The Maestro from Another Planet

Her expression was one of contentment, suggesting a strong connection to her culture.

An episode from 1981 of The Lawrence Welk Show, titled “Backstage with Our Musical Family,” promised to provide an inside look at the immaculately pleasant cast as they got ready for a performance.

Contrary to expectations, the viewers didn’t get to observe the musicians rehearsing, the set being constructed, any wrong takes, or singers vocalizing without music–instead, they found the same refined tunes and choreography they were used to.

Welk comprehended that his viewers wanted to lose themselves in his dreamy world, where everything and everyone had a sheen of effortless grace, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

To have demonstrated the individuals actually striving to create this would have compromised the paradise Welk strove to produce for his viewers: a place of natural effortlessness and beauty where troubles, on or offstage, are nowhere to be seen.

The Lawrence Welk Show stood apart from other television variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, which often featured the cultural clashes occurring outside the TV.

You could not watch the Doors or the Stones on Sullivan’s show back then or now without being reminded of the countercultural strife occurring beyond the screen. Even acts like plate-spinners and knife-throwers brought a potential for accidents.

In contrast, Welk’s hour-long show was a world of its own, with smiling singers, brightly colored sets, perfectly coordinated costumes, and spotless musical performances–devoid of any strife or potential harm.

Every week, Welk presented an extraordinary and underrated psychedelic musical paradise on television.

At the time, The Lawrence Welk Show was filmed in black and white. In spite of its quirky style, the earlier episodes were lacking in terms of making the performers’ clothing and the sets look realistic (by Welk’s standards).

For instance, in one episode, Norma Zimmer was wearing a fancy gypsy costume and performing in front of a worn-out wagon. On another occasion, Pat Boone sang “Moody River” with a backdrop of trees, fog, and lush vegetation.

This was not particularly inspiring and resembled the sets that had been used on many other shows. However, when the show switched to color, Welk chose to no longer adhere to the costumes and props of a certain era and instead opted for something more vivid and artificial.

From then on, nothing ever looked worn or somber on Welk’s stage – nor was it realistic.

The sets for the show, lit in a treacly fashion, have the quaintness and artificiality of a low-budget high-school musical.

A gazebo, a bench, and several Dr. Seuss-esque trees are used throughout a majority of the songs, with Jim and Norma singing “Make Believe” in a park with only a single streetlamp.

Later, the lamp is substituted with a large bus-stop sign, and the set is transformed into a bus stop while the four immaculately groomed Lennon Sisters sing “I’m Coming Back to You” in a perfectly synchronized, yet emotionless, unison.

The performers–regardless of gender–were aesthetically pleasing, yet completely devoid of sexuality; for intimacy, like labor, had been abolished. (Welk famously let go of a vocalist for exhibiting “too much skin”.)

Joe Feeney performs the American folk standard “Home on the Range” with the flair of an Irish tenor, while Myron Floren accompanies him with polka-style accordion playing.

The two are dressed in a style that contrasts with the typical western garb, donning earth-tone polyester leisure suits instead.

The stage is adorned with a variety of plastic props and decorations, reminiscent of Buck and Roy’s Hee Haw. The whole scene is a strange mix of American Western, Irish sentimentality, polka music, and ’70s fashion.

No one should label Lawrence Welk’s work as “kitschy”, as his style goes beyond what is typically associated with the term. His artistry transcends the ordinary, creating a unique and almost psychedelic atmosphere.

His rendition of “Sing a Song” featured a diverse blend of hues, with dark red suits on a cream and olive bandstand and light-pink suits and peach and white gowns for the male and female vocalists.

Critics may have criticized the show for being outdated, but when Welk went color, he created a new world where time and history were inconsequential.

Welk’s art is as commercial and inoffensive as it gets, but it also frequently defies formula. The music, in particular, is a peculiar combination of classical and modern styles.

It has a tinge of the big-band swing of the 1940s (minus the energy of Count Basie or Woody Herman), although the strings, organ, accordion, percussion and electric guitars give it a more Esquivel-like feel than Ellington.

The arrangements shift at times to a more pop-like sound, but never quite reaching conventional contemporary music.

An example of this is “Once in Love with Amy” (made popular by the scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger), which joins a reverberating Fender guitar.

A thumpy electric bass, airy strings and saxophones in the style of Glenn Miller, resulting in a surprising mixture of surf, big band, polka and easy-listening music.

To make it even stranger, Welk and some audience members danced with The Bean Queen and other teenage Michigan Agricultural Queens, who happened to be guests of the show.

It is likely that Welk and his arrangers thought that these musical choices and the presence of Midwestern agro royalty would have some contemporary appeal, and would make the younger audience overlook the geritol logo above the bandstand.

The “champagne treatment” of Welk’s music demanded a high level of order, precision, and airiness. There was no room for sentimentality and whenever vocalist Sheila Aldridge added a bluesy inflection, she was pulled away from the stage.

It was an obvious indication that emotional outbursts and contemplation were not welcome. Everyone had to remain focused on the task at hand and not be lost in their own world due to Welk’s aversion to self-expression.

The musicians seemed to convey the message that it was “easy” to perform for the audience.

Myron Floren’s complicated accordion passages were presented with a smile and an air of effortlessness, though it was clear that the skill and hours of practice needed for such a feat were immense. The performers were content to be decorations as part of Welk’s parade of style.

Jo Ann Castle brings a distinct, jocular flair to her piano playing, often wearing a glittering ball gown and boa while striking full keyboard glissandos in a style evocative of her friend Liberace.

However, this extravagance is toned down by the policies of Welk, with songs lasting only three minutes, solos being limited and adhering to the melody. Welk was not a fan of jazz, as it promotes freedom, exploration and interpretation, so any “personal touches” added by Welk musicians must fit into the gaps of the melody, allowing the audience to sing along with ease.

Johnny Zell often adds a unique touch to the trumpeting introduction of “This Love of Mine Goes On and On” by winking into the camera with a subtle vibrato created by moving his fingers back and forth on the trumpet’s valves.

Meanwhile, when Welk’s sax players use the same motion, it has no effect and is simply a show for the audience.

Zell and all of his horn players utilize a quickly vibrating sound that is disagreeable to many jazz musicians, who prefer a more moderate, more authentic wavering.

This kind of vibrato and the movement that goes along with it signify what some have found to be offensive about Welk’s World: it is artificial and overly sentimental.

However, what Welk wanted, and what he succeeded in, was a facade without much meaningfulness to obstruct it–a steady stream of motions, colors, grins, and deftly played escapist pop that passes through the bandstand, onto the television, and into households.

Following the passing of Lawrence Welk in 1992, the live shows at the Welk Resort Center and Champagne Theatre in Branson, Missouri (which is the mecca of American kitsch) are unfortunately missing a great deal of the energizing stylishness of the original show.

With patriotism and reminiscences being the main themes of the Branson performances, these shows tend to look like Republican Party gatherings as opposed to a musical show.

This brings out the peculiarity and simplicity of the aesthetics of the original show. The old show did not have any political messages, nor did it advocate for any politically-motivated values.

Recently, members of the Welk musical family have been hosting reruns of the old shows on PBS. They reminisce about their time with “Mr. Welk” and discuss the success of their children’s lives.

During one of these rebroadcasts, Dick Dale is filmed at an unnamed estate that resembles a Florida retirement village/golf resort, holding an American flag.

He states that the ’70s show they are about to see is particularly relevant in the post-9/11 world. Surprisingly, instead of flag-waving marches, there are light pop tunes celebrating serene landscapes and flowers such as “Mountain Greenery” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, which don’t even mention America. It is difficult to comprehend how Dale could think that the Tin Pan Alley comic sentimentality of “Tiptoe” is applicable to “The War on Terror”.

The episode, which was opened by “This Land Is Your Land,” is performed in such a way that any potential political interpretation of the song is overshadowed by its buoyancy.

The track is played with a two-beat feel more conducive to a ballroom dance than a protest-rally sing-along, and the show’s finale of “America the Beautiful” is accompanied by visuals of the singers wearing outlandish outfits with green, purple, and silver sparkling on their vests.

The only thing that can be unabashedly acknowledged as American about this performance is its love of glitter and extravagance.

When introducing a song or a week’s theme, Lawrence Welk would sometimes pay homage to the notion of home and country; however, this was never the primary focus of the show.

Welk’s World was designed to be an alternative to the everyday life, featuring a mix of glossy music and visuals that created a highly stylized aesthetic. This aesthetic was epitomized by the references to champagne that surrounded the show.

It would begin with bubbles and a popping cork, and conclude with Welk’s catchphrase: “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams”. As long as viewers were in the presence of Lawrence, it was always New Year’s Eve.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

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