EW remembers the life of Lawrence Welk
Anyone who considers Right Said Fred the height of pop-music perversity never encountered Lawrence Welk, who died of pneumonia on May 17 at the age of 89. Imagine the scene: It’s the mid-’70s and the country is awash in Watergate, androgynous glitter-rock, and militant TV series like S.W.A.T. Yet once a week, The Lawrence Welk Show presents clean-cut couples wearing straw hats and singing ”Sweet Adeline” and an orchestra — complete with accordionists playing polite ”champagne music.” Welk didn’t care what was happening outside his studio; in his mind, America was still one big, wholesome, patriotic backyard | sing-along. To folks who made his show a hit and continued watching long after ABC canceled it in ‘71 (it went into syndication thereafter), Welk was a welcome reminder of old-fashioned values. To their grandchildren, he was an outright surrealist.
It was easy for kids and hipsters to chuckle at Welk’s puritanical show, his trademark accent, his cornball ”an’ ah-one, an’ ah-two” song introductions. The jibes continued even after he retired in 1989. In 1990, Congress approved a $500,000 grant to turn his childhood home in Strasburg, N.D., into a museum to foster tourism — then rescinded the grant following complaints of pork-barrel profligacy. Yet Welk’s business world was no laughing matter: His empire included copyright ownership of 20,000 songs (including all of Jerome Kern’s) and a retirement complex near San Diego. Within this world, Welk made time stand still. To him, it was forever the Eisenhower years, and everybody loved to polka and waltz with that special guy or gal — and Welk convinced a huge TV audience to feel the same way. Now that’s perverse.