Welk's Music a 'Wunnerful' Success Story

Clooney, Nick. "Welk's Music a 'Wunnerful' Success Story." Cincinnati Post, 20 May 1992, sec. 1D.

I admit it. I had the same prejudice about Lawrence Welk and his music that many of you did. Until I met him.

According to my notes, it was fall 1973. I was the host of a variety show on Channel 12. About two years previously, after a remarkable run of 16 years, "The Lawrence Welk Show" had been canceled by ABC.

Instead of rolling over and playing dead, Welk, at the age of 68, worked hard to syndicate the show. He thought he still had something to offer. When he had finished, his program was placed on about 250 stations in the United States and Canada, more than he was on ABC.

My memory is that Welk came on our show for three reasons: to promote his relatively new syndicated program; to promote a local personal appearance; and to promote his book, "Wunnerful, Wunnerful," which was still selling well a couple years after publication.

I was young and foolish enough to have a patronizing attitude toward Welk -- sort of laughing up my sleeve at his success, which I thought was a fluke, and a hokey one at that.

When he walked onto our set and the audience wouldn't stop applauding, I began to modify my opinion. Not because of the applause. We in the Ohio Valley are polite and always try to make visitors feel at home.

No, I began to look at him differently because of himself. The erect carriage that seemed stiff on television had an inherent dignity in person. The demeanor that seemed stilted on his program seemed warm and engaging face-to-face. His German accent, which was pronounced and almost ludicrous when he read introductions from cue cards on his Saturday series, virtually disappeared when he answered off-the-cuff questions in the easy give-and-take of our show.

He was self-deprecating. He felt his own contribution to the show's success was minimal, and he seemed sincere about it. This was just at the beginning of the time of the emergence of the investigative reports and the expose, so I felt constrained to ask about the stories that he underpaid his stars and ruled with an iron hand.

He responded that he wished he could pay more, but that he had no "stars" and he hoped that he could pay each co-worker, including the third trumpet and the floor director, a living wage -- and that to do so he would have to trim some from the demands of the higher-profile people such as the Lennon Sisters and his longtime "Champagne Lady" Alice Lon and others. It caused some hard feelings for a while, he said, but he hoped it would pass.

Then he danced with ladies from our audience. He talked to bandleader Jerry Conrad and the other musicians, complimenting them on their work. He kidded about his accordion-playing. The women on our staff were charmed, and so were the rest of us. He was a smash.

I specifically watched his show the following Saturday. I hadn't seen it in years -- not since my sister Betty had been featured on it in the 1960s. I had thought of it as being part of the Shep Fields and Guy Lombardo syndrome, syrupy sweet "society" rhythms.

I learned that something new had happened. On the death of the big bands, Lawrence Welk and his producers had taken it up themselves to keep the great sounds alive. They continued to pay minimal obeisance to the "sweet" sound, then went to saluting the work of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and many others.

While their interpretations never had the loose, easy swing of the originals, they were excellent counterfeit, and they kept an era alive on our TV screens.

Just last year, I interviewed Michael Feinstein, the singer, pianist and musicologist from Columbus who has rejuvenated a wide interest in the golden era of popular music from 1930 to 1945.

He told that me he and his family never missed the "Lawrence Welk Show" on Saturday night and that Welk's re-creation of the big-band sounds and classic pop songs had a profound influence on his decision to introduce new generations to this music.

I never had a chance to tell Welk what Michael said, and I'm sorry. I believe it would have mattered to him.

So would the fact that he inspired thousands by starting over at age 50 when others said he was through after a 25-year mediocre musical career.

Through? He hadn't begun. His best years lay ahead, and his most successful decade was his eighth.

Not bad for a guy from a bleak North Dakota town. You could call it a great American success story.

You might even say it's wunnerful.

Reprinted with permission of the Cincinnati Post.

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