The Music Man
And the Bands Played OnAn Interview with Mason City’s “Music Men”
By Julia Taylor
Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos
The cream of ev'ry famous band.
Eager to learn more about the musical history of “River City” from the residents themselves? Literary Volunteer Julia Taylor sat down with Terry Harrison, an archivist with the Mason City Public Library, and Art Fischbeck, who at age 92 is deemed Mason City’s local historian, to discuss marching bands, Meredith Willson and the continued influence of music in the community.
Julia: Mr. Fischbeck, how important are marching bands to the people of Mason City?
Art: Bands have always played a part in the life of Mason City. In fact, the Iowa Municipal Band Law was passed in the 1920’s and allocated a part of a millage tax to support our bands. Within a few years, most of the larger cities in Iowa had municipal bands.
Julia: Were the early marching bands for “boys only?”
Art: As I understand it and remember it, the only reason that the bands were for “boys only” was because the girls did not play in the marching bands. However, I would say that by the second band festival girls were also marching. I am guessing at that, but the band festival was not for “boys only” for very long.
Julia: Do you remember the first year you attended the North Iowa Band Festival?
Art: I was 16 years old and I remember that it was a great festival, but nothing as to be compared to the later ones. The first official North Iowa Band Festival was held in 1936 in conjunction with the Iowa Bandmasters annual convention. Our festival is one of the oldest continuous band festivals in the country.
Julia: Is the North Iowa Band Festival restricted to Iowa bands?
Art: No, we always had a few bands from Minnesota and from other states.
Terry: The most memorable band festivals were certainly those of 1958 which featured songs from The Music Man and the 1962 event that celebrated the premiere of The Music Man movie at the Palace Theater in Mason City.
Julia: Do you remember when Meredith Willson led the parade during the 1958 band festival?
Art: Oh my, yes. In 1958, Meredith Willson put on a Mason City Band uniform jacket and led the parade. He returned in 1962 and led the band again, but he kept on his suit this time. So when you look at the photographs you can always tell which year you are looking at by Meredith’s clothing. Mason City had taken the Willson family to heart and we just loved having him back home. When Meredith was out there leading the band, you could just feel the excitement.
Also, when Meredith Willson came for the 1962 premiere of The Music Man movie, the Mason City Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest to raise the $50,000 that was needed to finance the event. The prize was 2 tickets to the showing of The Music Man movie on the first night of the band festival. My friend and I were the first ones to turn in the pledges that we received from the local businessmen and we won the contest and were able to attend the first showing of The Music Man. It wasn’t part of the parade, but the movie premiere was a highlight of the festival.
Julia: Has The Music Man play ever been staged in Mason City?
Terry: Yes, it has, but it wasn’t until June 1968 that the play was staged here. Since ’68 I think the play has been produced about 6 times.
Julia: What are the more recent band festivals celebrations like?
Art: The first event in the band festivals today is still the band parade at 10:00 in the morning.
Terry: The band parade generally lasts about 2 hours. It’s a big parade. During the latter years the bands began to have a band competition. In recent years, actress Shirley Jones (Marian Paroo in The Music Man motion picture), has returned to participate in the parade and in the grand opening of the Mason City Foundation’s Music Man Square.
Art: About 10-15 years ago, Mason City started having a 2-3 day celebration out at East Park where they would bring in well-known bands of interest to high-school age kids. The bands would provide entertainment at the bandshell and throughout the day Saturday, Sunday and sometimes Monday.
Terry: The Mason City bandshell was built in 1924 and is the oldest bandshell in Iowa. The bandshell is on the National Register of Historic Places and is completing its renovation. It's been in continuous use as the band performance venue since it was built.
Art: They also brought in a carnival as part of the celebration and then they began serving noon meals on Saturday with as many as 20-25 different people in one section of this huge park serving meals. So it became not only an all-day celebration, but for a while it was a three-day event but it has been cut back to two days.
Julia: Terry, during one of our earlier conversations, you mentioned that you are creating a library display to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of The Music Man movie. Can you tell me a bit about the items that will be included in the display?
Terry: The display will include an original uniform, without the hat, that was worn by one of the cast members of The Music Man movie. We also have Morton DeCosta’s shooting script along with a letter that states that it was the script that Mr. DeCosta used everyday. The display will also include an Italian poster advertising the movie, a trombone, and a large number of production stills that were shot by Warner Brothers and others. We also have some local photos of the movie’s press premiere, and a lot of photographs with Meredith Willson and all of the celebrities that were here in Mason City.
Julia: Thank you for sharing your time, your memories and your resources. May the residents of “River City” have a wonderful 74th North Iowa Band Festival.
A self-described "lover of learning," Julia's focus has recently turned to learning more about theatre and what goes on behind the scenes. Julia is currently a literary volunteer with Arena Stage.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.