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Auction PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Property from the Estate of Meredith Willson for Bonhams Auction

Bonhams will feature property from the Estate of songwriter, composer, conductor and playwright Meredith Willson and his wife Rosemary during its fall 2011 auctions. Proceeds of the sales will benefit the Meredith and Rosemary Willson Charitable Foundation, whose goal is to keep the philanthropic legacy of Meredith and Rosemary alive by supporting the causes and charities that were important to them, including the arts, music education and scholarships, as well as medical research and children’s care.

Best known for writing the book, music and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical “Meredith Willson’s The Music Man,” Willson, an Academy-Award® nominee and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, wrote three other Broadway musicals and composed numerous popular songs and symphony film scores.

Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, and attended Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art, which later became the Juilliard School in New York, N.Y. A noted flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of the John Phillip Sousa Band and, later, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He then moved to San Francisco where he took on a position as Concert Director at KFRC, a radio station in the city. Willson later relocated to Hollywood, Calif., where he became musical director for the NBC Radio Network.

His work in films included composing the score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), for which he received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Score, and arranging music for the score of William Wyler’s “Little Foxes” (1941). “Little Foxes” earned him the Academy Award® nomination of Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture.

He went on to work for the US Armed Forces Radio Service during World War II. It was during this time that Willson became the bandleader and a regular character on the Burns and Allen radio program.

Following WWII, Willson returned to network radio and became the musical director for a prestigious comedy-variety program “The Big Show,” hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead. Willson quickly became part of one of the show’s few running gags. He also wrote the song “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” for the show.

Willson served as Musical Director for the Golden State’s centennial production at the Hollywood Bowl in 1950. It was through working on this production that he met Franklin Lacey, who was instrumental in developing the story for a musical Willson had been working on that would become known as “Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.”

“The Music Man,” Willson’s most famous work, premiered on Broadway in 1957, and since its creation has been adapted twice for film. Written over the course of eight years, the musical was, in Willson’s words, “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state.” He wrote more than 40 songs for the production, which won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and Willson received the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or Television). Three songs from the production have become American standards: “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Till There Was You” and “Gary, Indiana.”

Willson married Rosemary Sullivan in 1968. Following Willson’s passing, Rosemary dedicated herself to community and philanthropic pursuits, as well as the preservation of Willson’s stage and musical works. In addition, she was on the Board of Directors of the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation, was a supporter St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the Mayo Clinic and she funded scholarships for young musicians at Pepperdine University, the University of Iowa and the Idyllwild Arts Academy.

Rosemary also provided the major funding for The Music Man Square project in Willson’s home town of Mason City, Iowa, and for the first student residence hall at The Juilliard School in New York, as well as a theater at the school.

Highlights from the Collection of the late Meredith and Rosemary Willson feature an impressive group of furnishing by famed Hollywood high-style designer William Haines, including a pair of upholstered and leather-clad elbow chairs (est. $1,500-2,000); a pair of upholstered single-arm sofas (est. $2,500-3,500) and a parcel gilt and faux grained octagonal dining table with Lazy Susan (est. $1,500-2,000). From his studio, featured is Meredith’s ebonized Baldwin Grand piano (est. $5,000-6,000). Also from Willson’s studio is an emotionally charged painting – “The repentant St. Peter” from the Circle of Jusepe de Ribera, oil on canvas, 43 ¼ x 65 ¾ inches (est. $25,000-35,000), which spent many years over his fireplace.

Jewelry of note from the collection includes an old-European cut diamond solitaire ring. Mounted in white gold, the diamond weighs 5.45 carats and is estimated at $20,000-30,000. Another highlight is a star sapphire and diamond pendant necklace mounted in platinum (est. $10,000-15,000).

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