Column: Meredith Willson and his marriage in Albert Lea

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 10, 2002

Sometime during the winter a nice lady I happened to meet in the City Center told me Meredith Willson, the creator of &uot;The Music Man,&uot; was married in Albert Lea. She suggested that I should check into this particular part of the life of the famous Iowan.

Now, this is the type of challenge I’ll file away in my mind for later investigation and for use in a possible column or article. Sometimes it takes a little time. Hopefully, all the needed facts will line up like a column of ducklings following their mother to the pond.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to go on a special media tour of the new Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa. This entertainment complex and museum is located just east of the Southview Mall and next to the birthplace and boyhood home of one of the nation’s most outstanding composers and musicians.

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When our guide asked if there were any questions, one of my queries was, &uot;Did Meredith Willson actually get married in Albert Lea?&uot;

Her answer was yes. The guide later said the name of his bride in the Albert Lea marriage was Elizabeth Wilson. By marrying Meredith, she just added an extra letter &uot;l&uot; to her last name.

Later in the tour the guide told us Meredith was actually married three times. His third wife, and widow, contributed about half the funds to construct the Music Man Square, plus funding a building in his honor at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

Here the facts were starting to line up. My next step was to refer to the book, &uot;American Songwriters,&uot; by David Ewen. Just by coincidence, this book was published by The H. W. Wilson Co. of New York in 1987.

On page 440 of this book I found this information: &uot;Willson was married three times. His first wife was Elizabeth Wilson, whom he married on Aug. 29, 1920; the marriage ended in divorce in 1947. On March 13, 1948, he married singer Ralina Zarova. Following her death in 1966, Willson married his secretary, Rosemary Sullivan, on Feb. 14, 1968 … he had no children.&uot;

At this point I had confirmed that Meredith Willson was married in Albert Lea, had the name of his first wife, and now the date of the ceremony.

The next step was to check the public record for this particular marriage at the Freeborn County Courthouse. And here’s where I encountered several interesting details regarding Meredith’s first marriage.

The first detail is based on his age as shown on the marriage record. Folks down in Mason City will be observing the centennial of his birth on May 18. Yet, on the document his age is listed as 22. If he was married on Aug. 28, 1920, the actual date for the ceremony as shown on the document, that clearly indicates Meredith was actually just a few months past his 18th birthday.

Another detail I found regarding this marriage is based on his address. It isn’t Mason City or Cerro Gordo County. It’s listed as New York City. This happens to be correct because after graduation from high school, Meredith moved east to further his music career. In fact, within a year after the Albert Lea marriage he was a member of the world-famous Sousa’s Band.

Elizabeth’s address is listed as Polk County, Iowa, which is likely either Des Moines or Ankeny, and her age is shown as 23.

The Rev. B. F. Koch, pastor of Albert Lea’s First Methodist Episcopal Church,

210 W. College St., performed the ceremony before two witnesses. There’s no indication if this marriage was done in the church or parsonage.

There will be more details about the life and accomplishments of Meredith Willson (!902-1984) and the new Music Man Square in next week’s column. Hopefully, we’ll also to try to find out why he and Elizabeth came to Albert Lea to get married in 1920.

Feature writer Ed Shannon writes columns for the Friday edition of the Albert Lea Tribune.