Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.
Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.
I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?
Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.
Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.
Even the Great Harry James?
Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.
Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota
I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.
Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.
Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!
Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.
Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.
Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!
Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.