I tried not to cannibalize the Lawrence Welk piece I wrote for The Man too much. In a slightly different form, this article was first published as DVD Review: Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 on Blogcritics.
The commercials for your typical Lawrence Welk program give the viewer a clear idea of the 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 Lawrence Welk’s show, featuring dance and musical numbers that can be so square they’re surreal. The Welk image was used in Darren Hacker’s underground film “Velvet Welk”, which marries footage of the North Dakota native and his illustrious charges to the pulsating drive of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”
Welk’s music as well as his visual image is certainly a throwback to a time Before Irony. It’s easy for 21st Century consumers to approach Welk with a camp aesthetic but the musicianship and the spectacle can be appreciated 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 audiences who assume our parents and grandparents listened to such words in complete innocence.
FilmChest and Synergy have assembled 720 minutes of Welk episodes, transferred from kinescopes that were made before the era of videotape by filming off a broadcast monitor. It’s too bad some of the collected programs from the 1960s, well into the color television era, survive here only in black and white. But the crude shading that the kinescope process often leaves on dark portions of the screen give the monochrome image 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. But the music and visuals of the champagne music man will send fans of all ages into a reverie of time travel from which they may not want to return.