It Was a Wunnerful Life Heartland Hero Lawrence Welk: 1903- 1992
"It was a Wunnerful Life Heartland Hero Lawrence Welk: 1903-1992." Newsweek, 1 June 1992, 76.
Playing 'what the
people understand': The maestro
Once in 1978, Lawrence Welk stopped to eat in Macksville, Kans.
(population: 448); he was recognized, talked into visiting the school
and greeted with a roar that Kiss would have envied. "It must
be parents still wastch TV with their children in the farm farm
belt and small towns," he mused. A cynic would have thought,
Guess they don't get a lot of celebrities in Macksville.
Welk, who died on May 18 at the age of 89, always thought his heartland
values could survived undistorted in eleltronic images on millions
of American TV screens. A survey one showed 85 percent of viewers
found him "believable." The rest tuned in because they
just couldn't believe him.
This foursquare defender of the family caused more than his share
of Saturday- night squabbles, as kids clamored for "Have Gun,
Will Travel"- or anything but him and those all- to-
exemplary Lennon Sisters. Welk, raised in a sod farmhouse in North
Dakota, got richer than any entertainer of his day except Bob Hope;
his show (1955- 1982) was one of the longest- lived in TV history.
When ABC dropped him in 1971, he carried on over an ad hoc network-
with many more stations. How? By playing "what the people understand."
Welk's perennial straw man was the jazz musician. "Suppose
your mother is celebrating her birthday," he hypothesized.
"Sge walks up and asks him to play 'I Love You Truly' for her.
He'll sneer." Welk would've counted it right off- and waltzed
with her boot.
Yet, as he "confined" to many interviewers, he himself
was "a rhythm man, a jazz man, a Dixieland man at heart,"
who kept hiring hot clarinetists like the goateed New Orleanian
Pete Fountain. Welk, the son of German immigrants- he didn't speak
English until he was 21- started out playing accordion at weddings
and barn dances. His TV band did idionatic approximations of anything
from swing to C & W; accordionist Myron Floren and a galumphing
tuba gave polkas a beer- hall kick. But his tradmark "champagne
music" was a sedate blend of woodwinds, strings and muted brass,
tripping through familiar melodies above ripples of accordion and
Hammond organ. Welk had several versions of how the lable originated.
"You have to play good to hold a note," went one variant.
"We decided to play short notes so nobody would notice we weren't
that good. The audience wrote letters that our music was bubbly
like champagne." One problem with this story: Welk didn't hire
In the late '50s, before young Stepford singers began infiltrating
his show, Welk's people had faces: the jowly, avuncular
organist Jerry Burke: the battered, crew- cut trumpeter Rocky Rockwell.
They were your next- door neigbors- assuming you lived in a white
neighborhood. Welk was one of the mostinadvertently telegenic of
all: looking pained as he stiffly read cue cards in his Alasatian
accent. "Where I lived," he recalled, "on a farm
by a small town, poor, I always felt that other folks were- oh,
maybe a little better." His core audience, rural people of
modest means who weren't getting any younger, sure knew that
feeling. He was there to say, Don't you believe it.
Reprinted with permission of Newsweek Magazine.