Musical family simply "Wunnerful"
By Dennis Oblander, Heritage Newspapers, Monroe, MI
 
TOLEDO — When "4 Wunnerful Women" take the stage at Toledo’s Valentine Theatre on May 19 and again at Soaring Eagle Casino on May 20, there is no need to take the family — they’ll already be there.
 
Ava Barber, Ralna English, Gail Farrell and Mary Lou Metzger, stars of the Lawrence Welk Show’s "musical family," will use their unique bond of friendship to spark a show that blends nostalgia, humor and musical variety.
 
Also performing are two "wunnerful" family men: Barber’s husband, Roger, is the show’s drummer; Metzger’s husband, Richard Maloof, a Welk show regular, will play bass.
 
"It’s a very tight, well-produced show that has a lot to offer," English said in a telephone interview from Phoenix. "We cover a lot of material. We do country. We do gospel. We do patriotic, and Mary Lou even does a little Broadway."
 
The musical mix will be reminiscent of the "Champagne Music" popularized by maestro Lawrence Welk whose television show ran for 27 years after its coast-to-coast network debut in July 1955 on ABC.
 
Resurrected by PBS in 1987, it continues as one of public television’s top-rated shows.
 
Born in 1903 to an immigrant farming family in North Dakota, Welk’s musical journey began with mastery of his father’s treasured accordion.
 
Survived by his wife of 61 years, Fern, until her death last February at age 98, Welk died May 17, 1992, nearly 10 years to the day of the Toledo concert.
 
"His show was almost like a ministry to all the millions of people that have watched it over the years," said Farrell who regularly appeared on the show with her husband, singer Ron Anderson. Farrell came up with the vocal charts and arrangements for "Wunnerful" and will sing and play piano.
 
" ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ has been much maligned and laughed at through the years," Farrell said in a phone interview from her Nashville home.
 
The Welk show was known as much for sparkling musicianship as it was for its corny humor and squeaky-clean appeal.
 
"Nobody liked it except the American public," Farrell said.
 
Some people think the Lawrence Welk fans have "died off," Barber said in a telephone interview from her Knoxville home, "but we get a lot of young people in the audience, believe it or not."
 
Already enjoying local success as a Tennessee-based country vocalist, Barber joined the Welk show after she and her husband, Roger, sent Welk an audition tape. He responded by inviting her to meet him at a Nashville golf tournament in which he was participating.
 
In October, 1973, Welk had Barber, who had never been out of Tennessee, flown to California, where, after waiting out a nerve-wracking industry strike she finally made her debut on national television at age 19. She remained with the show until network production ended in 1982.
 
Metzger joined the Welk show in 1970. A vocalist and gifted dancer, Metzger handles the show’s staging and choreography.
 
With a background in theater dating to childhood, she had a hand in the 1990 founding of Actors Conservatory Ensemble, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, producing theater company.
 
In recent years, she has been involved in producing many stage and video projects. For the past four years she has produced the Christmas shows for the Welk Resort in Escondido, Calif., and she has crusaded tirelessly nationwide in support of public television.
In a musical highlight set for the Toledo performance, Barber is joined by Farrell and English for an old country song titled "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." Barber will also lead audience participation bits and serve up some improvised humor.
 
"I sort of wing the comedy," Barber said, "and the people laugh, believe it or not."
 
Also on tap are a medley of "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful," "Sunny Side of the Street" and a collaboration by Farrell, Metzger and English on "Boogie, Woogie Bugle Boy."
 
"We have a few numbers that we are adding for this Toledo show," said English who appeared regularly on the Welk show in a vocal duet act with her former husband, Guy Hovis.
 
"We are going to do the old arrangement of ‘Mr. Sandman’," English said. The song by the Chordettes hit the charts in 1954. English will also sing her signature tune, "How Great Thou Art."
"We are doing a lot of numbers together," Farrell said of "4 Wunnerful Women."
 
"There is a lot of production in this show, where we interact and sing together and sit on stools and reminisce."
 
Barber said the women didn’t know how things were going to work out when the "4 Wunnerful Women" first performed together in a McAllen, Texas, venue early last year.
 
The entertainers are still grooming and critiquing their performance.
 
"I think in the beginning we went out and we each did more of our act and then did our things together," Barber said. "Now, we’re trying to put everybody all through the show, plus do our group things. I’m really proud of it."
 
The format was inspired by the late 1970s "Four Girls Four" collaboration of Rosemary Clooney, Rose Marie, Helen O’Connell and Margaret Whiting, English said.
 
"Probably about 10 years ago, up to about 1992, I was traveling around the country doing shows with some people from the Welk show, and in every venue we would play we would either be following them ("Four Girls Four") or they would be ahead of us.
"I had met Rosemary Clooney and worked with her before, so I got this idea that maybe four of us from the (Welk) show would get together at some point in time."
 
Not long after English floated the idea past Metzger and Barber, Roger booked the act in Texas.
 
"So we had to pull this together real quick," English said. "I wasn’t intending for it to go right away, but it is happening and we are having so much fun. It’s absolutely a real joy to be working with these women."
 
For Farrell, "Wunnerful" is a chance to showcase her keyboard skills, something she was rarely able to do on the Welk show.
For Barber, the show keeps her in touch with other members of the "musical family," a notion whose true meaning did not strike her until production ended and she returned to Tennessee after eight years on the coast.
 
"I think we have a lot of people who kind of get lifted up by our show," English said.
 
"They feel the warmth that’s there and the love that’s there between us.
 
"I don’t think Lawrence Welk himself even knew what he was creating when he called it his "musical family." But it truly is; we truly are a musical family."
 
IF YOU GO:
 
WHAT: "4 Wunnerful Women," featuring "Lawrence Welk Show" stars, Ava Barber, Ralna English, Gail Farrell and Mary Lou Metzger.
WHEN: 3 p.m. May 19, Toledo, Ohio, and 3 p.m. May 20, Mount Pleasant.
WHERE: Toledo — Valentine Theatre, Superior at Adams streets, downtown; Mount Pleasant — Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort, 6800 Soaring Eagle Blvd.
ADMISSION: Toledo — $20-$40, 1-419-242-2787; Mount Pleasant — $27, 1-800-585-3737.


 

 

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