Lawrence Welk, a cult hero?

"Yes, to a certain segment of the American people--the older generation--he's a real cult figure," KPBS radio deejay Al Deahl said.

Deahl should know. He is emcee for the popular "Sunday Swings" at Lawrence Welk Village, monthly ballroom dances that feature the mellow music of a vintage Lawrence Welk orchestra. And Deahl has a large following of his own for weekly radio broadcasts of "The Pacific Ballroom."

Deahl doesn't just play the music of the Big Band era when he takes to the airwaves. He creates an imaginary ballroom--complete with first-person commentaries. With his soothing velvet voice, Deahl conjures up aural images that transport his listeners to the elegant ballrooms where Americans danced during the '30s and '40s.

The Escondido resort attracts both locals and tourists to these events. The faithful crowd the dance floor as an eight-piece band plays the standards. Polkas, fox trots and jitterbug-style dances are always favorites with the dancers, but the band is happy to accommodate the rumba and cha-cha fans as well.

The resort's dining room evokes the flavor of a 1940s dance palace for these monthly nostalgia trips. A very dapper Deahl, appropriately attired in formal wear, sets the mood from the podium--just as the old Big Band announcers did in their heyday.

"From the rolling hills of Southern California's most sophisticated dance address--the Champagne Ballroom at the Lawrence Welk Village," he proclaims in a mellifluous voice, sweeping the audience into his fantasy world ever so gently, "just a whisper away from the blue Pacific . . . "

From then on, it's nonstop dancing, often with "Mr. Wunnerful" himself playing the accordion or making merry on the dance floor with a succession of ladies chosen from the audience--a Welk trademark from his long-running television show. (Welk spanned 27 years on the tube, with one of the highest-rated shows in TV history.)

On Sunday, when the March "Sunday Swing" swung into high gear, the darling of the senior set had something special to smile about. It was Welk's 84th birthday, and his family and friends were there to help him celebrate.

The orchestra dished out some of his old favorites, and the beaming Welk proved that age hasn't diminished his enthusiasm one whit. He was on the dance floor or leading the orchestra much of the evening.

Deahl did the honors at Sunday's birthday bash, just as he has since the "Sunday Swings" began a couple of years ago. The affable Deahl seemed the very model of a Big Band announcer as he introduced the songs and the celebrities. But as he explained before the show, he is really a newcomer to the business.

"I have absolutely no aptitude for music, but I always wanted to be a radio announcer," Deahl said. "This whole thing got started by osmosis. I was a retired naval intelligence officer and started as a volunteer at KPBS in 1980, when I was 52.

"The 'Sunday Swings' began as a benefit show for the blind, which I emceed. Lawrence (Welk) liked it, and now I do them all. We're sold out almost all the time."

Tom and Lou McKeever are part of the growing contingent of fans that Deahl and his "Sunday Swings" have accumulated. In fact, the McKeevers haven't missed a single "Sunday Swing."

What keeps them coming?

"We enjoy ourselves," said Lou McKeever. "We raised a family and didn't get a chance to get out dancing for years."

"Now we're making up for lost time," Tom McKeever added.

Sisters Cindy Reed and Debbie Vuittonet are too young to remember the ballroom dance craze that spawned bands like Welk's, but they grew up swinging just the same.

"We were part of a large family (six sisters), and we used to dance the polka in front of the TV set when Lawrence Welk was on," Vuittonet said. "Now that we've discovered these 'Sunday Swings,' we love to come out and dance in a real ballroom."

"It's not just for old people," said Debbie's husband, Mike Vuittonet. "I'm sure my little girl would like it too.

A retired couple, Helen and Martin Wesley of San Diego, are frequent Sunday Swingers, because "we just enjoy dancing and love Lawrence Welk's music."

Some, like Roy and May Ricker of Ohio, discovered the "Sunday Swings" by accident.

"We came here for a two-day visit," said Roy Ricker, "and ended up staying more than a week." These first-time swingers thought the idea of re-creating the old ballroom dance days was "fantastic."

Deahl describes the evolution of Big Band music into the contemporary music scene as "a renaissance. It's become a segment of American popular music--like jazz. It never used to be accepted as a genre, but now it's so firmly entrenched, it's never going to die out," he said.

"I do Big Band shows at the Del Mar Fair, and this year we'll have to expand to two five-hour shows, because they've grown so popular. One will be a Big Band dance contest. Now young people are discovering that they really like swing."

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