June 28, 2023

The enduring popularity of Lawrence Welk

Here’s a question for you, how does Lawrence Welk do it? How does he remain popular when, according to popular thought, his audience should have died off a long time ago?

When I was a kid, my grandparents watched Lawrence Welk. I saw enough of it that I knew who all the key players were (Myron Floren, Bobby & Cissy, Norma Zimmer, et al) but I didn’t really pay much attention to it, and for a good reason: it wasn’t my kind of music. Lawrence Welk was for old people and squares; everyone said so.

Fast forward to today. After being cancelled by ABC, Welk continued in first-run syndication until 1982, and in 1987 reruns began showing on PBS; many PBS stations still carry it today. We are now the age that our parents and grandparents were when they watched Welk. And yet the Welk show obviously remains popular. My first question, because there’s going to be more than one, is this: where did that audience come from?

If they’re the children and grandchildren of the show’s original audience, that means more of them actually watched Lawrence Welk than was thought at the time, and they watch it today either because they enjoyed it then, or because it brings back happy memories of the past. On the other hand, if Lawrence Welk really is for old people, does that mean we have some kind of genetic predisposition, that when we reach a certain age a genome kicks in and we suddenly start craving champagne music played on an accordion? (Just look at Weird Al.)

The reason I ask this first question is because some traditional forms of entertainment—classical music and opera, live theater, black-and-white television shows and movies—are said to suffer from an ageing audience, one that isn’t regenerating itself. Those involved in the arts, for example, are often wringing their hands wondering how to attract younger audiences; and the production of classic television on DVD has slowed to a trickle because, we are told, the audience for such shows is dying out.

This leads to my second question: how does Lawrence Welk manage not only to retain his audience, but to perennially rebuild it, especially among viewers who aren’t supposed to find Welk and his music appealing? The man has, after all, been dead since 1992, so it’s not as if he’s suddenly become hip like Betty White. Not only that, we’re coming up on a generation of viewers who may not have the same memories of watching the original show with their family. Which means you’ve got a whole lot of kids who were weaned listening to the Stones singing “Satisfaction” who now seem to find their own satisfaction when Norma Zimmer and Jimmy Roberts sing “Drifting and Dreaming,” a song that was written in 1925, almost 40 years before the Stones even formed.

Which brings me to my third question: if Welk was (and is) able to do it, why aren’t any of these others able to do it? Certainly there must have been kids who grew up with their mom or dad listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. Why didn’t this get passed down the same way Lawrence Welk was? And as far as those old TV shows, there are plenty of fans who became fans because they watched reruns on TV years and years after they were originally broadcast. Why does this audience not keep replicating itself?

    Myron Floren
As I was typing this, I started thinking of possible answers to my own questions. Welk was always considered family entertainment, and the almost-universal breakdown of the family might suggest that Welk is over-represented, that he continues to exist precisely because those who like him come from families that remained intact and kept passing him down from generation to generation. It’s just a theory, mind you, but whenever you watch one of those concerts shown during PBS pledge drives, you notice that audience is almost always made up of the same people who watched these acts when they were a going concern. Could it be that these groups aren’t genetically inherited by future generations in the same way that Lawrence Welk is? It could even be that fans of those groups didn’t have children, or didn’t have as many, meaning that the possibility for future growth via genetics was limited from the very start.

It’s easy to look at all of this tongue-in-cheek, of course, and the idea of there being a genetic predisposition to watching Lawrence Welk at a certain age is, I suppose, as absurd as anything Samuel Beckett would come up with. But there’s a dimension to this story about which I’m quite serious, and I’m still looking for answers. Why does Lawrence Welk continue to be popular, generation after generation, when so few other cultural icons do? What did he do right that these arts organizations do wrong? Is it all in the marketing, is there a demographic component to it, or is there something about champagne music that is inherent in people, that we search for whether we realize it or not—the Comfort TV that my friend David Hofstede writes about?

If you’re looking to me to provide the answer, I can’t. It’s entirely possible that I’ve made such a hash out of explaining this that nobody could conceivably answer it. And the fact is that I never was much of a fan of Welk and his style of music. But I do watch his Christmas shows every December, and maybe, since that’s the time of year that most lends itself to sentimentality, I have my own memories that I’m looking to relive. One thing’s for sure, though, and that’s that I would hate to live in a world in which there wasn’t room for Lawrence Welk and his brand of entertainment. The day that happens, there really won’t be much left to look back at. TV  


  1. I've never been a big Welk fan, as he was more my grandparents' style, but I like catching bits of his show on YT occasionally. I've never seen his Christmas shows, but your mention reminds me of Andy Williams' Christmas shows, which I don't have any memory seeing when they were new (probably since I think they were on late for some reason). I'm glad I got to see his Branson show w/ my parents back in 2003, and I bought a couple of his DVDs both at Branson and later on.

  2. Thank you for the plug! As to your questions, which I touched on in my own Welk piece from a few years back - I think his shows provided an escape when current events seemed too frightening or ridiculous to comprehend. We are certainly passing through another moment like that now, so it still feels good to look back on an ear in music and television when only the fashions were insane.

  3. I have never bought the 'ageing audience' argument in any forum. For example a lot of voluntary sector organisations get worried because all their volunteers are retired, as if they forget people are retiring all the time. It's like churches worrying about attendance: the death of the C of E has been announced many times but they currently have an uptick of attendance and ordinations.
    Succisa, virescrit.

  4. My family watched the show. The theme song was snappy and I enjoyed the performers. It was fun when I'd notice a Guy & Ralna or Tom Netherton album at the library. As an adult, I appreciate that so much of what was sung was the standards, from the Great American Songbook, Broadway, and popular and folk music we all grew up with. I passed the show down to my kids, who learned a lot of those songs, as well as every instrument in the orchestra. One of my sons still knows all of the singers and band members' names, just like Dad. As long as people enjoy fun (and maybe a bit corny at times) family entertainment, Lawrence Welk will be popular. Also, those who know good musicianship will love what they hear coming from the orchestra.

  5. Mitchell, I wrote a piece a few years ago on one of those isolated DVD sets...


    1. That is a great article, Paul! I think you nailed it!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!