Mason City, Iowa
Mason City may be one of Iowa’s most historic and well-known towns. At least to older folks, Mason City will forever be associated with one of the most famous, most popular, and most American of all Broadway and film musicals: “The Music Man.”
Meredith Willson, songwriter and playwright of the famous musical, was raised in Mason City, and he based the fictional “River City” of Music Man fame on his hometown.
Today you can tour Willson’s boyhood home and visit The Music Man Square, a 40,000-square-foot facility featuring an indoor 1912 River City streetscape, a replica of the Warner Bros. movie set for “The Music Man.” A combined ticket for the two attractions costs $6 for adults.
Your ticket includes guided tours of both facilities as well as a museum located within Music Man Square. When I visited this weekend, the tour guide was – how shall I put this? – almost too thorough. It took us a full hour for our group to get through the boyhood home. I could have easily done it in 20 minutes.
I learned, for example, that when Willson was born in 1902, he was the largest baby born in Iowa up to that point: 14 lbs. 7 oz. He was one of three children; his sister Dixie was famous in her own right as a writer and performer in the Ziegfeld Follies. The home, built in 1895, is in remarkable shape, especially considering it was a rental property and boarding house for 60 years. The house still contains the original (never painted) woodwork and some original furnishings.
Once inside Music Man Square, our tour sped up a bit but our group started to wander. I enjoyed viewing the film about the making of “The Music Man,” starring Shirley Jones and featuring Buddy Hackett and other stars of the stage and film version. My kids would think it was boring and awful, but I thought Hackett was hilarious, and some of the behind-the-scenes stories were delightful. I had no idea Shirley Jones was pregnant during the filming.
The River City streetscape is fun and includes reproductions of some of the buildings in the movie, including Mrs. Paroo’s, River City High School, the Pleez-all Billiard Parlor (where all the trouble began), and an ice cream parlor
Meredith Willson’s boyhood home and the Music Man Square are open Tuesday through Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Apparently the facility is a popular place for wedding receptions, because the day I was there it was all set up with tables, chairs, and a buffet. Didn’t exactly thrill me because all these things were in the way when I tried to take pictures.
Although we arrived at Music Man Square / Willson Boyhood Home (located next door to each other) right as they opened at 1 p.m., by the time we finished it was after 3 o’clock and another Mason City attraction was already closed for the day: The Frank Lloyd Wright Stockman House & Interpretive Center. I was ambivalent about visiting this 1908 Prairie School home because admission is $10 and I’m not such a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. So I was OK with the fact that the home was closed. I took pictures of the outside. For free.
Throughout Mason City’s historic district you can follow the Prairie School architectural tour (14 blocks) and historic walking tour (an additional 13 blocks). Walking tour guides are available at tourist info centers. One special feature of the walking tour is the Meredith Willson/Music Man footbridge (above) on Second St. SE, connecting River Heights Dr. and S. Connecticut Ave.
The last thing I did in Mason City’s historic district (because by this time I was very hot and extremely hungry) was walk through the historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This classic example of Prairie School architecture has been completely restored – and it is a gem. Apparently you can take a guided tour for $5 a few times during the week, but you can just walk through the lobby area for free. It’s fabulous.