Off-Camera He’s Still Mr. 'Wunnerful'
Welch, Susan. "Off-Camera He's Still Mr. 'Wunnerful'." Minneapolis Tribune, 10
October 1971, sec. 1D, 3D, 6D.
The promotion man from Prentice Hall West Coast branch is getting
antsy. He looks nervously at the long line of people still waiting
at the door, and then glances absently at the revolving light fixture
that projects dancing “bubbles” on the walls and ceiling
of Dayton’s Auditorium.
“It’s after 8,” he mutters. “They’ve
got to stop people from coming in. He’s due at the TV station
in half an hour.”
The Dayton’s publicity lady approaches and murmurs something
in the Prentice Hall man’s ear. A look of dread crosses his
face. He shakes his head adamantly – no, no. But it is too
late. A barbershop quartet has taken the floor and begun its serenade.
Lawrence Welk stops signing copies of his autobiography and looks
up, past the adoring fans who cluster around him. He smiles in delighted
surprise at the singers, letting his pen fall to the table for the
first time in an hour.
“They are good, very good,” he says to me in a low,
appreciative voice. I nod, not because I know the difference, but
because Lawrence’s spirit of delight is contagious.
And then he startles me. “Would you like to dance?”
I panic. I have just seen him dance on his TV show and am thoroughly
intimidated. My hand trembles as he takes it. “No, please,
In one smooth movement he has turned to the Dayton’s publicity
lady, who is soon whirling gracefully about with him. But he stops
to pout at me. “I’m hurt because you wouldn’t
dance with me,” he says. I can tell he has considered it a
“You’d have been more hurt if I had–on your feet,”
I tell him later. But I still feel bad.
The quartet is prevailed upon, with little difficulty, to sing
“He’s got to get out of here!” Hot lights blaze
down on the Prentice Hall man’s dampening brow as he suffers
through another song. Lawrence, clapping, finishes his dance and
walks to the end of the stage.
“I don’t know whether you remember me, but I’m
from Strasburg, North Dakota, your home town,” stammers the
beefy-faced young leader of the quartet. “I mean, you wouldn’t
remember me, but you knew my father. His name was ________.”
Perhaps Lawrence can hear him, but I can’t. Sitting where
Lawrence put me, to the right of his now-vacant chair, I can hear
only the Prentice Hall man growling at the Dayton’s lady.
“This has already taken 10 minutes. This man’s got a
schedule to meet.”
The Dayton’s lady looks perplexed. How was she to know it
would take so long?
Meanwhile, Lawrence is inviting the quartet to appear on his show.
The quartet is delirious with gratitude. “Tom here runs the
Texaco station. And I’m in real estate.”
Finally, the quartet is ushered away and Lawrence returns to his
“You see, people who make their living at singing aren’t
nearly as good as they are,” he tells me. “These guys
work at it.”
Lawrence has a magnetic presence. He’s more than 40 years
older than I am, but I have to remind myself of the fact–it
seems irrelevant. He is an extraordinarily attractive human being.
Surprisingly, the crowd he has drawn is not all elderly and it’s
not all “country folk.” Lawrence is anxious to point
“How old are you, my dear?” he asks a particularly
pretty young woman she has just handed him her book.
“I’m 24,” she says, blushing, and as he begins
to autograph it she adds, “And my name is Nancy.”
Welk looks up at her and takes her hand. “And how long have
you been watching the show, Nancy?”
“Since Janet Lennon was on. When she started, she and I were
the same age.”
“You see?” he says to me. “People say all my
fans are old. But that’s not really true. Lots of young people
watch our show.” As the girl picks up her book to go, Lawrence
winks at her. And just in case she didn’t catch it the first
time, he winks again. As she walks away, he gives her rear a look
of practiced, world-weary appraisal.
A middle–aged man with a gray crew cut, wearing an aloha
shirt, is next in line. “I heard you were here, so I took
off work,” he tells Lawrence eagerly.
“We never miss your show,” adds his wife, doughy hands
dabbing at the tears of joy that form around her eyes.
“People are so friendly,” Lawrence says as he signs
his book and smiles. “It’s as if they know you personally
from being on TV.” He makes this observation with pleased
satisfaction, as if it has just occurred to him.
The absorption of his fans in him is moving, frightening. It’s
as if they know Lawrence Welk, until this night an image on the
television screen, better than the people they’ve lived with
all their lives. Does it scare Welk even a little bit to be the
object of such emotion, such adoration?
“People are basically so good, they want so little. They
are very grateful if you make them just a little bit happy.”
But this was said later. Now, the Prentice Hall man is telling Lawrence
that they are late for the taping at the TV station.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me?” Lawrence asks.
The Dayton’s lady says the Prentice Hall man is angry at
her for letting the barbershop quartet sing.
“For heaven’s sake, he’s 68 years old,”
the Prentice Hall man grumbles as we walk behind Lawrence toward
the car. “When it’s time to close off the crowds, it’s
“We’ve never had a crowd like this at an autograph
party,” the Dayton’s lady protests.
On the way to the TV station, Lawrence holds the Dayton’s
“We’ll all go out and have a bite to eat after the
taping’” he says. “If you can, I’d like
you to come, too,” he says to me.
At the station, the Dayton’s lady, the Prentice Hall man
and I watch as Lawrence rehearses a 30-second plug for his show.
Included in the taping is Lawrence’s famous champagne cork
pop, which he does by popping his mouth with his thumb. Then he
A man rushes in from the front of the studio. “The barbershop
quartet is here,” he informs the Prentice Hall man, whose
face drains of color.
“Here? Get rid of them. Tell them anything.”
The Prentice Hall man, perplexed, turns to me. “Everywhere
we go, people want just a little of his time. A little bit, they
say. Now, just take signing all those autographs. How many people
does it reach? Just the people who are there – 200-300 people.
Meanwhile, we kept them waiting on this taping. And how many people
does TV reach? Hundreds of thousands. You see?” He throws
up his hands. “It just doesn’t add up.” He continues
Now Lawrence is taping an interview with a blonde TV commentator.
She asks him about his book’s name, “Wunnerful, Wunnerful.”
“Well, it’s kind of my trademark,” he says, but
later in the car he asks if I remember a song that spoofed him in
“You mean, ‘Somebody Turn off the Bubble Machine’?”
“Yes, yes. Well, on that record they had me saying ‘Wunnerful,
wunnerful’ to make fun of me. Do you see how much its hurt
me?” He laughs a hearty laugh, pink gums showing over white
teeth. “I use everything. Even that turned out to my advantage.”
The taping goes on. “You see, his schedule is much too tight,”
the Prentice Hall man whispers to me. “That stupid barbershop
quartet messed everything up. He won’t say anything now, but
I’ll hear about it when we’re back at the hotel.”
He wipes his handsome, furrowed brow. “He’s a very sick
man, you know. Almost died a couple times. He’s got what is
known as a spastic colon. You know what that is?”
I shake my head. “Well, if he eats the wrong amounts of the
wrong things at the wrong times, his body can’t handle it.
He’s supposed to eat a little something every three hours.
He looks at his watch. “We haven’t eaten now since one
That even scares me a little.
Finally, the taping is over. I ride to the hotel with Lawrence,
the Prentice Hall man, and the publisher’s local representative.
Lawrence and I sit in the back seat of the car together, holding
hands and talking quietly.
There is nothing suggestive in his behavior. Welk is just so immediately
likeable, so naturally does the affection of others flow toward
him even on brief acquaintance, that he takes it as his due, and
returns it. I never have been a Welk music fan and never will be,
but my admiration for the man is great.
“How do you think you would like a life like this, touring
around from place to place?”
“I could never do it,” I reply. “Where do you
get the energy? Everyone wants so much from you. It’s as if
you belong to everyone.”
He squeezes my hand. “You know, my daughter Shirley called
me up this morning. And she said, ‘Dad, why are you doing
this? Why are out going out on another trip? You don’t have
to do this.’”
“She worries about you.”
“Yes.” But that is all he says and I answer my own
question. He does it because something in him tells him he has to
do it. Whatever propelled a 21-year-old boy with four years of education,
who could speak no English, who could read no music, to drive himself
until he became the most popular bandleader in history, and a multi-millionaire–
whatever propelled him then is propelling him still.
“Are you sure it’s all right that I’m coming
in?” I ask the Prentice Hall man at the hotel door.
“Sure, come. He’ll be all right now,” he replies.
“It was just back there that I got bugged. You know, we’ve
been on tour in 21 cities already, and we’ve got many more
to go. I just don’t want them to drain him dry.”
Upstairs are Lois Best, a former Champagne Lady, her husband Jules
Herman, and Lawrence’s cousin and her husband. We all sit
down. Lawrence, in his shirt sleeves, asks if we would like something
No one says anything. I realize that everyone is afraid. These
members of his family, musical and natural, are really strangers
to the Lawrence Welk who exists now, and they are in awe of him,
the great man.
“If you order something, I’ll split it with you,”
I say to Lawrence, thinking that he should eat.
“Would you like some ice cream?”
Everyone decides to have ice cream.
Lawrence, his face flushed with pleasure, is genial and smiling.
Everyone feels very good, because Lawrence, himself, is a high.
A natural high.
“Jules, do you remember when my whole band walked out on
me in Dallas, South Dakota?” he asks. “It’s in
“I haven’t sat down to really read it yet,” Jules
says. “Just parts of it. Why did they walk out?”
“They thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he
says. “They said that with my accent and with my corny music,
I’d never make the big time.” His eyes, as always, crinkle
when he smiles. “It’s really funny when you think about
it,” he says, looking at me. “You just never can tell
the way things are going to turn out.”