The types of commercials aired during The Lawrence Welk Show present a pretty clear idea of the series’ intended demographic. Anybody watching Film Chest’s four disc set Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 may or may not have the sudden urge to build up or renew their supply of Polident and Geritol. But does Welk have anything to offer today’s viewers?
The life of the bandleader-accordionist spanned nearly a century. Born in North Dakota in 1903, Welk’s early career was in 1920s radio. He was already a seasoned veteran when he landed his first television show in 1951. The Lawrence Welk Show ran until 1982 and featured Welk’s band along with featured singers like the Lennon Sisters and Guy and Raina; instrumentalists like accordionist Myron Floren; and featured dancers like Bobby Burgess.
These hour-long programs seem the antithesis of so much contemporary entertainment. But time can play funny tricks on cultural markers. YouTube is loaded with candy-colored clips of bandleader Lawrence Welk’s show, which featured dance and musical numbers so square they’re surreal. The Welk image was used in Darren Hacker’s underground film Velvet Welk, which marries footage of Welk and his illustrious regulars to the pulsating drive of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”
Welk’s music and his visual image are certainly a throwback to a time Before Irony. It’s easy for 21st Century consumers to approach him with a camp aesthetic, but it’s entirely possible to appreciate the musicianship and spectacle without irony.
JoAnn Castle’s ragtime piano walks the edge of cloying, but can also verge on avant-garde as she fingers the keys ever more furiously. Lyrics to forgotten songs like “Frankfurter Sandwiches” shock modern viewers, who may assume their parents and grandparents listened to such words in complete innocence.
FilmChest and Synergy have assembled 720 minutes of Welk episodes, transferred from kinescopes made before the era of videotape by filming off a broadcast monitor. It’s too bad some of the collected programs, which aired from early 1960s well into the color television era, survive here only in black and white.
But the crude shading of the kinescope process often leaves behind dark patches, rendering the monochrome image with a familiar patina of age that doubles as a metaphor for shadow selves and mortality. The spell is somewhat broken by a persistent “SYNERGY” watermark on the screen, but unlike other releases from the Inception family of distributors, it took me a couple of episodes to even notice it here.
There are no DVD extras on this set, and the transfers will not have the clarity that consumers would expect from a major studio product. Lawrence Welk died in 1992. But the work of the “Champagne Music Man” can still send fans of all ages into a reverie of time travel from which they may not want to return.