Grandma only let me watch two TV shows in her upstairs lair. Not her “stories”; those soap operas were far too risqué for a tyke such as I.
No, these two mid-1960s programs were so radically different in tone and content that, in retrospect, I guess you could call Grandma a Renaissance woman, embracing culture both high and low. I was drawn more by Grandma’s killer oatmeal cookies than her octogenarian viewing passions. But I must say that these Saturday night viewing parties were edifying, if nothing else, and it might go far in explaining my enduring affection for kitsch.
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Don’t worry: I’m not going to wax nostalgic about what a legendary “sports” franchise the Los Angeles Thunderbirds became, how announcer Dick Lane taught me the virtues of hyperbole, and how Grandma would shake her fist at the screen when a dirty skater from the cursed Bay City Bombers sent her beloved Danny (“Carrot Top”) Reilly careening over the rail.
Rather, I’m going to bore you tearless by reminiscing about Lawrence Welk. I never cottoned to Welk – not my generation, sorry – and only the massive amounts of processed sugar in the oatmeal cookies kept me awake those Saturday nights to the final weepy violin strains of “Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen.”
I really hadn’t thought about Welk in decades until I found myself recently driving from San Diego to the Inland Empire on the world’s widest freeway, Interstate 15. There, on the northern reaches of Escondido, a freeway sign alerted me to the Champagne Boulevard exit and something called the Welk Resort San Diego.
Of course, I had to stop. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this resort, which features two golf courses, retail shopping and dining, time shares, a fishing pond and hiking trails, also is home to the Lawrence Welk Museum, inside the recently expanded Welk Theater. Being a sucker for odd museums, I was all in.
When I stepped through the double glass doors, the memories flowed through me like the bubbly: Grandma. Saturday nights. Oatmeal cookies. The old guy with the baton saying, in his funny accent, “wunnerful, wunnerful” when introducing some squeaky-clean group like the Lennon Sisters, then prepping the band with the catchphrase, “Ah-1 and ah-2 … .” The way Grandma swooned over the dapper, white-tuxedoed band leader with fervor equal her to allegiance to the L.A. Thunderbirds.
This, too: That annoying accordion music. For a better part of four decades, I had repressed my aural pain of the (to my young ears) discordant wheezing of the accordion, which may explain why, as an adult, I never liked Weird Al Yankovic’s parody songs.
But the more time I spent perusing the Welk memorabilia and reading about his pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story as the son of German immigrants who grew up in a sod house on the North Dakota prairie, the more affection I felt toward the show. A hankering for simpler times, perhaps.
Plus, the maestro was enormously popular in his time – and maintains a certain stature even now, 23 years after his death. One of the first plaques you see in the dimly lit theater-lobby-cum-museum proclaims with liberal use of exclamation points, “A total of 10,300,000,000 people! (You read that right! That’s 10.3 BILLION!) … have tuned in to the LAWRENCE WELK T.V. SHOW*” That asterisk, by the way, provides the source: Nielsen Television Rating Index.
The 20-something worker at the ticket counter, a chatty guy named Javier, caught me writing down the figure and piped up: “You know, it’s still on the air. Reruns on PBS.”
Javier said the museum doesn’t draw too many visitors during daylight hours, but at night when there’s a play on (most recently, “Oklahoma!”), people revel in Welkanalia, pose for photos with the cardboard cutout that wields the baton on a re-creation of the “set,” complete with a bandstand with horns strewn about and a fake ABC camera trained on “Mr. Wunnerful.” Apparently, though, camera-toting playgoers are more enamored with what was purported to be the “world’s largest Champagne glass,” an over-the-top gold-and-glass marvel that doubles as a chandelier and might look more fitting in the Liberace museum.
The walls are lined with awards and gold records, including a large platter commemorating Welk selling his millionth album in 1957. Family photos dominate, Lawrence always beaming with wife Fern, their three children and 10 grandchildren at his side. I’m not sure what Fern would’ve thought about the framed photos of Welk posing with a series of his “Champagne Ladies” – vocalists such as Norma Zimmer, Alice Lon and pre-TV diva Jayne Walton.
What all but Welk’s most avid surviving fans may not know is that he had a prodigious career before hitting the airwaves as an impresario and band leader, sort of the Jay-Z of his time. There’s a classic photo of him and the boys filling in for Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, a newspaper headline proclaiming “Accordion Squeezer Succeeds,” and plenty of other images of him dazzling the crowds at mirrored-ball venues as early as 1924. Come 1950, though, Welk headed West and soon found TV stardom, first locally on KTLA and then nationally on ABC on Saturday nights.
I tried to chat up Javier about the museum and the Welk Resort. He was happy to oblige but kept mentioning that I needed to go to the restaurant to talk to Adriene. Before I hoofed it over there, I did find out this is not a retirement community; it’s a resort and hotel complex covering 450 acres – not counting the adjunct 200-acre “Champagne Village” mobile home park – with 40,000 people owning time shares. There are Welk resorts in Cabo San Lucas, Branson, Mo., and Cathedral City, among other hot spots, but the Escondido site was the first. The maestro bought the land in 1964 when only the mobile home park and one golf course were developed. Fifty years later, it is a vast complex hard by I-15.
“But, really,” Javier said, “you need to talk to Adriene. She’s been here all 50 years.”
Adriene Edwards, 81, is a spitfire. She’s the resort’s director of guest services and special events, but on this day she’s serving as hostess for the lunch rush in the restaurant. Between seating diners, she gave me the same presentation she gives new employees and residents most Monday mornings in her “history lecture.”
“It’s a neat story,” she said. “It’s an American success story. We don’t often get young people asking about him. But I make sure to tell them.”
I asked how often Welk visited the resort and whether he interacted with guests.
“Of course he did!” she exclaimed. “He lived in Santa Monica, but he had a mobile home over in Champagne Village. He was wonderful. Or ‘wunnerful.’ Very genuine, very humble, very high morals. A man of integrity. He used to take his accordion out into the dining room and play for people. He’d sit with people and visit. Oh yes, a great gentleman.”
Then she excused herself; she had diners to attend to. I headed back to the parking lot, but not before stopping to take a photo of the life-sized bronzed sculpture of Mr. Wunnerful for posterity. Grandma, I thought, would’ve liked this place – but only if they televised roller derby, as well.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
LAWRENCE WELK MUSEUM
Location: Inside the Lawrence Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Information: (760) 749-3448