The Lawrence Welk Show was TV’s best party—until it wasn’t

The Lawrence Welk Show was TV’s best party—until it wasn’t

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

For most of television’s first decade, it was something of a party. As the new gadget infiltrated American life, people visited the homes of neighbors who had purchased one of the machines to check out what it was capable of, and the programming that was most popular was often festive, designed to promote the idea of an audience as a community, and make those who watched the box not feel so alone. The medium was heavily indebted to the stage and to radio, and it borrowed many of its most persistent forms—the social-issues drama, the sitcom, the soap opera—from either or both.

Those forms exist to this day, though some are on their last legs. The social-issues drama, which TV took from the kitchen-sink stage dramas of the time, continues to pop up occasionally on the broadcast networks, and the health of the sitcom is in good shape (even if what we have now is a far cry from the radio-stage hybrid I Love Lucy). The soaps are dying, but at least they’re still around, too, some with ties back to the radio soap operas that gave them their name (thanks to the programs’ sponsorship by soap companies).

Yet just as many forms have died out. How many TV Westerns are there anymore? And what ever became of the variety show, with its multiple acts and wide variety of talented celebrities hauled before the cameras to sing and dance? Anthology dramas have also mostly disappeared. All of these forms will be resurrected every so often, but audiences seem mostly uninterested in them nowadays, even with their historical roots, and they’ll go back into TV’s attic until some new network president takes it upon him or herself to bring back a genre he or she loved as a child. (This seems to happen the most often with variety shows.)

The Lawrence Welk Show was a kind of variety show, but its real roots lay in the kinds of music programs that had been hugely popular on radio, for obvious reasons. Where something like The Ed Sullivan Show was dedicated to cramming as many different acts into one episode as possible, The Lawrence Welk Show aimed to re-create a particular kind of fun, an evening spent out on the town listening to inoffensive yet danceable music, then taking a swing out on the floor with a significant other. Welk’s big band had been carefully pulled together over his years touring and on the radio, and it was filled with the sorts of nice, Midwestern boys like Welk himself (a North Dakota native). The primary goal of the program was to make sure the music never stopped playing, and that it never got to be too much for the show’s predominantly older audience. And that audience was loyal, sticking with the program as it moved from a locally based Los Angeles show to a national one to one that ran in first-run syndication. Welk had a program on the air somewhere in the country from 1951 to 1982, a staggeringly long run that no other musical variety program can really touch. And he did it all without catering to changing whims or fashions, outside of the occasional badly misjudged musical number, such as this one:

Welk’s connections to radio were real. He’d begun his career on the national stage as a bandleader for South Dakota’s WNAX radio, a popular station that could be picked up all over the Midwest under the right conditions. Welk kept the affectations he’d learned growing up in the Dakotas his whole life, to the point where his program sometimes seemed like a small-town newspaper come to life. He’d almost always introduce the musicians on the show with their hometowns, and for many years, his Christmas show featured the members of his band hauling their kids up onstage to introduce themselves to the cameras. (In one version, a wailing baby threatens to drown everything out, but Welk plows right on through, an immovable smile on his face.) Welk hailed back to a day when entertainment was respectable, when the most out-there thing that might happen on television was expert accordionist Myron Floren (Welk’s right-hand man for the show’s entire run) ripping through “Lady Of Spain” while hunched over his instrument like a mad scientist coaxing life into it.

When Welk began his program as a local show in Los Angeles, he was courting an audience the networks were interested in. Early in its life, television was already being viewed with suspicion by those who feared it would turn into a platform for kiddie programming and shows of no use to adult viewers. The early ’50s were the great age of arts programming and live drama, as the networks toyed around with attracting a mass audience by appealing to their better natures, but it was also the age when game shows and the broad comedy of Milton Berle ruled the roost. Berle’s antics were often hilarious, but no one would mistake them for sophisticated, and some feared that television would become devoid of any cultural worth.

Now, it’s hard to look back at Welk’s show and read “cultural worth” into it, but as the bandleader’s audience consisted of those entering late middle age or elderly years, it was evident that no one would mistake this show for any of a number of programs aimed more at kids and teenagers. In the modern era, a TV series that attracted mainly elderly people would be ushered off the air, and it would never be conceived of as a program directed at that audience. Yet Welk specifically set out to attract a “mature” audience, and when ABC saw what he had accomplished with a Los Angeles program, he was given plumb positioning on the then-new network. He began his run there in 1955, and it concluded in 1971, at a time when the networks were finally purging themselves of programs aimed at older adults and pursuing the youth market more, a move that evolved into the current obsession with the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Welk was impervious to cancellation, however, and he re-launched the program in first-run syndication, where he became a staple of many local stations, particularly PBS stations, for another 10 years, then even longer in syndicated reruns.

Welk didn’t want to challenge his audience, really, but he benefited from networks that wanted arts programming and thought he came close enough. What Welk wanted, most of all, was to present a good time, a fizzy party that would never end, filled with his light and bubbly Champagne Music. Watching the early episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show—before the series was overwhelmed by the cheesy musical skits that dominate the program in the public imagination—is watching a culture struggling to hold onto itself in the face of a coming youth movement. The songs are old. The dances are traditional. And every time a polka begins, someone swoops in from offstage to dance around and express the joy the audience will ideally be feeling in its heart. The Lawrence Welk Show just might be the most Midwestern program ever made, and it gave a national audience to the touring Midwestern dance bands that enlivened county fairs and local festivals.

Welk had a tremendous eye for talent. He launched the Lennon Sisters, who became one of the most popular recording acts of the period, and he gave the virtuosity of Floren center stage on numerous occasions. (The two would often duet, but Welk would let Floren have most of the big moments and flourishes, as he was simply a better player than Welk was.) In his second autobiography, Ah-One, Ah-Two! Life With My Musical Family, which he wrote in the wake of his immensely successful reimagining of the show as a syndicated series, Welk writes movingly and strangely about his “musical family,” the people he surrounded himself with who became band members and regular performers on the show. Welk seemed to want to be at once a boss and a father figure to these folks, and he writes at length about his disciplinary measures for those who weren’t on the show, which extended beyond workplace punishment and into the parental, or about how the women in his cast could usually sway him with tears, just like a doting dad might be swayed by his daughter crying. But Welk also was willing to take chances on just about anyone. In Ah-One, Ah-Two, he writes about auditioning those who came up to him on the spot, and he was the first variety-show host to employ a black performer regularly on his show, in tap dancer Arthur Duncan. 

Yet his sense of Midwestern decency could cut both ways: Welk’s relentless pursuit of a safe space for his audience, those who felt increasingly left behind by the cultural shifts of the ’60s, essentially sutured it off from any cultural advances, turning it into a show that existed in a perpetual 1952, an age when big band was still the biggest music around, and everybody in pop culture was expected to behave a certain way. He made all of the show’s performers adhere to a strict moral code, and he famously fired “Champagne Girl” Alice Lon in 1959, with some sources claiming it was because she sat on a desk and crossed her legs. (Others argue Lon, a young mother, wanted too big of a raise.) He read fan mail intently, hoping to glean information on which performers audience members were and weren’t responding to, and he cut people from the show often without much of an explanation, simply because he felt they weren’t working out. This had the effect of keeping the safe world his audience liked intact, while simultaneously engendering a fierce loyalty to Welk from young performers who might otherwise be venturing into the music scene of the era. Indeed, many Welk performers married other Welk performers, and after a time, the whole show seemed to occupy an alternate universe from the increasingly youth-heavy Los Angeles it was taped in.

The Lawrence Welk Show did try to change with the times. It updated rock songs and folk hits in the big-band style, though it inevitably sanded any edges off the product, making everything from The Beatles to Burt Bacharach sound like The Lawrence Welk Band. The show attempted to build a bridge between the grandparents of America and their increasingly incomprehensible grandchildren, but it more often ended up in skits like the “One Toke Over The Line” number shown above, skits that seemed to utterly misunderstand what it was that the kids were up to nowadays. Welk wanted to make a show that stood for good, old-fashioned, Christian entertainment, but he also wanted to make a fun show, one that would get the folks at home up and dancing, just like the shows he used to play in the Midwest. Instead, he closed himself off more and more from the world at large, and ABC cut him loose in 1971.

In Ah-One, Ah-Two, Welk partially blames this on the attempts to play rock music; he says that on a tour after the cancellation, audiences around the country asked him to bring back a program where he performed “our music.” He writes:

“I began to realize that if I had put my foot down more firmly during the last year we appeared on ABC and insisted on playing the kind of music that was right for us—then we might never have lost our show. I think we got off the track when we encountered the massive trend toward rock and roll, and acid rock, during the late sixties. Trends are mysterious. They seem to come from nowhere, and they are often very hard to withstand—or understand!”

Yet, rock ’n’ roll was already the dominant cultural force in American musical culture, and it only became more so, before being supplanted by hip-hop (a musical form it’s hard to imagine Welk even beginning to fathom). Welk’s show ran for another 10 years, but what had begun as a sophisticated party, a hoped-for mark of maturity and intelligence, had become a program that marked itself as something only those who wished no engagement with modern culture would watch. Welk had successfully preserved “our music,” but he’d also closed himself off from everything else that was good and vital about modern culture. He held so firm to the initial impetus for his hiring that he was unable to evolve. What had been relevant became laughably irrelevant, and the only people dancing at the party were ghosts.

Next time: A Different World