Today is the birthday of that unfathomable 20th century phenomenon known as Lawrence Welk (1903-1992).
When I was a kid, Welk was the gold standard for “Old People Music We Just Didn’t Understand.” It was a long list that also included the likes of Liberace, Doc Severinsen, Dinah Shore, Robert Goulet, Kate Smith, and all of those embarrassing, nauseating guys from the Rat Pack. (I’ve since come to appreciate Sinatra and Dean Martin).
But like I say, Welk, was the pinnacle, a well-spring of mystery. For example, what was that accent (we wondered)? “Wunnerful, wunnerful!”, “senk you, senk you,” “An’ now the luffly Lennon Sisterss!” and (as he counted off a number) “…a-one, an’ a two!”. He was supposedly American, but somehow he had that accent. The answer proves to be quite interesting. He was raised in a pocket of German immigrants in a remote area of North Dakota, a place so rural and isolated there was no need for anyone to learn English. Welk didn’t learn English until he went to school. Raised on a farm, he persuaded his father to buy him a mail order accordion, which he spent his entire youth paying off.
Upon reaching majority (the mid 1920s) he formed a local big band. There can be no more eye-opening illustration of the fact that “big band” and “swing” are not synonymous than Welk’s orchestra, which played light, pretty, tuneful, and very WHITE dance music with very little (if any) jazz to it. This would be the aesthetic he would cleave to until his dying day. In the 30s, as he gained a following in the mid-west (especially Chicago), his sound was dubbed “Champagne Music” (an idea reinforced by his use of a bubble machine on his tv show). It’s music for cotillions, where no one breaks a sweat when they dance.
The Lawrence Welk Show began on radio in 1949 and switched to television in 1951. I was delighted to watch a bit of it a few months ago at my mom’s senior citizen facility. I hadn’t watched it in 30 years. It’s just the most surreal thing. It was SO anachronistic when I was growing up. The show was on the air until 1982, you realize. Polkas, songs from the 1890s, novelty songs, and attempts at humor that would be considered too awkward and toothless for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All of the singers and musicians on the show looked like junior staffers from the Nixon Administration. This was a show for grandparents, and even they snickered at it.
Kids! Young people! Seeing is believing. And you really must watch some to get what I’m talking about. The clip of The Lawrence Welk Show’s closing credits below is from 1978! Rock and roll was already kind of over by then, Elvis was in his grave already, but Lawrence Welk was still chugging along. Nothing gives me more delight than watching something like this nowadays. To revisit it is to sail into David Lynch territory:
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc