Lawrence Welk Played Champagne Music On TV For 31 Years
Lawrence Welk, singers in red, white and blue number, performing a salute to America on 'The Lawrence Welk Show'. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
You could depend on the Lawrence Welk Show for 31 years -- like it or not. Lawrence Welk was a bandleader and host who delivered incredibly square entertainment, what he called "Champagne music," throughout the Groovy Era. Watching Lawrence Welk was like visiting a parallel universe where rock 'n roll had never been invented, and there was no problem so great that it couldn't be solved by a sister act clad in matching outfits act doing a salute to something or other.
In fact, to older people watching the changes in society in the '50s and '60s, an evening with Lawrence Welk was probably a soothing escape from the coarse and noisy world outside.
No one worked harder to keep his audience happy than Lawrence Welk. From 1951-1982 Welk basically hosted a 1940s style radio show but for television. There were musical skits, polka, ballroom dancing and bubbles. So many bubbles. Kids during the groovy era may have rolled their eyes at the cute songs and naïve sensibilities of The Lawrence Welk Show, but as anachronistic as it was the series made older viewers feel like someone was speaking to them.
Welk's persistence on the airwaves is fascinating. The format of his variety show never really changed. He wanted to create an evening out at a big band club, complete with relaxing conversation and music perfect for people who only knew a few dance steps. The series ran on ABC for more than a decade, and even after it was removed from the network Welk kept the show going into the early '80s with the power of syndication, all without changing his style or taste -- at all -- to fit the sounds and fashions of the era.
Television in the '50s was a party and everyone was invited
In the 1950s, television was just making its way into homes across the country. There weren't wall to wall shows the way there are today, so shows needed to appeal to as many people as possible. In the early days of television, programs were influenced by radio programs and vaudeville. Soap operas and sitcoms played to audiences who were primed on radio dramas, while Welk brought the big band radio experience to television.
Born in North Dakota to German immigrant parents, Welk stopped going to school after fourth grade and didn't learn to speak English until he was 21 years old. Welk held onto his thick accent throughout his life, making him the easy butt of jokes on the show, all of which he took in stride. After all, The Lawrence Welk Show practically invented easy listening. Welk's German ancestry also played into an unusual aspect of the series - the polka of it all. In between breaks of big band music Welk played accordion and took polka out of the Midwest and brought it to the masses. Welk made sure that music never stopped playing on the show so you could watch with baited breath or just have it on in the background. Either way, he made sure that his viewers always felt invited to his sedate party.
From the Midwest to the west coast
Welk got his start as a big band leader at South Dakota's WNAX radio station, which serviced much of the Midwest on a clear night. In 1951, Welk moved to Los Angeles after performing around the Midwest throughout the '30s and '40s, and he quickly began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, broadcasting from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. Even though he changed mediums he never lost his small town charm. Welk always introduced his bandmembers and he found any excuse he could to include their families in the show.
By 1955, The Lawrence Welk Show was such a hit with older viewers that ABC picked it up and briefly moved produced to the Hollywood Palladium before bringing Welk and his big band to the ABC studios at Prospect and Talmadge in Hollywood where they'd put on a time warp of a television show for the next 23 years of the show's run.
Aside from Welk's overwhelming Midwestern affectations, The Lawrence Welk Show was most well known for its champagne aesthetic. Bubbles floated through the air as champagne cork sound effects popped off before Welk introduced the theme of the episode. Welk's repertoire cast was vast, with folks like Henry Mancini to Cole Porter stopping by for guest appearances.
"Champagne Lady" Alice Lon was with the show for the first few years until she was fired for showing "too much knee," and then Norma Zimmer was brought on to replace her until the end of the show's run in 1982. If there was a holiday you better believe that Welk held a theme episode (if not two or three) where he and his "Musical Family" made up of a regular backing band and his rotating cast of regulars like The Lennon Sisters, Buddy Merrill, and Arthur Duncan performed songs of the day and throwbacks to big band hits of the '30s and '40s. Welk listened to his audience, which meant reading stacks and stacks of letters, and if there was someone that his fans wanted to see more of he made sure they were on the air.
The times they are a changin'
Welk's goal of attracting a mature audience worked a little too well. He remained popular throughout the '60s without ever catering to a younger audience. Every once in a while he reworked a rock or a folk song to fit his sensibilities, but more often than not his songs and skits were aimed at people his age who were just looking for solid, wholesome entertainment even if it was totally surreal to anyone under the age of 55.
ABC wanted Welk to expand his repertoire of songs and performers, but he was adamant about giving his audience exactly what they expected from him, even if that meant producing a show that was stuck in a big-band time loop. Welk later wrote that when he tried to expand his musical horizons the series felt phony:
I began to realize that if I had put my foot down more firmly during the last year we appeared on ABC and insisted on playing the kind of music that was right for us—then we might never have lost our show. I think we got off the track when we encountered the massive trend toward rock and roll, and acid rock, during the late sixties. Trends are mysterious. They seem to come from nowhere, and they are often very hard to withstand—or understand!
Even though he was a hit with older audiences, ABC didn't care about that. For them, it was all about the increasingly important youth demographic. So in i971, they severed ties with Welk.
Syndication saves the day
The Lawrence Welk Show may have been off of ABC but Welk wasn't done entertaining the audience that he cultivated throughout the '50s and '60s. Welk started his own production company and carried on with his hosting duties, although this time around he sold the series to syndication around the country. Rather than fade out of existence on local stations, Welk's show flourished in the final decade of his career. The show remained a hit, often scoring higher ratings that shows that replaced him on ABC.
Welk retired in 1982 at the age of 79, but The Lawrence Welk Show lives on in syndication. The series still airs on PBS stations around the country to give audiences a taste of "Bubbles in the Wine," and some of that good old Midwestern charm. More than just a taste of the groovy era, The Lawrence Welk Show remains one of the strangest variety shows ever produced.
Tags: Big Band Music | Lawrence Welk | TV In The 1950s | TV In The 1960s | TV In The 1970s
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