By Gordon Mercer and Marcia Gaines Mercer
August 15, 2013
“These people looked on us more as old friends than they did as TV performers. It made us try even harder to entertain them.” — Lawrence Welk, 1903-1992
It was a surreal moment. Our daughter and her best friend were riding in the back seat of our car. “I don’t like watching TV with my grandparents,” her friend complained. “All they watch is Lawrence Welk!” The moment was surreal because 40 years earlier we had expressed exactly the same sentiments. Lawrence Welk had many loyal fans. What was his secret, we wondered?
The Lawrence Welk show is the longest running television show in American history. It ran from 1955 to 1972 on ABC, from 1972 to 1982 on over 200 stations in nationwide syndication and from 1982 until present in reruns on PBS. The show was a variety show with dancing and singing, big band music, dance music, jazz, country music, polkas, Latin music, popular music and gospel music. In 1938 a listener in the Saint Paul Hotel in Pennsylvania remarked the music was “effervescent like champagne.” Champagne music became his band’s theme.
Welk’s autobiography — “Wunnerful, Wunnerful!” — is a story of the American dream. His parents were German immigrants, who because of religious persecution fled their homeland of Alsace-Lorraine to live in the Ukraine. In 1892 they immigrated to America and settled in the newly created state of North Dakota. They brought with them an accordion passed down from a blind ancestor. Welk’s first memory was of crawling toward the accordion to push the keys.
When Lawrence was 16, he asked his father to lend him $400 for an accordion of his own. In return for the loan, Lawrence would work on the family farm for 4 years and give his parents any money he made playing music. His father had to go into debt to get the money but agreed. The arrival of the accordion, a custom made instrument with Swedish reeds, was one of the most exhilarating moments of Welk’s life. He stayed up half the night playing to the dismay of the household.
When his four years were up, his parents let him go with love but with concern that the life of a traveling musician was unstable and that Lawrence would lose his faith. Over the next 30 years, Welk formed a series of bands and orchestras. Many times in the early years, he slept and changed for performances in his car. He recalled one July 4th dance at which mothers brought their babies up in baskets and set them on the stage. Lawrence quipped that he played the accordion, led the band and babysat.
In 1955 Lawrence and his orchestra were asked to be a summer replacement show on ABC but with some “minor” changes. These included a comedy act and a line of chorus girls to “spice things up.” Lawrence was devastated but stood firm, saying that television went into people’s homes and he wanted a healthy atmosphere. The show was a resounding success and the age of Welkisms began including, “A-one, an-a-two,” and bloopers such as a song, “not being his cup of dish.”
How did a big band leader thrive during the peak of rock and roll youth culture, and live on today as a regular on PBS and the darling of their pledge drives? Welk read and charted fan letters, keeping in touch with what his fans wanted. He attracted talent and even as teenagers, we confess, we liked many of the performers. Welk was infectiously joyous. Those watching his show felt that they were part of a festive celebration that Lawrence had invited them to attend.
The Lawrence Welk Show, noted Janet Lennon of The Lennon Sisters, “conjures up an innocent time spent with parents and grandparents.” We echo this sentiment. We would add that it also conjures up satisfaction that sometimes the good guys do win.
— Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published children’s author and columnist.