Ever meet a fellow by the name of Hill?
The Music Man, first performed on Broadway in 1957 and later made into a movie in 1962, is one of the best musicals of all time. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s clever and just a smidge racy, especially considering the time it’s supposedly taking place (1912). It is often parodied or referred to in current day pop culture, including references in Family Guy, Ally McBeal, and several movies. Heck, even the news channels get in on it, with MSNBC anchors referring to Glenn Beck as Harold Hill on the air (thanks, Wikipedia!). The Beatles covered “Til There Was You”, and many of the other songs have been used in various ways over the years.
However, there is one song that rarely gets referenced, and one line in it foreshadows future development more than any other line in the show. That song is “Rock Island”, and it’s the show opener. What most people take from that song is the introduction of our leading character and nemesis to all the traveling salesmen on the train who sing the song, Professor Harold Hill. But then comes this part, near the middle of the song:
Why it’s the Model T Ford made the trouble, made the people want to go, want to get, want to get, want to get up and go, seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty-two, twenty-three miles to the county seat (yessir, yessir) Who’s gonna patronize a little bitty two by four kinda store anymore?
And with that, the salesmen move their focus to Hill, leaving behind the image of people driving miles to reach a larger store with more to offer. Coincidentally, the year the musical was adapted for film was the year the supermarket chain Meijer opened their first modern superstore in Grand Rapids, MI.
Meijer pioneered the “One Stop Shopping” craze back in 1962, mirroring the rise of the personal automobile, creating the first generation of people willing to drive a bit farther to get everything they needed in one place. In theory, that sounds great – but in practice, this forced the “little bitty two by four kind of stores” out of business and resulted in fewer jobs and lower wages for those working these retail jobs. Vast seas of parking for those Model T Fords. Lower prices for the consumer – but at what cost?
Clearly this is not a groundbreaking topic. People discuss big box retail and the rise of the automobile all the time, and while the current round of retailers (Target, Walmart, Meijer, etc.) are amending their designs to fit the aesthetic in certain places, they rarely do it if not required. The damage has been done and continues to be done in cities where the planners and elected officials lose sight of the bigger picture in pursuit of increased tax revenues at the expense of decreased water and air quality, light pollution and other things that necessarily go along with giant swaths of paved parking and hundreds of thousands of square feet of well-lit, well-air-conditioned retail space. Increased mobility through personal automobiles has opened up the landscape; people are now willing to drive seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty-two, twenty-three miles to the County Seat (at the indoor shopping mall next to the Target and the Walmart).
As if you can’t already blame enough on the auto industry in this country, it appears the Model T Ford made the trouble in this case too – or certainly helped it along. Meredith Willson, you were wise beyond your time.