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.

Susan Welch
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

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?” he asks.

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, no.”

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 slight.

“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 another number.

“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 chair.

“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 this out.

“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 time.”

“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 lady’s hand.

“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 says, “Fizzzzzz.”

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 to swelter.

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 the 1950’s.

“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 o’clock.”

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 to eat.

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 the book.”

“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.”

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