Lawrence Welk had his detractors, but he knew how to connect with Middle America

Erie Times News
by Kevin Cuneo, Sunday, March 3, 2002

The name 'Live' Lawrence Welk Show, scheduled to play March 6 at the Warner Theatre, seems misleading. How can it be live, after all, when Lawrence Welk died in 1992? Ah, but the spirit of the champagne music man continues to soar, and the show scheduled for Erie will indeed be live.
It will feature veteran performers from "The Lawrence Welk Show," which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1971 and then in syndication for 11 more seasons. In fact, it refuses to die. In 1987, Bob Allen of the Oklahoma City public TV network resurrected old reruns, repackaged them, and began circulating them to other PBS stations.
At last count, "The Lawrence Welk Show" could be seen on 275 public stations. Fresh opening and closing segments, featuring brief appearances by former stars from the series, are sandwiched around old shows. The performers all say what a prince Welk was and how much fun it was to do the show.
Of course, we never see Champage Lady Alice Lon or former dancer Cissy King, who were fired by Welk for "showing too much knee" on camera. When Welk dismissed Lon in 1959, telling her, "Cheesecake does not fit our image," it caused an uproar.
"All I did was sit on a desk and cross my legs," Lon replied. "That's the way a lady sits down."
Thousands of fans sent angry letters, causing Welk to reconsider Lon's firing. But he couldn't convince her to return to the show. So Welk hired Norma Zimmer. She survived 22 seasons — the rest of the show's live run.
Lawrence Welk had his detractors and his music was relentlessly corny, but he knew how to connect with Middle America — especially senior citizens. He was highly sensitive to viewers' letters and kept a "fever chart" on which every comment on a performer, pro and con, was carefully tallied, according to the authors of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows."
"Performers with a lot of favorable comments were featured more, and those in disfavor with the letter-writing public tended to disappear from view," writes Tim Brooks. "The viewer, too, was part of the family."
Cissy, who used to dance with Bobby Burgess, started to fall out of Welk's good graces when he discovered that she was asking friends and relatives from around the nation to write in and praise her performance.
Some in the cast chafed under Welk's old-style, paternalistic ways, but you'll hear few complaints from Ralna English, who will appear with the show in Erie. Ralna, who often used to sing duets on the show with her former husband, Guy Hovis, describes Welk as "a wonderful man."
During a recent phone interview, she insisted Welk had a dynamic personality, boundless energy, and an amazing bond with his audience. "He was very charismatic," Ralna said, "though you probably couldn't see that on TV."
We couldn't. Welk seemed every bit as charismatic as Ed Sullivan, another major TV star of that era, but neither would rate as high as Elmer Fudd.
Later, a typical Lawrence Welk show would offer well-scrubbed performers such as Bobby and Cissy or the Lennon Sisters, maybe an Irish tenor, accordionist Myron Floren, and if the viewers were lucky, a tap dancer. By the late '60s, black tap dancers had disappeared from American TV. On every show, that is, except Lawrence Welk's.
In the face of numerous protesters who demanded that Welk release the tap dancer from his plantation, the bandleader refused. Years later, Broadway tap dancer Gregory Hines stood up for Welk. "That's the trouble with white America," Hines said in a 1984 interview with Playboy. "Here, you have a bandleader with enough brains to hire a performer people want to see, and all these do-gooders want is to get the man fired."
Actually, for a lot of performers, that's what it came down to — the work. English said that Welk paid singers and dancers only union scale (musicians received a little more), but that their affiliation with the show led to other opportunities. "We toured after the season ended, and look at me, I've been a part of this show for 32 years now," she said.
Welk, a North Dakota farm boy, was known for his frugality, but he did set up a generous pension plan for his employees. The ones who remained with him a long time are now well off financially, English said.
"A lot of us are still working, too," she added.
"Lawrence may have his detractors," Floren said, "but you'd rarely find a more thoughtful, loyal boss. He knows the names of all the children of everyone in the cast, including the performers, technicians, and publicists. He sends them presents every Christmas and on their birthday."
Maybe so, but it sounds as if their parents would have preferred a raise.
"You've got to remember that Lawrence comes from the old school," Floren said. "In spite of the resources we've built up over the years, he still worries about disaster. To him, the greatest tragedy would be an inability to meet the payroll."
Floren also enjoyed his boss' sense of humor. "There was a time in the late '60s when several members of the band encouraged Lawrence to play more modern songs. So he decided to devote an entire show to the music of the Beatles," Floren recalled.
"Some weeks later, Lawrence received a note from John Lennon praising him and the band for our innovative rendition of 'Twist and Shout,' which John wrote as 'A Twista anda Shouta.' Lawrence showed me the note and asked with a smile, 'Do you think he's making fun of the way I speak?'"
It didn't matter. The only thing that did is that Lawrence Welk's audiences adored him. And they apparently still do.


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