It was a Wunnerful Life: Heartland Hero Lawrence Welk: 1903-1992

Gates, David. "It was a Wunnerful Life: Heartland Hero Lawrence Welk: 1903-1992." Newsweek, 1 June 1992, 76.

Playing `what the people wanted': The maestro
Once in 1978, Lawrence Welk stopped to eat in Macksville, Kans. (population: 488); he was recognized, talked into visiting the school and greeted with a roar that Kiss would have envied. "It must be parents still watch TV with their children in the 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 survive undistorted in electronic images on millions of American TV screens. A survey once 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-too-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. "She 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 to boot.

Yet, as he "confided" 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 idiomatic approximations of anything from swing to C&W; accordionist Myron Floren and a galumphing tuba gave polkas a beer-hall kick. But his trademarks "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 label 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 bad musicians.

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. There were your next-door neighbors--assuming you lived in a white neighborhood. Welk was the most inadvertently telegenic of all: looking pained as he stiffly read cue cards in his Alsatian 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.

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