can pose for photos with Lawrence Welk at the Welk
Museum in Escondido, Calif
Calif. — Grandma only let me watch two TV shows in her
upstairs lair. Not her stories; those soap operas were far
too risque for a tyke such as I.
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.
shows: Roller derby and "The Lawrence Welk
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.
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."
really hadn’t thought about Welk in decades until I
found myself recently driving from San Diego to Southern
California’s Inland Empire region 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.
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.
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 such as 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 to her allegiance to the L.A.
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.
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.
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(asterisk)"
That asterisk, by the way, provides the source: Nielsen
Television Rating Index.
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
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.
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
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 in
Los Angeles and then nationally on ABC on Saturday nights.
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, Mexico; Branson, Mo.; and Cathedral
City, Calif., 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
really," Javier said, "you need to talk to
Adriene. She’s been here all 50 years."
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."
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."
asked how often Welk visited the resort and whether he
interacted with guests.
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."
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
Inside the Lawrence Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk
Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.