Carmel arts venue houses hidden treasures

2013-03-30T00:00:00Z Carmel arts venue houses hidden treasuresDan McFeely The Indianapolis Star
March 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CARMEL, Ind. | On the big stage, the sounds of rich music are heard by hundreds seated in the plush chairs of The Palladium.

But down a dark hall, behind locked doors in a room with concrete floors and exposed air ducts, another kind of music plays to an audience of one.

Hour by hour, box after box, Lisa Lobdell can hear in her mind the musical notes of a distant generation as she works through large collections of memorabilia for the American Songbook Initiative.

Lately, the archivist has been humming tunes from "The Music Man," the 1957 blockbuster musical written by Meredith Willson, whose collection of personal artifacts was donated to the Songbook collection.

More than 112 boxes arrived in Carmel last year — other parts of the collection were sent to Julliard School in New York and to Willson's childhood home in Iowa — and Lobdell is still combing through each box, looking for hidden treasures.

"Archiving is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to find in there," she told The Indianapolis Star. "These are things that Meredith and his wife kept in their living room."

They include boxes of vintage lacquer discs of radio programs, leather-bound manuscripts of his works and "handwritten notes from people they knew all over the world" like Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, who he knew well.

These historic and priceless items are sitting on crude metal shelves in the background of the shiny concert venue. But there are long-term plans to build a separate museum for the collection that also would serve as an education center.

"It is one of our goals to raise money to build a free standing museum," said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard. "The nature of this collection, which has national significance, allows us to ask for funding just not in Indiana but across the U.S.

"A larger museum will attract more visitors to Carmel and provide benefit to many Carmel businesses from those who visit from other states."

Michael Feinstein, artistic director for The Palladium and the Center for the Performing Arts, often says his goal is to "keep that great music alive in our hearts." He established the nonprofit venture at The Palladium in 2008 when the venue was still under construction.

Feinstein, a performer himself, is becoming known nationally as the Great American Songbook ambassador, a role he was inspired to take on after serving for several years as an assistant to lyricist Ira Gershwin. That role has extended to a series of concerts and programs, some of which have been broadcast nationally by PBS.

When an old crooner, composer or musician dies — or their surviving spouses and children die — those left behind often look for permanent homes for all the cool stuff they collected during their lives.

"We have acquired 101 discrete collections," said Lobdell. "Our largest to date, 276 boxes, belonged to San Francisco collector Bob Grimes and consists of 34,000 pieces of sheet music and 3,300 books plus a host of other items."

The collection's biggest pieces so far: pianos that belonged to Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting. And a most unique find: A beach towel with a photo of the Andrews Sisters printed on it came from collector Robert Boyer.

Meredith Willson's papers are the second largest package received by the Songbook Initiative.

Willson, the famous musician and composer, was best known for "The Music Man," a five-time Tony Award winner that has gone on to become a staple among musical theaters, large and small. He also wrote "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Here's Love."

As a lyricist and composer, he wrote memorable tunes such as "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas," ''May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" and the "Iowa Fight Song."

In 1984, Willson died at the age of 82, leaving behind his wife, Rosemary, and his huge collection of musical artifacts at his California home. When Rosemary died in 2010, those in charge of Willson's estate had to decide what to do with all that stuff.

What didn't go to his boyhood home in Mason City, Iowa, or to Juilliard has ended up at The Palladium — for temporary storage, Lobdell hopes.

"Clearly, as you can see, we are starting to run out of room here," she said.

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