When I was 10 years old, a new movie – a musical starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones – was opening at a theater in downtown Seattle. It was pouring rain (does it ever do anything else in Seattle?) but the line of filmgoers for that Saturday matinee stretched all the way around the block. Even at a young age, I knew I was about to see something really special. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of The Music Man and yet with the passage of decades, those same feelings of anticipation and joy return every time I catch it on television, pop in the well-worn DVD, or – for that matter – hear a marching band.
You can, thus, imagine my excitement when I discovered author Mary Beth Sartor Obermeyer whose path crossed early in childhood with that of Meredith Willson – the musical genius who brought River City, Professor Harold Hill, and Marian the Librarian to life. For anyone who loves nostalgia, tap dancing and being inspired by a beautiful message, The Days of Song and Lilacs is a must-buy delight.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: The Days of Song and Lilacs is a lovely title. What’s the story behind it and what inspired you to share your story with others?
A: In Mason City, Iowa, in 1954, everyone seemed to have two things in abundance: music and lilacs. Those nubby blossoms nodded along every alley, guarded each yard, I even think they made us dizzy! And those marching bands practiced like mad, down most every street by day; and piano music floated through the sash of every window at night. And live entertainment was everywhere, pre-television, served up like dessert—at Vivian’s Bridal Shower, Farmers’ Round-Up, Stunt Night in the Park. I got to tap-dance out almost every night! And, to boot: I lived down the street from Meredith Willson, who was composing his beloved The Music Man for Broadway, and—we had the same accompanist, the elderly Mabel Kelso. Who could ask for anything more? I was 12 years old.
Q: What ignited – and zealously fueled – your unabashed passion for wanting to tap-dance all the time?
A: Because I could! I lived in a time and a place. And I didn’t have just a pulse; a metronome clacked inside me!
Q: Were there other tap dancers in your family tree or were you the first?
A: I was first.
Q: Are you still tap-dancing and, if I may be so bold, how old are you?
A: I am 71 and 1/2. Just last week I shredded the little wooden stage at Subtext; A Bookstore, St. Paul, tap dancing, after a reading. Sometimes I tap sitting down, an art form I developed when I decided to tap and play piano at the same time. My mother always said I would never waste anything that I learned.
Q: Knowing Meredith Willson and sharing his accompanist had to be an incredibly inspiring experience for a young girl growing up in a small Iowa town. Tell us about it.
A: Mason City was the biggest town around. It seemed normal to see artists grow up in Mason City and return as celebrities. (Bil Baird is another star, home across my alley. I played with his elderly mother and heard of her professional puppeteer—he did the “Lonely Goatherd” scene in The Sound of Music film.) Mabel spanned decades, accompanied Meredith in 1917 when he played the piccolo, me mid 40’s-mid ‘50’s. I followed his struggle to Broadway through her, his letters, calls, visits. He was loyal and never gave up, qualities I believe were in the air in that town.
Q: There was quite an age difference between you and Mabel Kelso, your accompanist. Looking back, would you best categorize your interactions as that of a parent/child, teacher/student or friend/friend?
A: We were a team! She went with me for every program; we shared syncopation, stop time, the intro, the tacit. I knew her look, an “atta girl,” tossed over her shoulder, her arms pumping away. Actually, at that time, in small towns everywhere, children spent time with their elder neighbors.
Q: What’s your favorite Mabel story?
A: She was such a professional that everything seemed to stay stable, and so the memory is of constant music, support; she was a strong woman—treasurer of the musician’s union! And strong yet 10 years after her stroke. Meredith had a little piano made to roll over her bed. He played the left hand over and over, but she didn’t respond. He whispered, hummed, cheek-to-cheek—and didn’t she play the right hand! And I have the photo, p. 290. After my book was out, Patty Paul sent me photos of Mabel as a young woman, in a band with Patty’s father, for WCCO Radio, and they traveled in a van with their name on it. The young Mabel was cute and tiny, perky, posing with the fellows, she almost danced off the page, to sit by me again.
Q: What’s your favorite story about the composer?
A: Just when Meredith was pushed to do the new sure gangbuster hit, “Injun Joe,”—Meredith cold-called a big producer, Mr. Bloomgarden. “Okay, come by my townhouse at midnight after my show, do a quick run-through,” he said. After, Meredith, with wife Rini at his side, skated home on ice, to their hotel, in New York City. Next morning the producer called them to his office. “Meredith,” he said, “I would be honored to produce your beautiful musical.” He would always treat Meredith and his music the way Meredith treated everyone, all of his life. Sometimes life is fair. Also—in 1981, when I organized the World’s Largest Marching Band, Minneapolis, Meredith came to the airport, not sure where he was, elderly, and—he bowed and kissed my hand! Our memories of Mabel, I am sure, photo, p 295. And that evening, when he stepped up to conduct, he paused, uncertain. But when the band started he began to chant: “Whatta band, whatta band, whatta band!” and into full motion he went.
Q: Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Willson’s signature musical. When The Music Man first came out, what aspects of Mason City and its denizens – both good and bad – did you recognize in his fictitious “River City” backdrop?
A: It was my town; it all seemed normal. Newcomers did have to figure us out: “Come give Iowa a try!” Imagine, though, the librarian and the piano teacher were the same person, about the biggest jobs in town. I looked forward to falling in love on that bridge, but not with some shyster. And I knew there was trouble wherever young boys gathered. But our mayor was nothing like Mayor Shinn. Ours was Ken Kew, nice and well-spoken, and he had a glass eye, made him unique. When the film was re-made, now the town had all colors of people. The Mayor’s wife wasn’t quite so silly. (Both versions: the townspeople all, had music, and lilacs.)
Q: Were there any elements of the 1950’s that you really didn’t want to write about? Did you leave them out or write about them anyway?
A: My mother did not tolerate divorce and so for her that eliminated a lot of people I adored, including Meredith Willson, Bil Baird, (but not his mother); Jackie Gleason (although we could watch the June Taylor dancers at the top of his TV show and then snap it off.) So I couldn’t let Mom gush in the book when I knew she didn’t approve. But the biggest thorn was that our big show in Mason City was “Darktown Varieties,” opened with a minstrel line. Unless I scissored a few blackface out of cast photos—and the occasional Al Jolson Impersonator, p. 74—and re-named the show (that the whole town was in)— It had to be in the story—one year I got the singing-dancing-acting lead, with Jack Johnson, we were 11 and 13. So I went to a PR agency that specialized in African-American lore and history. Their advice? I’d been 12 years old, they said. This was my opportunity to tell how it felt to jitterbug in those scenes, and in many North Iowa towns that had similar shows. (The rest of the show wasn’t minstrelsy, only the opening.) So I documented how and when it faded. And now—the only African-American child in our school, front row in the cast photo, p. 134, emails me scenes for her own book-to-be. And how did she feel about the minstrelsy, nine years old? “I didn’t think anything,” she says. “They weren’t real. No one looks like that.”
Q: What influence did your parents have on your young performing life?
A: During the depression, my mother worked in her brother’s movie theatre and she saw every musical 10 times. I got the costumes! And my dad loved big band music. When he was at the University of Chicago, the ‘30’s, they lived in a hotel; the Lawrence Welk Band performed in the penthouse every Saturday night. I got the music and dance lessons!
Q: How about your peer group? Were there other children “dancing out” almost every night, on programs, in the pre-television era of the 40’s and early 50’s?
A: Lots did—whistlers, entire accordion bands of children, and mimes; they played the bones, harmonica, most played an instrument, or sang.
Q: Did anyone ever tease you?
A: Yes, because I was different, perhaps I danced out more than most. And the petticoats, costumes to kazoo. That is what children do—find the one who is different, for any reason—and go for it. But it was not bullying, just pick-picking, because they could. It is human nature to look down on someone. Because I was so busy dancing I didn’t get to do things with them. So I just avoided the cloakroom before school started. When we were making music for school plays and shows—no problem. Now they are the best readers! I discovered that the man who came to the side door with fresh fruit and vegetables was really paying his doctor bill!
Q: Do you remember the first time you ever tap-danced for a public performance? What were the emotions in play for you that day?
A: My earliest memory is at four, I was the cheerleading mascot and did all the cheers, middle of the gym floor, at basketball games. I loved the rhythms I made, the back and forth with the crowd, never got over that phenomenon, and I always knew that I earned it with hard work. The day I got tap shoes, traded up from the white lace-up high-top baby shoes, was huge.
Q: What was/is your favorite tune to tap to?
A: When I was on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, he played “Stump the Taps” with me, live. Butch Thompson played the piano, and I tapped, to—Clair de Lune; The Minnesota Rouser; Amazing Grace, others. Wabash Cannonball. If Butch Thompson plays—I can dance. He is a premiere pianist. Oh! Morton Gould wrote The Tap Concerto and I did the 20-minute, four-movement piece, tap written into the score as percussion, toured with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Q: How do you feel your own music education and performing experience compares to those growing up today and those who have turned professional?
A: It’s all music. A crowd in any form is an audience. I did get more live performing experience than many can get today. Nothing stuns like standing on a stage when the curtain doesn’t open or the music doesn’t start. No excuses. Do it. And I had constant music education in my school, Holy Family. I wish music education, for all.
Q: Twice in the book is the poignant theme that music stays in the bones after much else has left; specifically, for Mabel Kelso 10 years after her stroke in Mason City and for Meredith Willson, 80, trying to guest-conduct the World’s Largest Marching Band in Minneapolis. How and why do you think this happens, that music stays until the end?
A: I saw it happen, twice, and I have the photos. The book, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, helped me reflect and I shared it with my doctor father. Music changes the brain, connects to the rhythm of the body, relaxes, pulls out a different person. Some might call it magic; others see science.
Q: Every believable main character in a story falls out of character at least once. What did you allow your character in The Days of Song and Lilacs to do offstage and what caused it?
A: “Well. Doesn’t that frost your tits!” she said, back seat of her parents’ car. And that was usually reserved for Iowa cow/farm talk—but she was 12, and oh, the frustration. She’d just tapped her heart out on the floating stage on Clear Lake, the 4th of July and—she placed second, fourth year in a row, criminy! But it was in that moment she realized: contests are contests! No way can judges compare whistlers to tap dancers to mimes—or one child to an adult cowboy band. And then came fall, and another way-out day; she was craving to just be one of the kids, for once. It was half-time of a basketball game. So, she swung like a monkey, high on the bars over the toilet—pumped too high—and she slipped, fell into the toilet, gashing her knee. Actually, she was out of character quite a few times. She really did not care to tap dance with her baby sister at first, the magnetic whipper-snapper-tapper, Julie. We did, however, tap on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, in New York City!
Q: What do you envision as the primary takeaway value for your readers when they reach the last chapter?
A: It was a time and a place, the stars crossed. All wasn’t idyllic, then or now. But music has the power to soften prejudice, ease economic situations, it changes the way the mind works, a case for music education for all. And it stays in the body to the last, when much else is gone, how nice is that?
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?
A: A columnist, Barbara Flanagan, Star Tribune, reported that I had written the manuscript and “it will be published.” After, she recommended two regional publishers. Also, my instructor/editor at The Loft, Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Lost and Found; A Memoir of Mothers, had a good experience with her book at North Star Press. Two weeks after my query, I was asked for the manuscript and…
Q: You have other titles out there, too. What are they and do they embrace a music theme as well?
A: Yes. The Biggest Dance; A Miracle on Concrete –the1,801 tap dancers I put on Hennepin Avenue, the toughest street in downtown Minneapolis, to open the newly-renovated Hennepin Center for the Arts. Not the regular wine and cheese! A little-engine-that-could kind of story, the scene was a grass-roots explosion of tap dancers of every size, all in tap shoes, dressed in their own red white and blue. A lot of the arts culture of the time is in this book, 1979, Twin Cities. (I was on the faculty of the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the time.)
The second book, Big! World Records in the Streets; Plus Tap-Dancing Galore!” tells the tale of six more large-scale people events, all went into the Guinness Book of World Records. I had my own event/event publicity company, TA DA! Special Events for 10 years, a good use of a lifetime of dance and music and a journalism degree.
Q: What would your readers be the most surprised to know about you?
Well, it surprised me! I needed to get my underpants to match my flapper dress, a shade of cream, not glaring white. I was between the one rehearsal and the first performance, a solo in The Boy Friend, with the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, with Christopher Plummer! So. I went home, made some tea, and dipped the pants in, concentrating: was the boiled wet color right? It would dry lighter. I absent-mindedly drank the tea!
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I proposed a class, yesterday, “Catch the Lightning; Creative Book Marketing” to the Loft Literary Center, for January; and I finished—as though any manuscript is ever finished—a story about finding my grandfather’s medical journal of the Winter of 1918—the flu pandemic. He became Iowa history, Iowa’s Doctor of the Year, 1953, by the Iowa State Medical Society.
Readers can learn more about Mary Beth – and buy her books! – at www.bethobermeyer.com.