It was Wunnerful While it Lasted

Phillips, Barbara D. "It was Wunnerful While it Lasted." Wall Street Journal, 20 May 1992.

Lawrence Welk

I'm of the generation that waxes nostalgic over the "Brady Bunch," I may be unusual, but that show sparks no warm memories in me, no feelings of childhood lost. "The Lawrence Welk Show" is another matter.

The death of Mr. Welk this week at age 89 brought it all back.

In the summer of 1966, when I was 7-1/2 - the halves counted for a lot in those days - my mother's parents and two unmarried sisters moved from the dangerous Brooklyn neighborhood where they had long lived to our apartment building in safer, semi-suburban Queens. In fact, they moved to the apartment just upstairs, which allowed me to tap out Morse code on the bathroom pipe, to get hugs and kisses on demand, and to bounce my pink Spaulding rubber ball or jump rope in Grandma and Grandpa's house without the neighbors complaining - an exciting prospect to this child. And every week we would take the stairs - no need to use the elevator - to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" together.

In 1968, my father died, and life suddenly didn't seem as secure. But one ritual lived on - Lawrence Welk. My mother and I would go upstairs, Grandma would switch on the show, and all of us would gather in front of the ancient Dumont console and watch. But, more important, everyone but Grandpa would dance.

Mr. Welk, tall and upright, with a big smile and odd pronunciation, would announce "ah-one an' ah-two," his orchestra would play, and we would fox-trot around the living room - first one the bare wood floor, later on the green wall-to-wall carpeting - or waltz as the champagne music bubbled around us.

Mom always led and I followed. She taught me how to dip. And when the Aqua Velva commercial came on, I would sashay over to Grandpa, who smelled of it and Lectric Shave, and would sing along with the blonde on TV that "there's something about an Aqua Velva man." It always made him laugh.

The Welk cast was something of a family too. At least that's how it was portrayed. Once a year, around Christmastime, all the cast members would bring their real families - husbands, wives and children - on the show. We'd comment on the family resemblances the way we would about neighbors or relatives.

Sometimes in those years, the Lennon Sisters, with their matching dresses, all-American looks, and sweet voices, decided to strike out on their own. They had grown up on the show, and their decision seemed to carry all the angst it would in a real family headed by a strict father. Grandma devoured "movie" magazines that featured the latest on the Lennon Sisters, their break with Mr. Welk, and his strict rules and tight purse. (He was quite a businessman, and over the years built up a multimillion-dollar conglomerate.) As I would read anything put in front of me in those days, I read the magazines too. Movie magazines in the mid- to late 1960s had precious little in them about movies, and lots about the Kennedys and the Welk show.

In these days of ethnic self-consciousness, you may think it strange that we watched the show at all. What was a family of New York Jews doing dancing in the blue-gray light cast by the image of Norma Zimmer, the Champagne Lady? Why did we follow Bobby Burgess, and Myron Floren and all the rest, in a show whose only nod to cast "diversity" was one black man - who tap-danced? Lawrence Welk grew up on a North Dakota farm, in a German-speaking Alsatian family. What chord did he strike with us?

But my grandparents, Gussie Shultz Zwerin and Maurice Julius Zwerin, were Americans above all. They had sailed to New York from Austria-Hungary when they were small children. They saw little of their adopted country; I doubt they ever traveled farther than New Jersey, if there at all. But they loved everything about America and had no interest in looking back. (In fact, Grandma was vehement about none of her family going "back there." In 1977, when Aunt Blanche and I went to Europe for the first time, we told Grandma we were going to London, Ontario, not England, and swore Aunt Ruth to secrecy.) And Lawrence Welk, in his corny way, played a lot of American classics - from Porter to polka to pop - music that in its own way is a testament to the diversity and unifying vision of America.

Yes, as I grew older I began to see Lawrence Welk as corny and his show as not for the sophisticated likes of me. He wasn't as bad as Guy Lombardo on New Year's Eve, but he was a close second. I looked at the teased hair of the women on his show, the white shoes, and the wholesomeness of the whole enterprise with condescension. Family viewing dropped off. I gave up our dance hall for James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Jim Croce. My friends thought it was cool that Grandma listened to rock`n' roll DJ cousin Brucie, too, but I was embarrassed.

Now that I'm 33, I find that my musical tastes were set in childhood. No, I don't own any Welk albums, but I do have Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. I listen to all the old Broadway musicals, and a lot of the new ones. And I am grateful that Lawrence Welk brought a lot of those songs into my grandparents' living room so many years ago.

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