When we were little, my brother and I could never lie when presented with the letters "MM." Although we had a living mother, we had learned that no one could be deceitful in the face of these two letters, shorthand for, "On your sacred Mother's Memory, is this the truth?"—an admonition shared by my parents who had lost their mothers. That may be why I am unable to keep a straight face when attempting big lies, though admittedly guilty of occasional white lies.
However, now the initials "MM" penciled in my calendar also stand for entries of rehearsal times for the "Music Man," as I sing in the chorus of the upcoming Oct. 13-16 musical. My brother played Harold Hill in his high school production in the late 1950s, and I listened for many weeks to "Trouble" and other wonderful tunes from the show. It is a thrill to be singing those evocative songs with current friends, and once again I am amazed at the level of talent we have in our "small town."
One story I must share in this context: Meredith Willson, the composer of "The Music Man," was a family acquaintance/friend. Years ago, I mentioned in a column something about my Salvation Army heritage. Many people don't know much about the Army, except for thrift shops, job rehabilitation centers, street corner bands and Christmas kettles, but this is really a practicing religion. Those efforts come out of a fervor to do good in the world, born out of a concern for the impoverished in Victorian England. I know from first-hand experience what a dedicated people they are. My parents were married in Salvation Army uniforms, although they became lifelong Presbyterians once we settled in Southern California.
While I may seem to digress, Meredith Willson learned how to play band instruments with the Salvation Army band in his home city of Mason City, Iowa, and never forget the Army's part in the ensuing richness of his life. My father was a radio announcer for KFRC in San Francisco when Willson was concert director there and then kept in touch with him when Willson moved to NBC in Hollywood. Later, our family also relocated to Los Angeles. My Uncle Doc was a public relations director for the Army and thus followed up on the friendship. For my 17th birthday, this great music man invited me to sit in a prime box seat at the Hollywood Bowl where he was conducting some of his music. And, during the show ("MM," it's true), he told the audience that he was wishing a special friend, JoEllen Gifford, a happy birthday. How can one not love the legacy of such a man?
In a picture of my junior high school band, I sit next to Jerry, a rather hefty classmate who is playing the piccolo while I brandish a flute. Looking back, it would be more appropriate for him to play the tuba and I, the piccolo, since I weighed all of about 90 pounds, and he was probably 275. It is fun to remember that I chose to play that instrument because of Willson's having been a flute player.
I think about him when I open my dog-eared copy of "And There I Stood with my Piccolo."
I think about him New Year's Day during the Rose Parade, as one of my Uncle Doc's sons still marches in the Salvation Army band, playing a cornet (an instrument mentioned in "76 Trombones"). Preceding this song, Harold Hill (the music man) also brags of his experience with band greats, concluding with John Phillips Sousa. It is interesting to note that, as a young man, Willson played the flute in the Sousa band. Incidentally, he also studied at the school that became Juilliard, spent some time with the New York Philharmonic, composed classical music and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," and won the first Grammy ever in his category. He also penned a music tribute to the Salvation Army, "Banners and Bonnets." He was a renaissance man.
I was very lucky to have had my brief childhood encounters with Meredith Willson. I will think of him for many hours this October. How fortunate that I am able to remind myself of his gifts while sharing his lovely music with my fellow singers, the brilliant cast members, and the audience of friends here in my Idaho version of Mason City, Iowa.