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The Lawrence Welk Show
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The Lawrence Welk Show

The Lawrence Welk Show is an American televised musical variety show hosted by big band leader Lawrence Welk. The series aired locally in Los Angeles for four years (1951 55), then nationally for another 27 years via the ABC network (1955 71) and first-run syndication (1971 82).

In the years since first-run syndication ended, The Lawrence Welk Show has continued to reach new audiences through repeat episodes, broadcast in the United States by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations. These airings incorporate an original program usually, a color broadcast from 1966 through 1982 in its entirety. In place of the commercials, newer performance and interview clips from the original stars and/or a family member of the performers (in the latter instance, speaking for a well-known Lawrence Welk performer who has since died) are included; these clips are occasionally updated.


Broadcast history

The Lawrence Welk Show started in 1951 as a local program on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, California. The original show was broadcast from the since-demolished Aragon Ballroom at Venice Beach. The show made its national TV debut on July 2, 1955,[1] and was produced at the Hollywood Palladium[2][3] for 23 of its 27 years on the air. The only seasons not taped there were 1965-66, 1976-77 at the Hollywood Palace and CBS Television City from 1977 to 1979.

The show aired on ABC until 1971. When the show was canceled by the head of programming there, Welk formed his own production company and continued airing the show, on independent stations and, often during non-prime time, also on some of the ABC affiliates on which he had previously appeared as well as some stations affiliated with other networks. The syndicated version of the program aired from 1971 to 1982.

When the show began, it was billed as the Dodge Dancing Party from 1955 to 1959. During 1956-59, Lawrence Welk was broadcast two nights per week. The second show's title was Lawrence Welk's Top Tunes and New Talent Show (1956 58) and then Lawrence Welk's Plymouth Show, after another Chrysler vehicle (1958 59). The Plymouth show was the first American television program to air in stereophonic sound. Due to the fact that stereophonic television had not yet been invented (it would be 25 more years before it would become standard), ABC instead simulcast the show on its radio network, with the TV side airing one audio channel and the radio side airing the other; viewers would tune in both the TV and the radio to achieve the stereophonic effect.[4][5] Starting with the 1959-60 season the two shows were merged into The Lawrence Welk Show, reverting to monaural broadcasts.

The primary sponsor of The Lawrence Welk Show was Dodge (automobile marque), later to be followed by Geritol (a multivitamin), Sominex (sleep aid), Aqua Velva (aftershave), Serutan (laxative), Universal Appliances (manufacturer of home appliances), Polident (a denture cleanser), Ocean Spray (fruit juice) and Sinclair Oil (automobile fuel) served as associate sponsors for a short time.[6]

Nielsen Ratings

The show was a top 30 hit for five seasons, according to's ratings database.

  • 1964-65: #30 (22.00 rating)
  • 1965-66: #19 (22.40 rating)
  • 1966-67: #12 (22.79 rating)
  • 1967-68: #17 (21.90 rating)
  • 1968-69: #29 (20.50 rating)


The show would often open by showing bubbles floating around and was accompanied by a sound effect of a bottle of champagne opening. Each week, Welk would introduce the theme of the show, which usually inspired joyous singing and/or patriotic fervor. He was most known for delivering these monologues in a distinctive German accent, which was parodied in popular culture (even by Welk himself: the two books he authored, Wunnerful, Wunnerful! and Ah-One, Ah-Two! were so titled because they were his catchphrases). This was evident from his mispronunciations of script on cue cards. On one such story, related by Jo Ann Castle on the Mike Douglas Show, has him introducing a medley of World War I tunes as "songs from World War Eye". Also, from his autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful! he bemoans his accent, and in some of his pronunciations of "wonderful" in the show he can be heard forcing the D.

If the number was more a dance tune, Welk would dance with ladies from the audience, which he became somewhat known for. For certain songs (mainly the instrumentals performed by the orchestra), the couples in attendance were also allowed to dance at the Ballroom. Many of the show's songs were performed as part of a skit; while a handful of skits were common throughout the show's run, during a short period in mid-1970s (about the same time The Semonski Sisters were featured performers on the show), the show consisted almost entirely of them.

Welk often demonstrated multiple times on-camera how the champagne bottle sound was created, by placing a finger in his mouth, releasing it to make the popping sound, and making a soft hissing sound to simulate the bubbles escaping the bottle. One such instance is part of the opening sequence of the public television reruns seen today.

Welk frequently had performers sing and play standards from the big band era and the first half of the 20th Century (Welk had a particular admiration for contemporaries Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer and similar composers), although the show's repertoire was in reality much broader and would often include pop songs from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s as well as country music, patriotic music, and religious music, especially if it appealed to older listeners. In one of his most infamous incidents, he asked singers Gail Farrell and Dick Dale to perform Brewer & Shipley's hit song "One Toke Over the Line" (a mock gospel tune riddled with drug references) as a modern spiritual, apparently oblivious to the meaning of the word "toke."[7] Brewer responded that although it was "absurd," the duo "got more publicity than we could pay for" from the out-of-place performance.[8] Despite other stations having banned the original song from the broadcast airwaves, neither Welk nor anyone else received any sort of punishment from the FCC for playing the song.

The "Musical Family"

Alice Lon and Lawrence Welk. Norma Zimmer and Welk. Welk employed many musicians and singers, which were known in the press as his Musical Family. These singers were bound by an unofficial set of morals (artistic and personal) dictated by Welk, and if he believed the audience did not find them wholesome enough, they would be fired. Former Champagne Lady Alice Lon was fired in 1959 for crossing her legs on a desk. After he fired Lon, thousands of letters filled the ABC mailroom, demanding an apology, and that she be rehired. Welk tried to get Lon back but she refused.[9]

In later years however, it was revealed that along with the "cheesecake" incident, another one of the reasons for Lon's departure was money; she was supporting three young sons and wanted a raise. A further reason was a dispute over what kind of songs she would be singing, and since Welk insisted on playing what he felt his audiences wanted to hear, generally older "standards", she rebelled against such restrictions.

After two years and a string of short-lived vocalists, Norma Zimmer was hired, starting in 1960. Zimmer stayed with Welk for the rest of the show's run.

Another example of being bound by Welk's set of morals was famed clarinetist Pete Fountain, renowned for his New Orleans-style jazz, was a valued member of the Welk cast who was rumored to have quit when Welk refused to let him "jazz up" a Christmas carol. In an interview, Fountain said he left Welk because "Champagne and bourbon don't mix."[10]

Welk relied on fan letters to tell him who was popular and who was not. Often, performers who received a positive reaction were prominently featured on future shows, while those who did not meet muster with the audience saw their solo opportunities diminish before they were let go.

Among the performers that were wildly popular with audiences during the years it was on ABC, were The Lennon Sisters, Jack Imel, Joe Feeney, Larry Hooper, and Jo Ann Castle just to name a few. Lynn Anderson, Clay Hart, and Ava Barber used the show as a springboard to launch their own successful careers as country music solo artists. At the height of the show's popularity, members of the Musical Family were featured in several celebrity tabloid magazines alongside other mainstream television and movie stars.[11]

Tap dancer Arthur Duncan became the first African-American to appear regularly on a sponsored television variety program when he was hired as a permanent music maker by Welk in 1964.

Move to syndication and public television

While the show was highly rated, ABC canceled it in 1971 for two reasons. The first was that the network had to cut programming due to the institution of the Prime Time Access Rule in 1971; the other was the fact that Welk's viewership was mostly of people over forty-five, mostly because of the music he chose to play, but also because younger viewers, the core viewing target that networks coveted, were typically out during the Saturday night time slot.[12] Over the course of the early 1970s, several variety shows (including Welk's, but ranging from long-running series such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace and The Red Skelton Show to more contemporary shows such as Hee Haw, The Johnny Cash Show and This Is Tom Jones) were pulled from network schedules (particularly ABC and CBS) in a demographic move known colloquially as the "rural purge".

In response to ABC's move, Welk started his own production company and continued producing the show for syndication. Some independent stations put it in its old Saturday timeslot, and in many cases, it drew higher ratings than the network shows scheduled at that time. In many markets, the syndicated Lawrence Welk aired before the start of network prime-time on Saturday nights (7 p.m. Eastern Time); also in many areas, it competed against another show that was cancelled by CBS and resurrected in syndication, also in 1971 — Hee Haw. Welk's program was among a group of syndicated niche programs, others including Hee Haw and Soul Train, that flourished during this era. (The success of Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw in syndication and the network decisions that led to their respective cancellations were the inspiration for a novelty song called "The Hee Haw-Lawrence Welk Counter-Revolution Polka," performed by Roy Clark, one of the co-stars of Hee Haw.)

Welk retired in 1982; at the time of his retirement, he was 79 years old, making him the oldest host of a regularly scheduled entertainment television series to date (a feat later surpassed by Bob Barker in 2003). Classic shows — largely, from 1967 to 1982 — were repackaged with new footage (either Welk or the show's cast introducing segments) for syndication during the 1982 1983 season as Memories with Lawrence Welk, after which they were withdrawn from distribution for a short time. In 1985, The Lawrence Welk Christmas Reunion was produced. It was the last show in which Welk appeared with the musical family.

The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, acquired the broadcast rights to the series in 1986. In order to introduce the show to a new generation, they produced a documentary film, Lawrence Welk: Television's Music Man, hosted by Kathy Lennon of The Lennon Sisters. The film was a retrospective on Welk's life and career, featuring interviews with surviving members of Welk's "musical family", and scenes from the show. After its airing, reformatted versions of the Welk show were released to public television stations. Welk continued to film new host segments until his death, after which select members of the "musical family" took over as hosts. Reruns continue to air to this day (in many markets airing on Saturday nights at 7 p.m., the same time the show aired during its original run), with new and updated interviews with surviving cast members (Mary Lou Metzger hosts wraparounds that feature interviews, while Bobby Burgess currently hosts the ones that do not).[13] The shows are occasionally "recut" and interspersed with segments from other episodes for time and diversity purposes; for instance, a rebroadcast of Gail Farrell's 1969 debut actually featured an added song by Anacani, who hadn't joined the show until 1973.

Episode status

The surviving episodes from the first 10 seasons on ABC, which began in 1955, exist today as black and white kinescopes or videotape, as the show was broadcast live for the first 10 years, right up through the 1964 1965 season. A few of these have been broadcast on public television. Nearly all episodes shown on PBS stations today are from around 1965 to 1982 (the majority being from the syndicated run), but some older black and white segments can be found on YouTube and in recent months more black-and-white episodes have been added into the rotation.

Beginning with the 1965 1966 season, the episodes were recorded in color. It is assumed the color episodes exist intact. The very first color episode of the show, which aired in spring of 1966, is occasionally shown on PBS stations and is introduced by Bobby Burgess.

The Lawrence Welk Show in popular culture

In music

  • The song "Fire Water Burn" by The Bloodhound Gang names Lawrence Welk as one of the people with whom the song's lead character will spend eternity if he goes to Hell.
  • Comic Stan Freberg created a parody of the show in a song called "Wun'erful Wun'erful (Sides uh-one and uh-two)", which became a Top 30 hit in 1957. Originally performed on Freberg's CBS Radio series, the single spoofed the mediocre musicianship among some of Welk's musicians (including Welk himself). The record was arranged by Billy May, who handled the music on Freberg sessions and was known to despise Welk's style of music. Working with May and Freberg, who portrayed Welk, were some of Hollywood's best studio musicians, some of them jazz veterans who also held Welk's music in equal contempt. Welk was not pleased by the record, built around satirical out-of-tune performances and an out-of-control "bubble machine" that sent the entire Aragon Ballroom out to sea.[14] Freberg reprised the Welk character for his last radio show, wherein the fictional Welk (who apparently had as much contempt for Freberg as Freberg did for Welk) responded to the show's cancellation with the following terse response: "Ha. Ha. Ha."
  • Dickie Goodman also used Welk as a source for inspiration and a target of satire on his 1959 novelty single, "Stagger Lawrence", which featured an episode of the show being repeatedly interrupted by Lloyd Price's version of the blues piece "Stagger Lee."

In television

  • One segment of Lawrence Welk in the early 1970s featured Welk singers Gail Farrell and Dick Dale performing Brewer & Shipley's "One Toke Over The Line", which was introduced by apparently uneasy accordion player Myron Floren and concluded with Lawrence Welk describing it as a "modern spiritual".[15]
  • A parody of The Lawrence Welk Show appeared on the Family Guy episode "Airport '07", with Peter Griffin playing the role of Welk. This scene is only available on the DVD version of this episode.
  • In the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, during a scene involving a woman dancing with an effeminate man, Tom Servo, imitating Welk, riffed, "Thank you, Cissy and Sissy", referencing his show's popular dance team of Bobby and Cissy.
  • On October 4, 2008, NBC's Saturday Night Live parodied the Welk show with Fred Armisen taking on the role as the Maestro, whose accent switches on and off for different words, and is often obscured by far too many bubbles. The sketch features a sister act "all the way from the Finger Lakes." Three of the four sisters are beautiful and perky but the fourth, Dooneese (Kristen Wiig), is physically deformed (with a large forehead, bad teeth and tiny non-functioning hands the size of a doll's) and apparently deranged. The skit has been done many times since. (This version notably used Freberg's sound-alike of the theme song.)
  • In "The Ride", episode 6.09 of The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts watches The Lawrence Welk Show with his aunt, Marianucci Gualtieri, who refers to it as The Lawrence Welk's Program. They have very little dialogue and the show is prominently featured in the scene. The music from the show leads into the credits.
  • In the That '70s Show episode, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", Grandma Forman and Fez watch The Lawrence Welk Show together. Grandma Forman comments about the dancing duo Bobby and Cissy, saying that Bobby is cute and Cissy is a slut.
  • The 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter used the Welk show as a source of comedic material. One episode involved a scene when Arnold Horshack, upon noticing a kitchen sink overflowing with bubbles, yelled "HELP! WE'RE BEING INVADED BY LAWRENCE WELK!"
  • On the Nick Jr. show Little Bill, one segment is titled "The Musical Instrument" that aired on September 24, 2003. The title character, Little Bill, goes to a musical instrument store with his dad to find his "perfect instrument". The store owner, Mr. Williams, shows Little Bill many instruments, one is the accordion. After Little Bill played a few notes, Mr Williams says "Well, we have a little Lawrence Welk in our hands."

In literature

  • In Stephen King's Cell (novel), The Lawrence Welk Show is referred to at several points throughout the fictional horror story.

DVD status and Welk specials aired on public television

As of now, the OETA has no intentions of releasing the series on DVD. Welk Musical Family specials, however, are available on DVD, and can be obtained with a donation during reairs on local PBS stations.

  • 1991 A Champagne Toast to the Big Bands
  • 1992 The Lennon Sisters: Easy to Remember
  • 1993 From the Heart: A Tribute to Lawrence Welk and the American Dream
  • 1994 The Lawrence Welk Holiday Special: Great Moments & Memories
  • 1995 Lawrence Welk: Then & Now
  • 1995 A Lawrence Welk Family Christmas
  • 1997 From Lawrence Welk: To America With Love
  • 1998 Lawrence Welk s Favorite Holidays
  • 1999 Lawrence Welk s Songs of Faith
  • 2000 Lawrence Welk Milestones & Memories
  • 2003 Lawrence Welk: God Bless America
  • 2005 Lawrence Welk Precious Memories
  • 2007 Lawrence Welk's TV Treasures
  • 2009 "Welk Stars Through The Years"
  • 2011 "Lawrence Welk's Big Band Splash"

Singers and performers

The orchestra


  • Lou Crosby (1955 1960)
  • Bob Warren (1960 1982)


External links

it:The Lawrence Welk Show

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