I’m trying to fathom why my grandmother Margaret Tillotson loved Lawrence Welk so much. What little I know is that they were born around the same time; came from small towns in Nebraska and North Dakota, respectively; and were Catholic, although she was Irish Catholic and he was German and in her mind there was a big difference.
The Lawrence Welk Show started on KTLA in 1951 but went national on ABC in 1955, the year I was born. Margaret watched faithfully and wanted us to have a family band and go on “Lawrence Welk’s,” as she always said. At her behest I started trombone lessons at the age of eight. My sister Kate, who’s fifty-one weeks younger than I, picked up the clarinet at the same time. My mother played accordion, father could tootle a harmonica, and younger brother Dan would come along to tickle the ivories (Margaret saw to our acquisition of an old piano).
For a kid as small as me–I was so short and scrawny–the trombone was ridiculous, but my grandmother may have had a thing for Tommy Dorsey, a nice Irish boy (she had no idea what a devil he really was) and bandleader whose jazzy trombone playing lit her up.
Kate and I took evening lessons in the home of Gene Hazen, a public school music teacher who moonlighted, expending the last energy of his day on the likes of us. Once I got past scales and the simplest melodies, I lost interest, even though the lessons continued until I was thirteen.
Finally, frustrated on the rare day when I tried to practice, I smashed the slide into the concrete floor of our basement. The mangled instrument was repaired, but I never played again. Margaret’s hopes of a family band were dashed.
Kate, on the other hand, continued on clarinet and marched in Burke High School’s band.
Of course, it wasn’t only our grandmother who liked Lawrence Welk. A man of the people, his accent hinting of the Old World, he had a massive audience. It was inexplicable–that show couldn’t have been stuffier. Say what you will about the crackerjack playing of his orchestra, but the format was archaic by the mid-1960s. Yet it continued for season upon season and is still in reruns.