After band leader Lawrence Welk made his debut on ABC with a summer replacement show on July 2, 1955, TV Guide said it was a fine temporary series but would never go further. The magazine couldn’t have been more wrong.
Celebrating its 50th year anniversary this year, The Lawrence Welk Show remains the highest rated syndicated series on public television, according to Nielsen ratings. It’s shown on 279 public television stations and viewed by more than 3 million people each week, attracting a larger Saturday night audience than BET, MTV and VH-1 cable networks combined.
“I was at Kinko’s the other day, and this gal who was probably 35 said to me, ‘I watch you every Saturday night. My family always watched the show when I was growing up, and then I stopped watching in high school and college. Now that I have a family, we watch it on Saturday night,’” says singer Ralna English, who joined the show in 1969 at age 27.
“It’s a tradition, a safe haven,” she says. “It makes everyone go back to a time when America wasn’t quite what it is today—a simpler, more peaceful time.”
Welk’s son, Larry Welk, 65, agrees. “It’s amazing that it has lasted. No one would have predicted this. It’s really an unbelievable story of what my father was able to accomplish. It’s the all-American story.”
By the time 52-year-old Welk premiered his show, he had already spent decades paying his dues. One of eight children, he left school in fourth grade to work on his family’s farm in Strasburg, N.D. (pop. 549). Taught by his father to play the accordion, he left the family’s sod home at 21 to play in dance and polka bands.
“I don’t think my father really had a vision,” says Larry, who runs the continuing Welk businesses in Santa Monica, Calif. “I think he had a huge passion for music, and I think he loved doing what he did. He didn’t do it for money or fame. He just did it out of love.”
In the 1940s, the German-speaking Welk played barn dances and theaters across the country in various bands. He didn’t learn English until a theater owner in Milwaukee promised him more money the next time if he could speak to the audience. When Welk finally landed at the Aragon Ballroom in Venice, Calif., he discovered the powerful new venue of television in 1951 when KTLA broadcast his band in a one-camera shoot, and a local show was born. “In 1952, my dad was playing full time at the Aragon, and he called my mom in Chicago and told her to sell the house, that this TV was the real deal,” Larry recalls.
Indeed, The Lawrence Welk Show ran on ABC until 1971, when network executives decided that his viewers were too old to attract advertisers. But Welk didn’t miss a beat. He offered first-run shows in syndication to every station that had carried the show. Although the show went off the air in 1982 and Welk retired, audience interest never faltered.
Welk died in 1992, but viewer interest remained, so PBS began airing the show in 1987. The shows now include “wrap-arounds,” in which a Welk performer hosts each show and provides anecdotes and updates. These new segments are taped every other year and produced by The Oklahoma Network in Oklahoma City. The show’s format has been changed this season—Welk dancer Marylou Metzger interviews the regulars instead.
With his stiff stage presence, Welk brought to the screen good old-fashioned entertainment from a family of performers that included acts such as accordion player Myron Floren, singer-pianist Larry Hooper, clarinet legend Pete Fountain, and violinists Aladdin, Dick Kesner and Bob Lido. The Lennon Sisters appeared on his first Christmas Eve show in 1955.
According to Janet Lennon, the group was performing at an Elks’ club when Larry Welk heard them while picking up her sister, Dee Dee, to take her to a party. He immediately told her about his father’s new show.
“In mid-November, we got a call on a Sunday morning from Larry saying, ‘My dad is home sick in bed with a cold; you gotta come sing for him,’” recalls Janet, 59. “We were four little girls from Venice, driving up to Brentwood and going to this gorgeous home behind black metal gates. He came out in silk pajamas and a velvet smoking jacket and velvet slippers, and asked us to sing for him. We stood at the piano, trembling, and sang the song He, made popular by the Maguire Sisters.”
Welk called his musical director on the spot, booked an informal concert for orphans at a convent to gauge their reaction, and then booked the Lennon Sisters—Dee Dee, 16, Peggy, 15, Kathy, 12, and Janet, 9—on the show. They remained on the show for 13 years and still participate in the ongoing PBS Welk specials.
In 1961, singer Norma Zimmer became Welk’s “Champagne Lady,” the female personification of his bubbly, effervescent and happy champagne music. Zimmer, 82, still holds that title and works with the Welk family. “I’m so grateful that they’re still using this little old lady,” Zimmer says.
English says cast members feel like one big family. “We all love each other, and we all keep in touch. We have shared each other’s lives together—we’ve watched each other marry and have children, we’ve watched them grow, we’ve experienced births and funerals and gone through everything together in my 36 years on the show. It has been a great gift.”