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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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