Born in Mason City, Iowa on May 18, 1902, as Robert Meredith Willson who later shortened his name to Meredith Willson was best known for writing the Broadway hit, The Music Man. He was a conductor, playwright, songwriter and composer who won many awards during his lifetime, including a Tony Award in 1958 for The Music Man (Best Musical). Later, he won a Grammy for the movie, The Music Man.
Willson began his career in radio as a music director in the 1930s after serving as a member in the band of John Philip Sousa and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
As early as 1927, Willson worked on the variety show, Blue Monday Jamboree, broadcast from San Francisco, California and that also featured Hazel Warner, Bill Wright and Juliette Dunne. Willson also spent time working on Carefree Carnival, a variety show in the style of vaudeville, from 1934 until 1936. Carefree Carnival also featured Ray Tollinger and Gene Arnold and the Commodores.
During World War II he worked for the Armed Forces Radio Services and can be heard on Command Performace. From 1937 until 1944, Willson wrote the music for The Baby Snooks Show, a comedy created by Fanny Brice.
Meredith Willson continued in radio, working with orchestras and choruses on programs such as The Big Show, featuring an all-star cast with Tallulah Bankhead as “mistress of ceremonies,” Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas, Judy Garland and a host of other big-name stars.
Willson was in charge of the music for Burns and Allen from 1945 until 1948, where he played a regular character – a shy man who always wanted advice about women.
Encore, another variety show was a showcase for Willson’s talents. Encore starred Kenneth Banghart as the announcer and Marguerite Piazza and Robert Merrill who performed encores of operas and musicals. Encore was broadcast in 1952 and went off the air in 1953.
Other radio shows that featured Meredith Willson were The Ford Sunday Evening Hour, The Good News of 1938, a musical starring James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Robert Young – among many others. He also worked on the Jack Benny Program.
During all these years, Willson had his own musical variety show where he specialized in a sound called “chiffon swing.” He had a great relationship with sponsor, General Foods, and created “the talking people” for Jell-O featuring actors, Betty Allen, Maxwell Smith, John Rarig and Bob Hanlon.
Willson passed away on June 15, 1984 and in 1987 President Ronald Reagan posthumously presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.