By Meredith Willson
Directed by George Pinney
Musical Direction by Terry LaBolt
June 23 at 6:00 pm*
On June 23, the IU Theatre will present a large-scale production of The Music Man, as the opening production for the Indiana Festival Theatre, a celebration of summer theatre for IU, Bloomington, and surrounding communities. Meredith Willson’s musical comedy is one of the most beloved shows in American theatre, and its story of how love changes the lives of a fast-talking salesman, a small town librarian, and the good folks of River City, Iowa, is a comedy that has entertained audiences since 1957. As the New York Times has noted, The Music Man is “as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration.” It’s a terrific way to bring the summer theatre tradition to the heart of the Bloomington campus.
The original production, which won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), ran from 1957 to 1961 for a total of 1,375 performances. The show’s leading man, Robert Preston, placed his personal stamp on the part of “Professor” Harold Hill, the high-pressure, rapid-fire purveyor of musical instruments. Winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, Preston simply set a standard of energetic, crisp performance, which all succeeding Harold Hills must attempt to achieve. And happily enough, there are an interesting set of circumstances that connect Robert Preston to IU Theatre and our summer production of The Music Man.
In 1933, Professor Lee Norvelle established the University Theatre to present plays on campus. The first production of the new organization was The First Mrs. Fraser, a popular comedy about love and marriage that featured student Catherine Feltus in the title role. The play was “so well presented,” wrote the IU yearbook, “that the commencement committee requested that it be given as part of the 1934 commencement program.”
Catherine Feltus, a Bloomington native, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from IU in 1936 and, while acting in area theatres, worked as Lee Norvelle’s teaching assistant for a short period. She made her way to Hollywood to work in movies and radio—her vocal training at IU served her well—and eventually enrolled in the theatre school associated with the Pasadena Playhouse. The Pasadena Playhouse has a long list of well-known alumni (Raymond Burr, Dustin Hoffman, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Hackman are among them), and it was there that Catherine met a student who would become as well known as any, a young Robert Preston.
In his two-year affiliation with the Pasadena Playhouse, Robert Preston appeared in 42 productions. He was in five plays with Catherine, but they never shared a scene. Preston left the Playhouse in 1939 to appear in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, but he continued to date Catherine. They married in 1940, and later that year they also acted together for the first time—in Catherine’s screen test for Paramount Pictures (which was then the studio which had Robert Preston under contract).
Catherine went on to play small parts in mostly “B” movies, although she was featured in starring roles in some of her films in the 1940s, including the female lead opposite Randolph Scott in one of Scott’s classic westerns, Albuquerque (1948). She retired from motion pictures after her final film, 1950’s No Man of Her Own, after which she performed with Robert Preston in several stage roles and supported her husband’s career.
Robert Preston worked in both “A” and “B” movies up to World War II. He is reported to have said that he “would get the best role in every ‘B’ picture and the second best in the ‘A’ picture.” He often appeared in Westerns with many of Hollywood’s great stars: Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard, and Fred MacMurray, among them. He served as an intelligence officer in the Air Force during the Second World War, and when he returned to Hollywood, he was unhappily cast in a series of what he considered to be mediocre pictures during the rest of the 1940s.
In the early 1950s, the Prestons moved to New York City, where Robert took on theatrical work. Between 1953 and early 1957 he appeared in seven Broadway plays and only one Hollywood film.
In 1957 Preston was approached by producer Morton DeCosta and director Kermit Bloomgarden, who asked him to read for the leading role in a new musical they were casting, a piece called The Music Man, written by well-known musician, composer, and radio personality Meredith Willson. As Preston later recalled, they had “tried several well-known musical-comedy performers and found that each one wanted to add something of his own to each scene—something characteristic.” Ray Bolger, a wonderful soft-shoe dancer and singer, best known for his role as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, wanted to open the second act of The Music Man with a bunch his signature numbers. The producers “wondered what the devil happened to The Music Man,” said Preston, “while ‘Once in Love with Amy’ [Bolger’s well-known popular song] —or whatever—came out.”
DeCosta and Bloomgarden began to audition actors not necessarily associated with musicals to play Harold Hill. They thought they had finally found their leading man when Robert Preston, who had never been in a musical, read the part. Meredith Willson, who was in Los Angeles trying to interest Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, and band leader Phil Harris in the role, was skeptical about Preston, thinking of him more in terms of his movie roles as a cowboy or soldier or Mountie. “I’ve got five words for you, Buster,” DeCosta told Willson over the phone. “”wait—till—you—hear—him.”
Two days later, Robert Preston walked into Willson’s home in California, accompanied by producer Bloomgarden. He walked over to Willson’s piano to sing “Ya Got Trouble,” a tricky speak-song that became one of The Music Man’s most popular tunes. “If you can sing ‘Trouble,’” Willson had said, “you can sing anything in the show.” Preston had worked on the song for a week, and after Willson played an upper octave E-flat, “Preston disappeared into Harold Hill,” performing “Trouble” without breaking a sweat. His ownership of the role was complete.
The Music Man opened on December 19, 1957, and enjoyed enthusiastic reviews and full houses. The production garnered five Tony Awards in 1958, including best musical (beating West Side Story, which had opened three months earlier) and best actor in a leading role in a musical for Robert Preston. Preston appeared in the production for two-and-a-half years, about half the show’s successful Broadway run. The Music Man established Robert Preston as a major star, both in the theatre and in film.
Robert Preston and Catherine Feltus Preston continued their association with Lee Norvelle throughout the years, corresponding and visiting with her former “Prof” throughout the years until Norvelle’s death in 1984. Acting almost to the end of his life, Preston died in 1987. He had been married to Catherine for 47 years. Catherine Feltus Preston lived until 2004, having come very far from The First Mrs. Fraser, which, as the first play produced by the founder of IU’s theatre program, established both her profession and an academic program at IU.
Charles Leinenweber—the nephew of Catherine and Robert Preston, Bloomington native, and an IU grad himself—knows well the close connection between his aunt and uncle and Indiana University. In 2010 he donated Robert Preston papers to the Lilly Library, and photographs and papers of Catherine Feltus Preston to the IU Archives.
In conjunction with the Indiana Festival Theatre’s opening production of The Music Man, Charles Leinenweber, Trustee of the Preston estate, is bringing additional Preston-related material to the Bloomington campus, including Preston’s Tony Award for his performance as Harold Hill, to create three displays about his uncle and The Music Man. Of Robert Preston, Leinenweber says, “He would be thrilled about IU’s production,” and he promises the three exhibit cases (two in the Lilly Library and one in the lobby of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center) will be of interest to anyone who enjoys Meredith Willson’s great American musical and its original production.
Thomas P. Shafer
IU Department of Theatre and Drama