point is you have work a little to break up the drive a little if you take the Interstate. This past weekend I stopped at a discount bookstore and ended up picking up The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches. It was edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro and has various stories by writers such as Cameron Crowe, Robin Swicord, and Gary Ross telling their stories of making their first bucks from writing.

The forward by William Goldman alone is worth the $1.99 I paid for the book. Here’s an excerpt:

“I was eighteen and an aunt gave me a copy of Mixed Company, a book of his (Irwin Shaw) collected stories. I’d never read a word by him, never heard his name. But I remember the lead story in the book was The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. About a guy who looked at women.

Followed by The Eighty Yard Run… Well, The Eighty Yard Run is about a football player. Shit, I remember thinking, you can do that? You can write about stuff I care about?…At eighteen, I began writing stories. Not a whole lot of acclaim. I took a creative writing class at Oberlin.  Everyone took it because it was a gut course. I wanted a career. Everyone got A’s and B’s, I got the only C…. I have, somewhere, hundreds of rejection slips…My confidence is not building through theses years. I hope you get that.”
William Goldman
Two-time Oscar Winner
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
All the President’s Men

It’s good to hear those kind of stories.

By the way, the first time I got paid to write anything was when I was a 19-year-old staff writer/photographer  for the Sanford Evening Herald and Sam Cook, the sports editor, paid me 10 cents a word (and a little extra for photos). That may not seem like much but those dimes add up, you know? (And it’s more than I’m paid for writing this blog.) And at 19 I also discovered Irwin Shaw’s The Eighty Yard Run. Still dreaming of an Oscar.

Update 9/30/09: I tracked Sam Cook down via the internet and found out he is now an award-winning columnist for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida where he specializes in stirring up trouble reporting on the local government. I sent him an email and he called me today and we spoke for the first time in a long time.

Scott W. Smith

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