Monday, August 17, 2015

Despair is No Match for Champagne Music

I had a revelation while watching a 40 year-old episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Which, to be clear, is not something I do very often. 

I grew up with the series, but like many in my generation it was against my will. How many of you also recall Sunday visits to the grandparents’ apartment, where conversation and card playing ceased the moment Welk raised his baton? To them The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the only good reasons to turn on the television. To me it was sappy music performed by sappy people who apparently wouldn’t stop smiling even if someone took a shot at them.

My appreciation for the music has grown since then, but that wasn’t the reason I recently spent a few moments watching Guy and Ralna, courtesy of PBS (which has been airing Welk reruns for years). I did it because there is a lot going on in the world right now, and much of it is not to my liking. Sometimes life in the 2010s is pretty lousy. And there was Lawrence Welk offering a respite, a temporary escape into simpler times. 

 That’s when I had my revelation – 40 years ago, my grandparents were doing the exact same thing.

From my current perspective the 1970s seem like a kinder, gentler time. But many seniors back then were convinced the world was going to hell. The popular music of the day was like a foreign language to them, and the nightly news brought stories of Vietnam War protests and Watergate and gas shortages and American hostages held in Iran, while a feckless government had no answer for what Ted Koppel called “terrorism in the Middle East.”

It was all a bit too much, so they watched Lawrence Welk. Here were tunes they recognized, performed in a style that harkened back to the entertainment of the 1940s – big bands, happy polkas, couples dancing together to songs with understandable lyrics. Everybody seemed so nice.

Say what you will about Welk’s refusal to change with the times, but he knew his audience. From local TV to the ABC network to first-run syndication, he stayed on television from 1951 to 1982.

And he didn’t completely ignore modern music – he just arranged it so it sounded like something Doris Day would have released when FDR was still in the Oval Office. The show’s infamously wholesome take on “One Toke Over the Line” has been watched nearly a million times on YouTube. 

That’s many more views than the clips of “Calcutta,” the instrumental that Welk took to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Take that, Chubby Checker.

If I feel nostalgic when I watch now, it’s as much for my grandmother’s traditional Russian cooking as for the show itself. But if you can get past the sight of all those ladies with the big round faces and pageant hair, and the guys wearing ties wide enough to land airplanes on, there was clearly a lot of talent in the cast.

The Lennon Sisters were the show’s biggest discovery, but there was also the wonderful Irish tenor Joe Feeney, peppy dancers Bobby and Cissy, the exquisite soprano voice of “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer, and the accordion wizardry of Myron Floren. Yes, I said accordion wizardry – it may be the most un-hip instrument ever, but Floren was its master and respect must be paid.

As proudly old-fashioned as it was, in its own way The Lawrence Welk Show could also be progressive. This was the first variety show to regularly feature an African-American in dancer Arthur Duncan. Welk was praised for that back in the day – today he’d probably be called a racist because the only black guy on the show is a tap dancer. With some people you just can’t win.

There was also a gorgeous Mexican singer billed as Anacani who performed songs in Spanish. I still remember her lovely version of "Eres tú," the song that should have won Eurovision in 1973. Another singer performed in a wheelchair. For its time, the show was inclusive.

Though I have recently achieved AARP eligibility, I’m not sure my fondness for The Lawrence Welk Show will continue to escalate.  But with the way the world is headed, I’m also not ruling out any return visits. If things don’t get better, I’ll meet you in front of the bandstand. Until then, Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen....Good Night.


  1. Y'know, I too was force-fed Welk at my grandparents' house, and I grew to hate his show. But I've been in the grips of nostalgia fever for about the past decade or so, and I considered buying some Lawrence Welk DVDs a few years ago. I figured I'd probably enjoy the show now that I'm older, and in any case the nostalgia effect would be enough for me to enjoy it at some level. It sat on my wishlist for months until I finally removed it. But your column has pushed me over the edge and I will be buying some Welk shows for my next DVD purchase.

  2. My work here is done. :) Don't forget the bubbles.

  3. You are not alone.

  4. Believe it or not, there was controversy over The Lennon Sisters wearing one-piece bathing suits on "The Lawrence Welk Show"! I can't say that I have seen footage of the sisters wearing the swimsuits in question, but I have a feeling the suits had modesty panels. It's my understanding that contenders for the Miss America title had to wear one-piece bathing suits with modesty panels for the competition until the early 1970s.

  5. I am watching the show now and I must admit it is better after a few bong hits.....