So today, for no good reason, the topic is Lawrence Welk. Merely because I am just catching up on TV after a week away (DVRs are such a boon to the life of a pop-culture addict/hermit) and finally saw the beginning of Betty White’s turn on SNL, which included an opening sketch spoofing the Lawrence Welk Show. A-wun-ana-two-ana . . .
Confession: I did not grow up watching The Lawrence Welk Show. By the time I was old enough to care, the show was in syndication and competed with the country-music variety show Hee Haw. Why, on God’s green earth, a conservative Southern Baptist family tuned in to cornball comedy and country music on Saturday nights instead of the tasteful song stylings of Champagne Music, I’ll never know. Unless it was the fact that we were Southern Baptists, and we did not discuss scandalous things like champagne. (I had the urge to write “shamepagne” there for a minute, and then I realized that was like the worst joke I’d tried to make in a week, so then I started to erase it, and then I figured I’d leave it there as a testament to the inevitability of creating mediocrity in the pursuit of great art. Besides, somebody will think it’s funny, whether they admit it or not.)
So anyway: there’s this misconception about Welk that English was not his first language. But it was, it was just taught to him by people who had accents. Welk was born in North Dakota in 1903, into a little sod house. He was from a tight little German-Ukrainian immigrant community in Strasburg, where the family homestead is now a tourist attraction.
While he was growing up, Welk taught himself to play accordion on an instrument that had been in the family for generations. He played it to death, bought a cheap replacement that soon fell apart, and finally struck a deal with his dad to get funding for a $400 accordion that he would pay off through four years of work on the family farm. When he finished his indentured servitude at age 21, he lit out for greener pastures (OK, yes, pun intended, and now that I’ve admitted it, it’s not funny anymore) despite his dad’s assurances that he’d be back home as soon as he got hungry.
A self-taught conductor, Welk spent 25 years touring with his band before establishing his television show in 1955. ABC canceled it in 1971, saying the audience was too old and the music was out of date. But Welk managed to get his show syndicated in 250 U.S. and Canadian markets and carried on until 1982. North Dakota State University says he completed more than 1,500 shows.
A quote from a 1964 interview with Lawrence Welk, thanks again to NDSU: “We try to please our audience. We try to bring it some joy, happiness and relaxation and always to be in good taste—the kind of entertainment that should come into the home.” Ah, wunnerful. I love how “good taste” just somehow personifies the conservatism of the 1960s.
Back to Mr. Welk. He showcased musical numbers with which his audience would already be familiar, and only branching out into current tunes as a novelty. As the show developed over the years, Welk’s orchestra adapted some popular tunes to his “champagne” style, which actually means I should blame him for the easy-listening rock music adaptations that traumatized me during childhood. Mr. Welk, if you had just heard this one orchestra version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” I swear you would have reconsidered that whole idea.
Welk employed a “Champagne Lady” with whom he would dance during his shows; at least one was phased out after she got married and another, Alice Lon, was fired for showing “too much leg.”Welk told the audience he would not tolerate “cheesecake” like that on the show. Evidently he tried unsuccessfully to hire her back after numerous protests in his fan mail. Can you imagine what would have happenned today instead? A “Bring Alice Back” Facebook page! Online petitions! Flash mobs! Tweets from Ms. Lon herself!
I wonder if it would work to do a sketch featuring a fans’ campaign to God to send a popular celebrity back from the dead. Me, I’d ask for Jim Henson. The online campaign would be all puppets and impassioned pleas and — my favorite thing about the Muppets — things blowing up unexpectedly. You know actor/puppeteer Jason Segal would be all over that.
Oh wait, do I need to explain that? He’s on “How I Met Your Mother.” He wrote the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which includes a <a href="http://“>Dracula puppet show subplot . And he’s been entrusted with the script for the next Muppet movie. I love this guy.
But I digress. And frankly there’s so much more we haven’t talked about yet: Welk’s recordings, his “career” as a minister in the Universal Life Church (in such fine company as Tori Spelling (occupation “actor”), Lydia Lunch (“punk, spoken word confrontationalist”), and John Wayne Bobbitt (“penectomy survivor”). Also his business dealings: if you have a hankering, after reading this, for more Welkiana, you can always go and stay at the Welk Resort in Branson, Missouri (where else?) where featured performers this fall include Ray Stevens and Tony Orlando with the regular Welk performers the Lennon sisters (not related to John). There are other Welk Resorts in Palm Springs, San Diego, and Cabo, Mexico. The San Diego resort contains the Lawrence Welk Museum.
But wait, here’s another fun fact about his business affairs: Welk Music Group operates my favorite music label, Sugar Hill. Which is decidedly not easy-listening music, although I find it easy to listen to just about anything Sugar Hill produces.
Welk, having left a considerable legacy, died in 1992 of pneumonia, survived by his wife of 61 years (of course; no divorces for this man!) several children, and a passel of grandchildren. His shows continue to be syndicated on public television.
Carry on, tasteful and appropriate readers! And the rest of you.