Welk star promises 'wunnerful' show
Tribune Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2004

For fans such as Thelma Smith, "The Lawrence Welk Show'' was more than wholesome entertainment, more than polkas and accordions.
It was like family.
For this reason, the New Carlisle resident, who began tuning in to the show early in her marriage, especially enjoyed the Christmas shows.
"They'd bring all their families on. Each year we could see how much they'd grown. The younger ones would have children,'' says Smith, who still watches reruns of the show on local PBS station WNIT Television, Channel 34.
"You sort of grew up right along with them.''
That sort of sentiment is echoed by singer Ralna English, an original cast member from the Welk show, during a recent telephone interview.
For English, touring with the live "Lawrence Welk Show,'' that travels to South Bend this weekend, the long-running program created special relationships.
"We're all friends,'' says English, who joined the show in 1969. "After 35 years, we're a family. We truly are really close. We've gone through a lot of illnesses and deaths and a lot of happy times.''
Many of those happy times came onstage, where the show, fronted by the renowned bandleader, featured plenty of music, singing and dance numbers. To its legions of devoted followers -- many of them families who gathered around the TV set to watch, it was truly "wunnerful.''
English, who had a nightclub act and sang commercial jingles before joining the Welk show, says the bandleader was the key to the show's success.

"From him I learned respect for the audience. His main goal was to please the audience,'' she says of Welk, who died in 1992. "He was extremely charismatic, believe it or not. It was hard to see on TV. ... There was a reason he lasted so long.''
The show lives on today in a live stage version that is similar to the show that Welk took on the road many years ago.
"They (audiences) can expect a great two-hour fast-paced entertaining show,'' English says, including tap-dancing and marimba-playing Jack Imel, Welk's favorite dancing partner Mary Lou Metzger and, English notes, a "great new country segment.''
"I grew up in Texas,'' the Lubbock native says, "so I've got country in me.''
And the country segment isn't the only thing that's new about the show, English says.
"We'll have new material and dance routines. We don't like to get stale.''
Though many of the audience members at these live shows are older people who have fond memories of "Welk,'' there are plenty of younger fans there as well, English says.
"There are kids who grew up with the show and have kids of their own,'' she says.
English recalls a recent trip to an upscale department store where the manager, who was in his 30s, approached her.
"He said, 'You're Ralna, aren't you?' He said, 'I'm from Indiana, and I watched the show with my parents. It was a ritual.'
It was so heartwarming to think that I've been doing this and people have received such pleasure from it.''

'The Lawrence Welk Show'
3 p.m. Sunday at the Morris Performing Arts Center, 211 N. Michigan St., South Bend. Tickets are $41.50, $37.50 and $34.50. For ticket information, call (574) 235-9190 or (800) 537-6415.



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