`Welk Show' veteran bubbling over coast-to-coast tour

By Carrie Seidman, Albuquerque Tribune, March 16, 2003

When Ralna English was offered a permanent position on "The Lawrence Welk Show" in 1969, her first inclination was to decline.
As a young girl growing up in Spur, Texas (outside of Lubbock), she had watched the series many a Saturday night with her parents. She'd even dreamed of appearing on the show to please her grandmother, who was a huge fan of Welk's.
She since has launched a successful singing career, with a regular stint at a club in California that also featured Steve Martin and Jim Nabors. As a performer in her 20s, she wasn't too sure about throwing in her fate with the champagne bubbles set and the man who regularly heralded his seniors-pleasing singers and dancers as "wunnerful, wunnerful."
Thirty-three years later, English, who will appear in the Live Lawrence Welk Show at the Hiland Theatre on Monday night, says she has no regrets.
"Gosh, no," says English, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and continues to host syndicated reruns of the show, as well as perform and record on her own. "I believe this was meant to be. It's been the most wonderful career for me. This is where I belonged all those years."
One hundred years after the birth of Welk and 11 years after his death at 89 in 1992, English (who declined to give her age) and other Welk regulars are bringing his long-lived tradition of wholesome song and dance to the stage.
The current monthlong, coast-to-coast tour includes five other stalwarts besides English: Welk's favorite dancing partner, Mary Lou Metzger; tap dancer Jack Imel; country singer Ava Barber; jazz clarinetist Henry Cuesta and baritone Dick Dale, one of the first people Welk ever hired. It will not include English's ex-husband and former partner on the show, Guy Hovis - but not because of any animosity.
"We work together all the time," says English, taking a break from pre-tour rehearsals in Branson, Mo. "He's remarried, but we're all family."
That family feel extends to the traveling show, which, says English, "to be honest, is a lot like the TV show."
"The Lawrence Welk Show" first aired on ABC 50 years ago. When the series was canceled in 1971, the show landed a syndication deal that kept it in production until Welk retired in 1982.
Reruns continued until 1987, when it began to be shown on public television stations, with clips from old shows interspersed with updated commentary from hosts like English. Currently it is aired on 275 stations across the United States, making it the No. 1 syndicated show on PBS.
That says a lot about the staying power of the gentleman English calls "a happy man who loved what he did." What it doesn't say is what captivated young talents like English to stick around.
By way of explanation, English tells about her recent appearance on "Larry King Live." At one point, King asked her what she most remembered about Welk.
"Well, he was very charismatic," began English.
"Charismatic?" roared King. "You must be kidding!"
For anyone who remembers the original shows, charismatic might not be the word that immediately comes to mind for the taciturn Welk. His demure applause and head bobs after performances was about as animated as he ever got. But English remembers him otherwise.
"You couldn't know it from the TV show, but he could take an audience and have them in the palm of his hand in two seconds flat," she says.
English adds that Welk was a great practical joker and that "he loved to tease us girls."
The stage show will contain many of the elements that made Welk's show so popular, says English, including gospel tunes, big band swing music, an adagio dance sequence and a patriotic grand finale. What it may not contain is the bubbles that were a regular trademark of the show.
"Oh dear, I was afraid you were going to ask me that," says English, laughing. "They're trying to get a bubble machine, but I don't know if they've got one yet. I'm going to tell them people will be disappointed if they don't."
As for English, she is not at all disappointed with the choice she made about her career many years ago.
"It's true, people called the show square," English says, "but as square as we are, we're still around. We've had the last laugh.
`WUNNERFUL, WUNNERFUL' - The "Live Lawrence Welk Show." 7 p.m. Monday, March 17. Hiland Theatre, Frank A. Peloso Performing Arts Center, 4804 Central Ave. S.E. $39.50. 262-9301.



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