Thursday, June 28, 2012

Trouble in River City

MASON CITY, IOWA -- Anvil and trombone salesmen have left River City.  Marion no longer minds the books at the library and cute little Winthrop is a bald movie director now. 

But life goes on in Mason City where at the turn of the century it was such a sweet slice of Americana with lovable Midwest yokels that it inspired Meredith Wilson's "Music Man"  which gave us the song "You Ought to Give Ioway a Try.”

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright  (FLW) gave Iowa a try and may have struck a discordant note by designing an avant garde building for the city in 1910.  A few years later the locals slapped a plastic sign, “European Hotel,” on the front obscuring Wright’s good intentions.

The structure was designed in the shape of a strong box to house a hotel, bank and law office.  All hell broke loose  soon with the Great Depression.  The bank failed, the lawyers moved and the hotel faltered.  In the '30s, mayhem and anarchy American style were the new tradition .  Long before Mr. Jamie Dimon became banking’s poster boy, one sexy Mr. John Dillinger and his buddy Baby Face Nelson were the country’s recognized banking mavens. 

Heavily armed, Dillinger’s gang arrived in 1936 to make an unauthorized withdrawal from the First National Bank totaling $52,000, across the street from the FLW building.  Lawlessness was in the air and River City was no exception.

In the ‘30s  Iowa gave the FLW Prairie School architecture building an ill advised devastating remodel, knocking huge holes in walls for store front windows and destroying the arch shaped bank vault wall.  No one could recognize this eyesore as the great man’s vision. The bank and hotel were gone so it housed a cigar store, finance company, radio station and a flop house for derelict souls before being abandoned to the pigeons and rodents.  Naturally, this prompted a discussion of leveling the whole mess for a parking lot.

Iowans of stature came to  the rescue of the Wright building in the nick of time by getting state funds and private donations totaling more than $20 million to restore the building to Wright's vision, aided by his sketches.  The exotic boutique Historic Park Inn Hotel was reborn in 2011 and it is part of our architectural heritage. 

Meanwhile, Mason City is now “Music City”  honoring their native Meredith Wilson who is remembered for the “Mom, Apple Pie and Flag Waving” love poem to Midwest America, “The Music Man.”  River City is recreated at Music Man Square with wonderful photos from the Wilson career including the 1962 movie’s premier at Mason City’s Palace Theater.  That theater has been leveled.  You can’t save everything.)  Photos show Wilson’ during his stint on NBC Radio in the early ‘50s on “The Big Show” as Talullah Bankhead’s straight man.  Who can forget that as the love theme, “Till There Was You,”  which rings in my ears.

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