THE LAST ORIGINAL Lawrence Welk Show airs tonight. I'm going to watch it here in my city apartment, feeling something is going wrong.
I was 6 years old when I watched the first Lawrence Welk show broadcast nationwide in June of 1955. I remember the event vividly because television was new to us around Eola, Ill. But Lawrence Welk was a country celebrity. As the signal from ABC's Channel 7 limped across the cornfields from Chicago, my mind recorded one of those strange childhood memories that goes deep into the bank but stays forever clear.
"That can't be his own hair, Hon," father said to mother, as she grinned at Welk, who grinned back, right in our own living room. My mother argued that it was. And weren't some of the other band members handsome? No tractor grease imbedded in their unlined hands.
In 1955 Ike was president. He golfed. It was sometime after and long before a war. The major concern in the world we knew was the growing popularity of the electric razor.
Lawrence Welk was well known to country people in the Midwest, especially German country people like himself. This Dakota farmboy, like many people we knew, had lived here all his life and still switched v's and w's. But he was all-American, all-Christian, and all things right with the world. Each show's theme was happy. The staging was pretty. The music pleasant. Not exciting or stirring or rousing, just pleasant. It worked. Virtually every person I knew watched Lawrence Welk every Saturday night. He was Elvis to the cow-milking set.
For years my parents debated the Lawrence Welk toupee question. My father fell in love first with champagne lady Alice Lon, and later with much-too-young Peggy Lennon. Sometimes my parents would whirl across the living room carpet, dancing to Welk's "nice music," as my father called it -- a direct slam aimed at the music of American Bandstand, which had crept onto the Saturday airwaves and become important to my sister and me. My father, until the day he died, blamed teenagers for the decline and fall of Western civilization.
To make sure we were isolated from that, he purchased a Hammond electric organ. My mother -- swear to God -- told her friends she hoped one of her daughters would be Welk's featured organist one day. We are 33 and 29 now, the show is over, and we never made it. My mother takes comfort in my sister's being a church organist.
We were dressed in the mode of the Lennon sisters. They had perfect faces with turned-up noses and straight teeth. They had petite figures and wonderful hair. In all the years since, no one has had hair like Dianne Lennon's. They were the personification of chastity, which probably explains why they had no pimples. Not one, ever.
My grandmother, a fanatic Welk fan, pointed out the stories of the good lives of the Welk musical family in assorted movie magazines. All the Lennon sisters planned to be good girls, get married and have lots of babies. They did, too.
For people like my aging, hardworking immigrant grandmother, the Lawrence Welk show was the Met, Carnegie Hall, all things fun, beautiful and unattainable. Waltzing in sweeping pastel gowns. The thought of dancing with Lawrence Welk was the only time my grandmother ever hinted that a male-female relationship might be fun.
When the show went successfully from network to syndicate in 1971, she was thrilled to receive it twice weekly over competing stations. During her 81st August, while she was failing, I read to her from "Wunnerful, Wunnerful," Welk's simple autobiography. I saw my family and grandma's life in the book, accordions and all. She watched her last Lawrence Welk show in June of 1980. She didn't say anything, but she watched.
During a trip to a sleepy Florida key last January, this all came back. I was walking up from the beach at sundown one Saturday when it hit. The entire resort complex was humming the same tune, "Bubbles in the Wine." The Lawrence Welk show was coming on, and every gray head in every room was waiting for a-one-anna-two-anna-three.
I tuned in the show, and tried to explain why to my urbanite husband. I could still feel the bobbie pins scraping my scalp as my mother pincurled my hair during Saturday night prep. "Bubbles in the Wine" for me will forever signal time to get scrubbed and curly for Sunday School. It means that for an hour everything in America is OK. The only two problems anyone could ever have are sleeplessness and constipation, solved quickly by Sominex and Serutan, the show's lifelong sponsors. There are people my age who do not know Serutan is "nature's" spelled backwards. My Jewish girlfriend thinks I am funny when I tell her about the Lennon sisters.
Lawrence Welk retires tonight. He is 79 years old, and has provided 1,542 hours of programming over the past 27 years. Now he will be a rerun.
I am worried. This happens at a time when four major magazines have nuclear war stories on the cover. Music stars stick pins in themselves and throw up on stage. I don't know anyone here who spends Saturday night getting ready for church. Virtually everyone has pimples.
I find this all disquieting. Does Lawrence Welk know something we don't? He is, just like his faithful fans, getting old. I now know for a fact that every hair on his head is his own. It should be. On his show it is still 1955, Ike is still playing golf. For an hour every week, millions like the feeling.
And so it's my bet that when reruns of Lawrence Welk's shows begin next week, they run as long as the world does.