This is an online encyclopedia of personalities of Old Time Radio. It is designed for educational and entertainment purposes.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

R. Meredith Willson (1902-84)


Robert Meredith Reiniger was born May 18, 1902, in Mason City, Iowa. His family was very musical and he had piano lessons from an early age. (To answer the trivia question, What object in the living room did the console radio take the place of?, the answer is the piano.) Meredith (the family name was changed to Willson in early childhood) learned how to play the flute in school and was the first chair piccolo player at Mason City High School and won a scholarship to what would become the Julliard School. He didn't finish his studies there. Rather, he won the position as flute/piccolo soloist with the John Philip Sousa Band. He played with Sousa from 1921 to 1924. This was the same time William J. Bell played tuba with the band. Bill Bell left to play tuba with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra while Meredith left to play with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini.



While playing flute for Toscanini, Meredith was able to get some connections in the new business of radio broadcasting. In 1929, Meredith and his wife, Elizabeth Wilson (same name, different spelling), packed up the car and headed west to San Francisco, where Meredith was the concert director at radio station KFRC. Then he quickly headed south to Los Angeles to become the West Coast Musical Director for the NBC Network at Hollywood. (Bill Bell would join the NBC Network in 1937 as the tuba soloist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. But he would be out of broadcasting by 1943, when he joined the New York Philharmonic.) Meredith assumed his new position when the first of two NBC Radio buildings opened in Hollywood in 1935.




Not only did Meredith write and conduct music for radio, but also for the movies, including Charlie Chaplins, The Great Dictator (1940).




At the same time that picture came out, Meredith began not just making music for radio series, but acting in them as well. His character on the George Burns-Gracie Allen Show was that of a shy bachelor. He would continue in this role for ten years.



In actuality, Meredith married Rose Wilson when he was playing flute and piccolo with the Sousa Band. They would divorce in 1948. Exactly one week after his divorce, he married Ralina "Rina" Zarova. She died in 1968 (she is the woman in the picture at the top of the page with fellow Iowa composer, Karl L. King). In 1968, he married Rosemary Sullivan. He had no children.
In World War II, Meredith was hired by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) to be its music director at the studio it had in Hollywood. This was considered a military position and he held the rank of major.

After the war, he was the musical director on NBC's The Big Show, which starred Tallulah Bankhead. This was considered to be the last high budget radio program, hence its title.

He then made some guest appearances in television, mostly on game shows.

This isn't to say that his career was over. He had written some popular songs, some of which are considered standard, such as It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, which was actually written as a standard 6/8 time military march.


He two wrote books: And There I Stood with My Piccolo (1948) and But He Doesn't Know the Territory (1959) .

What would make him famous, though was Broadway musicals: His first was The Music Man, which he wrote with Franklin Lacey (1917-88) in 1955, began its run on Broadway in 1957, and became a motion picture in 1962. It won the Tony Award for best musical play in 1958. The movie won an Oscar for the best adaptation of music which had previously been composed. This is the story of a con man who came to a small town in Iowa, in about 1914, to sell musical instruments and start a band. The second musical was The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which he wrote with Richard Morris (1924-96) in 1959. It was a Broadway play in 1960 and a motion picture in 1965. This was the fictionalized story of Margaret Brown, one of the survivors of the RMS Titanic in 1912. There were two other musicals, which were not nearly so successful: Here's Love (1963), a musical adaptation of the movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and 1491, the story of how Christopher Columbus tried to finance his 1492 voyage from Europe to the New World. It played in Los Angeles for a time and never showed up again.
He also wrote two symphonies for symphony orchestra.

Meredith died at his home in Santa Monica, California, on April 15, 1984, at the age of 82.

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