Mason City music

The main thing my wife and I did to prepare for our recent trip to Mason City, Iowa was watch the 1962 movie “The Music Man.”

This wasn’t just because my wife loves Shirley Jones and once had a crush on her stepson, David Cassidy. It was also because we wanted to prepare ourselves for the full marching band experience that is known as the annual North Iowa Band Festival.

It all began last winter when we were afflicted by an endless march of blizzards. One day I exclaimed to my wife, “When the weather finally turns nice, we have to get out and do something!” She took this to heart and made plans for us to visit Mason City during the Band Festival.

Here’s a brief rundown of “The Music Man”: a sleazy traveling salesman gets off the train at River City (actually Mason City, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After spending a few hours in town, the salesman tells the credulous townspeople that there is trouble in River City. Specifically, that many of their young men had become engrossed with the sinful pastime known as pool.

The salesman convinces the townspeople that pool is the first step on the road to ruin. As luck would have it, he has the perfect antidote to this iniquity: marching band instruments. This is probably correct. After tromping around all day with a sousaphone, a guy would be too tired to pick up a cue, especially after playing the movie’s most rousing tune, “76 Trombones.”

I won’t spoil the plot but suffice it to say that it involves an unlikely love story and the expression of deep personal feelings via song.

Meredith Willson, who wrote “The Music Man,” was born in his family’s Mason City home in 1902. A musical wunderkind, by age 21 Willson had played the piccolo in John Philip Sousa’s band and was a member of the New York Philharmonic.

I know these things because my wife and I visited Music Square, which is located adjacent to the Willson family’s sprawling home. During our tour of the house, we learned that Willson drew upon his childhood experiences in Mason City when he penned “The Music Man.”

In 1957, after many years of struggle, Willson’s musical made it to Broadway. It was so successful that it was made into a movie a few years later.

Primed with this knowledge, my wife and eagerly looked forward to the parade. The Mason City High School band was among the first in the parade and were playing, appropriately, “76 Trombones.”

Some of the marching bands sported Technicolor uniforms and enough plumage to make an ostrich jealous. Other bands simply wore T-shirts and shorts. This being farm country, one of the more flamboyant bands was followed by a float that featured a grain bin.

Marching band music wasn’t the only auditory treat we enjoyed. A stage had been set up in the park across from our hotel. By taking just a short stroll, we were able to experience the musical stylings of the Mason City High School jazz band and a pair of guys who performed tributes to Elton John and Billy Joel.

The weather was outstanding, and the park was as lush as Eden. The succulent aromas of food cooking over open fire proved too tempting, so my wife and I indulged in meat on a stick. The squeals of kids taking rides in a nearby street carnival made it feel as if we were spending a day at the state fair. The unbelievably pleasant conditions made winter’s blizzards seem like a distant nightmare.

The main attraction on the second night of the Band Festival was a concert by a young lady named Morgan Myles. I was vaguely aware of Ms. Myles and her stint on the TV show “The Voice.” My wife and I listened to several of her songs on YouTube and were impressed by her talent.

One afternoon we were returning to our hotel when we noticed a professional photographer taking pictures of a young lady.

Morgan Myles was in the midst of a photo shoot.

Ms. Myles, the photographer, and two assistants walked into our hotel’s lobby moments ahead of us. The photographer directed Ms. Myles up to the mezzanine and its grand piano.

Ms. Myles sat at the keyboard and posed for photos. She instinctively began to tickle the keys and sing.

My wife and I and anyone within earshot of the mezzanine were thus treated to a private performance of “Always Remember Us This Way” by Morgan Myles.

Which was very appropriate because I will always remember Mason City that way.

— Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at http://Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide


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