It's a "wunnerful" life

The dark side of champagne music's maestro.

LAWRENCE WELK: MILESTONES AND MEMORIES

KCTS, 6 p.m. Sat., June 15

EVEN BY THE TYPICALLY surreal standards of The Lawrence Welk Show, the Milestones and Memories reunion special (getting a repeat airing on KCTS this weekend) is a bizarre affair. Taped in front of a live audience in—where else?—Branson, Mo., the program features nearly 40 aging members of Welk's company dancing and singing some of their most fondly remembered numbers; the Geritol-fueled performances are broken up by interviews and reminiscences from the cast about their old boss as well as clips from the original show. Watching the program, though, you get a sense that something is amiss. Sure, seeing "da lovely" Lennon Sisters sing or the graceful Bobby Burgess deliver a soft-shoe routine, you do grasp the full impact of Welk's towering, kitschy legacy, but you're left wondering about the man himself.

Like most E-Z music loving Americans, you're probably familiar with the general arc of Welk's life: his humble beginnings in rural North Dakota as the son of German-Russian immigrants; his meteoric rise through show business as the baton- wielding avatar of bubbly "champagne music"; his role in creating television's last great musical variety show; his heavily accented hold on the publicly funded airwaves, which has continued unabated even after his 1992 passing. Yet much of Welk's career has long been shrouded in a netherworld of mystery, shadow, . . . and bubbles.

Rumors have persisted for years that Welk was not the kindly old bandleader he seemed, but rather a ruthless, puritanical, and miserly minstrel who conducted his dynasty with an iron hand.

For astute Welk watchers, this should come as no surprise. You merely have to glimpse Welk's maniacal grin, his condescending stage manner, or his twisted predilection for oversize batons to sense that something more sinister lay behind his grandfatherly facade. To look into his baby blue eyes is to peer into a black, bottomless soul—a seething Teutonic rage buried just beneath his placid exterior and "wunnerful, wunnerful" demeanor.

Here, we've managed to gather some little-known facts about the darker aspects of Welk's life. Many will shock, others will disgust, and some might even be true (at least Welk's former bookmaker Louis "Lips" Shapiro assures us they are). In any case, after reading the following, friends, you won't be able to look at your Saturday-night sessions with the maestro the same way again.

LITTLE-KNOWN LAWRENCE WELK FACTS

 

Despite owning the second-most lucrative music publishing company in the entire entertainment industry, Welk still refused to pay his loyal musicians anything but scale.

He was also a penny-pincher when it came to tipping waiters and waitresses, leaving 2 percent of the sales tax. That's roughly nothing!

Mr. Wunnerful's first chart record? Why, the smugly titled "Don't Sweetheart Me" on Decca Records in 1944!

Despite being a beloved staple of the show, Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain quit the program when Welk refused to let him "jive up" a Christmas carol.

In 1959, Welk fired popular "Champagne Lady" Alice Lon for showing "too much knee."

He almost fired the Lennon Sisters for showing "too much pregnancy." But by 1962, the Lennon Sisters juggernaut was too powerful to stop.

The Lennon Sisters finally left the show in 1968 after a salary dispute. He reportedly chased youngest sister Janet down the corridors of ABC's studios yelling, "Look Jell-O Hips, if you wanna be barefoot and pregnant, do it on the Red Skelton Show!"

Welk's frenzied, harpsichord-driven "Calcutta" was knocked out of the No. 1 spot by Chubby Checker's "Pony Time"—which explains why in all those years on the air Chubby was never invited to perform.

Appearing at a 1966 White House gala, a drunken Welk allegedly grabbed Lady Bird Johnson, saying, "C'mere, ya skank, and I'll show you my LOVE WAND! "

Welk was insanely jealous of conductor Arthur Fiedler, snarling "The Boston Pops SUCK ASS" to anyone who'd listen.

Welk's famous "bubble machine" was notorious for making the studio dance floors extremely slippery, resulting in many near fatalities and dislocated hips. Though Welk never covered hospital costs for any of the hapless dancers, he did send each a month's supply of Sominex with a card that read: "Sleep it off!"

Welk had an overwhelming obsession with the color green, using every ghastly shade—from to drab olive to rancid mold—for his show's sets.

His long-running ABC series was finally canceled in 1971 and replaced with the short-lived sitcom Getting Together, starring Bobby Sherman and Wes Stern. The network felt that having no one watching was better than having "elderly demographics."

On his deathbed, Welk's last words to his wife were, "You're not getting a dime. Ya hear me? NOT A DIME!!!"

Welk's official cause of death? Baton fatigue!

bmehr@seattleweekly.com

 
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