Welk had his detractors, but he knew how to connect with Middle
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.
I did was sit on a desk and cross my legs," Lon replied.
"That's the way a lady sits down."
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 'The Live
Lawrence Welk Show' WILL APPEAR MARCH 6 AT 7 P.M. AT THE WARNER
THEATRE. TICKETS ARE $35, $32.50, $30 AND ARE AVAILABLE AT THE
TULLIO ARENA BOX OFFICE, TICKETMASTER OUTLETS, AND BY CALLING
452-4857. SENIORS GET A $5 DISCOUNT.