Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
February 21, 2003

WELK SHOW BUBBLES INTO TOWN
EVEN SOME WHIPPERSNAPPERS CAN GET BEHIND CHAMPAGNE SHTICK
MARK WASHBURN, STAFF WRITER

Well, Poli-Grip my gums and Bengay my aching bones! Poke me with a tail fin and polka with a fellow Finn - the Lawrence Welk Show is coming to town.

Yeah, yeah, we know the kitschy '50s (and '60s, and '70s) have enjoyed a bit of a revival among hipsters over the past decade or so. But going on the road with the champagne music gang, including some of the original members, seems like a lost cause because - can I just say what we're all really thinking? - the fans are like ... d-e-a-d.

Lawrence Welk made his living keeping your grandparents off the streets on Saturday nights. It's only a matter of time before they open a pyramid and find hieroglyphics of Egyptian elders watching bubbles come out of a box.

And now it's a traveling production? Talk about an Antiques Road Show. And who's going? I'm thinking "Sellout at Forest Lawn" for Welk and company, the Grateful Dead of the Geritol set.

So, pull up the beanbag chair and flop down a second because you'll need to be sitting to hear this: Not only do people go to the Lawrence Welk show, some have been known to (and this is a sobering image) actually dance in the aisles. With a partner.

While you're seated, chew on this (if you still can):

Lawrence Welk never really went away. Oh, he died and all that, but his old shows are still on television, still Saturday nights, on PBS (7 p.m., WUNG, Channel 58). His original gang, plus some replacements, still make holiday specials. And perform in Branson, Mo. And do national tours.

The Lawrence Welk Show comes to Ovens Auditorium on Thursday. And people with pulses will be there.

"You'd be surprised. We have young people who watch our show," says Ralna English, an up-and-coming recording artist back in the early '60s who with nerve and pluck basically shot her way into an audition for Welk. Her grandmother - uh-huh, see what I mean? - loved the show and Ralna wanted to do something exciting for her.

Welk hired Ralna for a single show and liked her. She soon had a permanent gig.

"We've actually got teen fans," says English, who lives in Arizona and is part of the tour that hits Charlotte next week.

"I don't know if they're closet teenagers or not. One girl sent me pictures of her room and it's plastered with pictures of me and the show."

Hang in the old beanbag. There's more.

Because the old musical gang still makes specials - one with a patriotic theme will air on PBS in March - "The Lawrence Welk Show" is technically the longest-running show in TV history that's still in production.

It's been around so long that if you were born the day the first time Welk went on TV, you would have gotten a letter two years ago from AARP inviting you to join.

Welk's brand of entertainment endures. Just ask Shirley and James Knox.

As newlyweds in 1941, they used to make the 50-mile trip from Shenandoah, Iowa, to dance to Lawrence Welk at the Peony Park ballroom in Omaha. "It was a good band to dance to. That's what we did in our courting days - we danced," Shirley says.

The Knoxes, who now live in Banner Elk, still dance to Welk - in the kitchen. They've been married 62 years today.

"Visually, the production values were very high, for the sets and the lighting, and the costumes were just gorgeous," says Hope Nicholls, 43, a musician who operates the Plaza-Midwood boutique Boris & Natasha, which markets retro-classic styles. Welk's show always arrests her when she's channel-surfing because of the way it looks.

"Pop culture today is very 1950s," she says. "Reality TV and the contest shows harken back to the game shows in '50s. Variety entertainment is very popular."

Maybe Welk's road show still succeeds because it's the only wholesome variety show still around. Some country music, some polka, a guy on an accordion, a flash of Americana, comedy so corny it hurts not to laugh, dancers going full bore with sequins a-dazzle, an actual orchestra with a trumpeter who stands for his spotlight stanzas.

What's not to like? You look at the performers and either they're the best phonies in the world or they're really, really having fun at what they do and are so good at it the audience is grooving along, like totally.

But please. No dancing in the aisles.

Remember your age.

PREVIEW

The Lawrence Welk Show

The new Welk show includes original TV cast members: singer Ralna English; tap-dancer and marimbist Jack Imel; dancer Mary Lou Metzger; country performer Ava Barber; jazz clarinetist Henry Cuesta and singer Dick Dale (no, not the king of surf guitar). Also appearing: The Lawrence Welk Orchestra, from Branson, Mo.; Russian dancers Pashaand Aliona and tap-dancing accordionist Tim Padilla.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Ovens Auditorium.

TICKETS: $38.50

DETAILS: (704) 522-6500; www.ticketmaster.com

A Little Lawrence History

Lawrence Welk was born in 1903 to German-Russian immigrant parents in a sod farmhouse near Strasburg, N.D. Everyone in the hamlet spoke German and Welk didn't learn English until his 20s, accounting for his much-imitated accent. His father played the accordion and young Lawrence mastered the bulky instrument by the fourth grade. He left the farm at age 21 and started a band.

He toured the Midwest, did radio and started television in 1951 on KTLA, Los Angeles. ABC picked up the show in 1955 and it grew with regulars like the harmonizing Lennon Sisters, tap-dancing ex-Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess, "Champagne Lady" Norma Zimmer and Irish tenor Joe Feeney.

In 1971, ABC canceled "Welk." Ratings were high but ABC wanted a younger audience. It replaced him with a Saturday night movie that tanked in the ratings.

Sometimes getting fired is the best thing that can happen. Welk syndicated his show and wound up on about 200 stations, many more than he had with ABC. The show ended in 1982, but remained on TV in reruns and is still shown on PBS (WTVI, Channel 42, 7 p.m. Saturdays).

Welk invested shrewdly in real estate and bought the rights to 20,000 songs, including the body of Jerome Kern's work. He established a retirement resort near San Diego and when he died in 1992, his estate was estimated in excess of $100 million.

Our Readers Reminisce

"I remember visiting my grandmother and watching Lawrence Welk. I preferred rock 'n' roll but I grew to like Lawrence Welk because of the joy that it brought her. Seeing the show now brings back memories of her and I find myself actually watching for enjoyment. Guess I'm getting old (or smarter)." Ken Neese, Monroe

"The orchestra, singers, dancers, costumes, and choreography were beautiful. We still enjoy it on PBS." Dawn and James Hester, Conover

"Watching Lawrence Welk meant that I would be able to stay up late to watch "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" because it meant my grandparents were baby-sitting that night." Elsie Magner, Charlotte.

"My parents are 83 and live in Hickory. They started watching about 10 years ago. Before that, it didn't interest them but they are disgusted by television now - the stupidity, blatant sexuality, blood and gore and senseless violence." Sally Randby

"When the `Lawrence Welk Show' last came on tour, our children groused about having to go to the `old folks' show. But our son, who was learning to play the clarinet, got wide-eyed when he heard Henry Cuesta play. `How can he hold that note so long?' he asked. Our daughter, a dancer, was entranced watching Bobby and Elaine dance. She went home with a feather that blew off Elaine's dress." Vic Kirkman, Charlotte

 

 

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