Thursday, March 13, 2008

A terrific Welk article

Here's a nice newspaper article I found online about Lawrence Welk from the Los Angeles Daily News....

Like vintage champagne, memories of Lawrence Welk improve with age
Musical family reminisces 26 years after the last bubble popped

By Brent Hopkins, Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 02/22/2008 10:54:04 PM PST

SHERMAN OAKS - Kenny Kotwitz sipped his drink and slipped back into an accordion memory 50 years in the making. He was just a teenager from Milwaukee, playing squeezebox in a combo and getting work where he could find it.

His aunt dreamed big and sent his audition tape to bandleader Lawrence Welk in Santa Monica. Welk brought the polka phenom and his pals out and put them up in a motel, giving them a shot on his national TV show. The year was 1958 and this was a big, big deal.

"We came back and everyone knew me," recalled Kotwitz, who went on to become a highly respected jazz accordion player and studio player still working out of Simi Valley. "I went from being an obscure guy to playing any gig I wanted. We were like rock stars."

Sunday marks the 26th anniversary of the day Welk called "a one and a two" on "The Lawrence Welk Show" for the last time, and put down his long conductor's baton. But tonight, he'll still come into homes all across the country, as he has on Saturdays for more than a half-century.

The North Dakota farm boy-turned-accordionist, band man and entrepreneur was never the hippest, the most lauded or the coolest on the music scene. But he remains one of the most unstoppable forces in the entertainment world - even 16 years after his death. Each year, his old band mates reunite after the holidays to talk about the good times of champagne music and bandstand crack-ups. With each party, the crowd of musicians grows smaller and the memories older, but their memories never seem to dull with the passage of time.

"There's still some left - we're losing them left and right," said Larry Welk, the bandleader's son and chief executive officer and chairman of the Santa Monica-based Welk Music Group.

"I don't think any of them could have predicted what it turned into."

From his first days in 1951, playing the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach in black and white for KTLA, to his current appearance in reruns on 280 public television stations (including locally on Orange County's KOCE), Welk was always different. He put on 1,065 variety shows, with his 69 different band members producing 10,849 arrangements of 28,077 songs. Fifty-two singers and dancers showcased their vocals, and fleet feet created 1,121 tap dances.

Those figures come from Margaret Heron, who's spent 46 years working for Welk's company. There is absolutely no doubt in her mind that he's "an American icon." "He left the farm at 21 years of age speaking no English, with $3 in his pocket, and he built an empire," she said. "It got stereotyped off the air as a senior show, and Lawrence never got the accolades he deserved. But we're still alive and kicking."

Heron started as a fan mail secretary back in 1961 and went on to serve as personal assistant to both Welk and his wife, Fern, before becoming syndication manager. She considered the Welks to be her second parents and devoted her life to serving the company. She was so focused on her work that she never married - until today, when she will wed a widower she met through the Lawrence Welk Fan Club. She plans to work through the end of the year, then finally retire.

That was the sort of loyalty the big man inspired, his former players recalled. As they recalled the solos they'd blown or the songs they'd feared, and practiced their North Dakota German accent impressions, the memories came flooding back.

"Lawrence had the ability to bring everyone together," said Arthur Duncan, who tap-danced to everything from Duke Ellington tunes to "Wabash Cannonball." "He was a tough taskmaster - when he spoke of `the musical family,' he was definitely the father."

A father who took no guff, but kept that family together, no matter what. Cranking through song after song, gig after gig, they created a smooth, pastel parallel universe where everything was nice and easy on the ears and eyes during turbulent times. Whether it was the Vietnam War or more personal events, the viewer never had any hint that things were amiss in the world when the bubble machine began to froth and the waltzers 1-2-3'd across the dance floor.

"My water broke during a dress rehearsal and I had to stop," laughed Tanya Welk, Larry Jr.'s ex-wife and a singer on the show for 12 years. "He kept giving the signal to keep going - and this was his own grandson."

Through divorces, grandkids, personal triumph and tragedy, the family held fast. Even after the show went off the air in 1984, it kept reuniting long after Welk himself retired to greet customers at his resort in Escondido.

When he died in 1992 at age 89, Welk's musical family organized a grand Dixieland funeral, sending him out in style with his favorite style of music. As the show continues to chug along, frozen in time, refreshed with new introductions and spliced into new specials, the family's nostalgia runs heavy. Whenever they meet, the brothers and sisters in polka and show tunes crack open the champagne, sip the bubbles and slip back into Welk's world anew.

"When I was on the show, I didn't even like the music that much," said Rich Maloof, longtime bassist and party host with his wife, Mary Lou Metzger. "Now I think it's the best thing on the air. There'll never be another show like it again."


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