Just as a pelvis-swiveling, lip-curling Elvis Presley was launching a raunchy musical revolution called rock & roll in the mid-’50s, another America was finding refuge in bubbles and the tinkly strains of a musical variety show led by a lisping, paternalistic impresario in a tux. Sure, rock won out, but the Vitalis-coiffed Lawrence Welk didn’t even seem to notice: The Lawrence Welk Show, which first opened its hyper-pure heart to the country on ABC 40 years ago, kept on burbling into America’s living rooms for 27 wunnerful years, which makes it still one of the longest-running shows in TV history.
Welk’s squeaky-clean tunes had been a hit with radio listeners for 24 years, and on July 2, 1955, the shy, 52-year-old bandleader nervously segued onto national TV with a summer-replacement show at first called The Dodge Dancing Party. With his accordion strapped on like a security blanket, Welk and his 24-piece band specialized in ”Champagne Music.” Critics didn’t find it vintage quality, but within a year, Welk’s viewership bubbled up from an initial 7.1 million to a staggering 32.5 million.
Coming smack dab in the middle of the Eisenhower administration, Welk’s G-rated clan would eventually include such homespun talents as the girl-next-door singing quartet the Lennon Sisters, dancing duo Barbara Boylan and Bobby Burgess (a former Mouseketeer), and singer Alice Lon, a.k.a. ”Champagne Lady.” Together, they created a Norman Rockwell painting with rhythm under the baton of the dapper German-American with the signature intro, ”An’ uh-one, an’ uh-two.” But like any family, Welk’s had its shake-ups. In 1959, the Champagne Lady quit after the maestro complained that she showed ”too much knee” during her vocal numbers. Said Welk, ”Cheesecake does not fit our show.” Knees weren’t the only taboo. The only black regular was dancer Art Duncan, who tapped from 1964 until the end.
In place of actual variety, the show, replete with a bubble machine and sugar-coated standards, was a Saturday-night homage to old-fashioned wholesomeness. By 1971, ABC decided that perhaps it was too wholesome. While the ratings were still healthy, the network deemed its viewers ”too old” and canceled the program. Undismayed, Welk simply served up the bubbly in syndication for another 11 seasons, with ratings that often beat the networks.
Welk struck up the band for the last time on Feb. 25, 1982. Ten years later, on May 17, 1992, he died of pneumonia. The farm boy from Strasburg, N.D., who amassed a $100 million fortune, once said, ”You have to play what the people understand.” And understand they did: Whatever else the times might bring outside their doors, for an hour each Saturday night it was morning in America in front of the tube.
July 2, 1955
TV viewers got more than just the facts from Dragnet; Frank Sinatra was ”Learnin’ the Blues”; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea was tops in nonfiction; and Marilyn Monroe tickled moviegoers in The Seven Year Itch.