For Sharon Beckwith, “Music Man” is more than a classic Broadway play. It is a play set in her hometown, written by her former bandleader.
Beckwith, who now lives in Citrus County, is originally from Mason City, Iowa, a small town in northern Iowa made famous by Mason City native Meredith Willson as the fictional “River City” where lovable con man Harold Hill tries to set up a kid’s band.
Willson, who was a musician and composer, once played in John Philip Sousa’s band, and went on to write and direct music in movies and on television.
He also kept up his hometown roots and visited Mason City, where he would conduct a local band. This is how Beckwith first met him.
Beckwith began playing saxophone when she was in the third grade, and by the time she was in middle school she had developed her skills to the point she was playing in a band with Willson as conductor.
“To me, he was just Mr. Willson. I didn’t know he was famous. I had never heard him on the radio,” she said. “Willson changed my style of playing by refining my skills to use a saxophone like a vocalist using vibrato to infuse the tone with warmth.”
He also taught me that I needed to practice at home and then come to band practice to rehearse. Do not come to band to practice,” she said.
Beckwith said he also “instilled in me a fear of God as far as the director’s role. When he took the podium, everybody paid attention to him.”
After “Music Man” opened on Broadway there was a big parade in Mason City to celebrate, and they got trombonists and coronet players from across the state to create a band like that described in the musical, where “76 trombones led the big parade with 110 coronets close at hand.”
She said Willson was leading the parade in a convertible, but when they started playing he got out of the car, took the baton from the majorette leading the band, and led the band down the street as they played.
Willson died in 1984, but the tradition of the marching band is still an annual event in Mason City.
Beckwith is a saxophonist in the orchestra playing in the Art Center Theatre’s current production of “The Music Man” that opens tonight and runs for three weekends. For most of us, it is an entertaining play, for Beckwith it is a chance to revisit her hometown and the conductor who taught her lifelong lessons about music.
Sharon Harris is an artist, art teacher, play director, actor, former president of the Art Center and current president of Ocala Art Group and public relations director of Acrylic Painters USA.