That Rhymes with ‘P’ and That Stands for Pool

TCM struck up the band to wind down night two with a poolside screening of THE MUSIC MAN (1962) under the palm trees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The crowd-pleasing musical had toes taping to tunes like “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”  and “Wells Fargo Wagon.” On hand to introduce the film was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, who called it a “joyous affair” and one of his favorite musicals.

musicmanTHE MUSIC MAN features Robert Preston as con man Harold Hill, who’s out to scam an Iowa town into shelling out the dough for a fake boys band (“I say River City’s gotta have a Boys Band”). But along the way, he falls for local librarian Marian (played by Shirley Jones) and love complicates his plan. The original stage production of THE MUSIC MAN took Broadway by storm in 1957. It won five Tonys including Best Musical and Best Lead Actor for Preston. But he almost didn’t make the jump to the big screen. As the story goes, Warner Bros. wanted a big name for the screen adaptation, with Frank Sinatra topping the list. Cary Grant and Bing Crosby were some other names that got tossed around. But the show’s creator, Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for THE MUSIC MAN, insisted on Preston.

Robert Preston got his acting start in the 1930s at the celebrated Pasadena Playhouse. He took classes and appeared on stage with several other up-and-coming actors such as Dana Andrews, George Reeves and Victor Mature. During one production, a Paramount scout saw Preston and signed him to a contract. Preston spent the 40′s in bit parts and largely unsuccessful film roles—including a number of westerns. In that genre, he appeared opposite Susan Hayward in Tulsa (1949), Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith (1949) and Robert Ryan in Best of the Badmen (1951) to name a few. Preston moved to television and theatre in the 50′s, finding greater fame on Broadway than the big screen.

But THE MUSIC MAN’s successful leap to the big screen changed all that. The film was the fifth highest grossing film of 1962. It was nominated for five Oscars, winning just one—for Best Musical Score. And it earned Preston a little respect in Hollywood. His next pictures would take him back to the world of westerns, but they were much higher profile. He appeared in the all-star How the West Was Won (1962) and the rodeo flick Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen. But perhaps Preston’s best screen performance would come in Blake Edwards’ 1982 cross-dressing film Victor/Victoria. He would win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as cabaret singer Carol ‘Toddy’ Todd.

It’s been said that Preston had never appeared in a musical or sung a note professionally before THE MUSIC MAN. If true, it’s certainly a case of the right role and the right actor connecting at the perfect moment. He would go on to win a second Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in 1967—for the scenes-from-a-marriage show I Do! I Do ! co-starring Mary Martin.