Aug. 28, 2002
New Welk special bubbling
Performers will tape the show this weekend in Branson

By Kathryn Buckstaff
Springfield News-Leader, Springfield, MO

Branson — Television’s “Lawrence Welk Show,” in reruns for 20 years, has evolved into an institution that touches people’s hearts all the way to their wallets.

Of the 300 PBS stations across the country, 277 broadcast the syndicated weekly reruns of the show that aired from 1951 until 1984. Programmers squawk in horror at the idea of dropping the Saturday night mainstay.

PBS station programmers get bubbly when they talk about the new special.
   Welk tenor Joe Feeney kisses ragtime pianist Jo Ann Castle (center) as they and singer Ralna English reunite in Branson for a production of a special, which will air on PBS stations across the country during their annual fund-raisers. Bob Linder / News-Leader

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Lori Nors, membership manager at KOZK, Springfield’s PBS station. The Welk specials aired during fund drives are in the station’s top 10 money-makers, Nors said.

“We dread the day we would ever take it off the air,” said Cynthia Smith, spokesperson for KCPT, Kansas City’s PBS station. There, as elsewhere, Welk reruns match prime-time ratings.

More significantly, the 10 Welk specials that have been produced since 1987 are top money-makers during pledge weeks. Other shows may be popular — such as BBC half-hour sitcoms — but they don’t get the dollar support from viewers, Smith said. “People watch, but they don’t respond,” Smith said.

Not so when the Champagne Music Makers hit the air.

“The phones ring off the hook,” said Kim West, spokeswoman for PBS station KETC in St. Louis. “It reaches a core audience that is also an audience that helps support us heavily. We constantly re-evaluate our programming and want to be sure we keep things fresh, but (the Welk show) consistently has a good hold here.”

Legendary accordionist Myron Floren knows why. Floren, now 82, starred on the Welk show for 32 years.

“There are so many senior citizens following the show that can’t think of anything else on Saturday nights,” Floren said.
   Janet Lennon (center) and “Champagne Lady” singer Norma Zimmer greet each other in the break room before rehearsals at the Welk Theatre.
Bob Linder / News-Leader

He and 17 other cast members are rehearsing at the Welk Champagne Theatre for a special that will be taped this weekend by a production crew from the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, a PBS network based in Oklahoma City. The two-hour special — “Lawrence Welk: God Bless America” will air nationwide during pledge week in March 2003.

It was Bob Allen, longtime former manager of the Oklahoma network, who was instrumental in bringing the Lawrence Welk show to public television syndication. Allen also has produced all 11 Welk specials.

What’s gratifying, he said, are the stories he hears about the shows.

“A programmer at a station in Louisiana told me that a lady had called in to him and said, ‘I just had the most thrilling moment of my life. My husband has had Alzheimer’s disease for the last two years. He just sits and doesn’t talk and stares out into space. When you brought the Welk show on, all of a sudden, his eyes lit up, and he got up and came over to me and we started dancing.’ That’s just one of millions of stories out there,” Allen said.

The Lawrence Welk Show premiered on local TV in California in 1951. It aired on ABC from 1955 to 1971. The show was syndicated to commercial stations from 1971 until 1982 when the last original show was produced. It went off syndication in 1984.

That’s when Bob Allen’s father, Corliss B. Allen, a longtime Welk fan, advised his son to syndicate the show. Initially, Allen met resistance from PBS for a Welk special.

But in March of 1987, “From the Heart: A Tribute To Lawrence Welk” premiered. It was the year’s top fund-raiser.

Next, Allen lined up 100 PBS stations who agreed to air the reruns on Saturday nights. It quickly became the highest rated show.

“I don’t know of any other program in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s where throughout this country, people would drop what they were doing and have house parties and get-togethers on Saturday nights to watch a TV program,” Allen said.

Now, the family-friendly programming is finding a new audience.

“We have enormous numbers of new viewers who say, ‘When I was young, I didn’t like it, but now I see why my parents wanted me to watch it.’ And I hear from parents of young kids that when the show comes on, the kids get up and start dancing. There’s no other show on TV where you can do that.”

The popularity is no surprise to Larry Welk, the famous bandleader’s son.

“People feel like he was a friend, and when he was alive, that’s the way he felt, too,” Welk said. “His motto was ‘I don’t play the music I enjoy. I play the music they enjoy.’”

It’s not just the public that Welk still touches. The show’s ongoing success provides a nest egg of residuals for the family of Welk performers. Floren still plays a full schedule of concerts and appearances.

“I just can’t sit around,” Floren said.

At Tuesday’s rehearsal, longtime Welker Joe Feeney, wearing a ball cap with his hands stuck in the pockets of his jeans, belted out “Born Free,” filling the room with his clear tenor voice.

Feeney, 71, plays Vegas-area clubs and performs with symphonies.

“I love to sing, so it doesn’t matter where I sing whether it’s a concert or a nursing home,” Feeney said.

As the stars come into the theater, everyone hugs. It’s like a family reunion, says singer Ralna English, who joined the Welk show when she was 12.

English continues to tour with longtime singing partner Guy Hovis. She has a new CD coming out called “My God, My Country” and will be with the Branson Welk show for the Christmas season.

“It’s a miracle,” English said. “We’re like the Energizer Bunny. I didn’t think it would last this long. It’s been a good run, and it’s still fun for us.”
 
Tickets are on sale for three live tapings of the PBS special “Lawrence Welk: God Bless America.” The shows — featuring 18 Welk stars — will be at 7 p.m. on Friday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $18 or $10 for Stone and Taney county residents. For reservations, call 1-800-505-9355 or 336-3575.

 

 

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