Upon being described as the “Liberace of the accordion,” Lawrence Welk, America’s maestro of Champagne Music gave a reply that zeroed in on his enduring success.
“You have to play what the people understand,” Welk told Time magazine in 1956.
The famous bandleader, now 87, floated the same message time and again on the chandeliered set of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” says Bobby Burgess, Welk’s lead dancer for more than 20 years. A former Mouseketeer on the original “Mickey Mouse Club,” Burgess will appear in two Welk specials Saturday night on KOCE Channel 50. “Tribute to the Big Bands” and “On Tour with Lawrence Welk,” both made in the early ‘80s, will air during the station’s 17-day, on-air membership drive, which starts today.
Welk was a benign taskmaster, said Burgess, who danced from 1961 to 1982 on the Bubble King’s immensely popular program, a weekly hour of easy dance-band music currently seen in repeats nationwide on 245 Public Broadcasting Service stations.
“He was always very nice to us and never gave us any problems,” said Burgess, 49, in a recent phone interview from his Hollywood Hills home. “Of course, maybe he didn’t know that much about dancing.”
Still, ever aware of The Viewer, Welk often asked “The Boys” and other entertainers who followed his lilting baton and unforgettable “uh-one and uh-two and uh-three . . . " to tone things down, Burgess said.
“He’d say to some band members, ‘You don’t need to do these showoff type things; mainly they want to hear that melody, don’t get too jazzy.’ “If we did a waltz, he wanted us to dress all in white and look like the old smoothies of the Ice Capades. Or I’d want to flip my partner over my head, but he’d say ‘keep it simple so the audience can feel like they can do it too.’ We kind of compromise and I’d end up doing one or two lifts.
“Mr. Welk knew who his audience was and what they wanted to hear and what they wanted to see,” Burgess said.
That sort of intuition seemed to pay off from the day the Welk show premiered in July, 1955.
During its first year, the program’s Nielsen ratings more than quadrupled to 32.5; it stayed on the air for 27 years before going to reruns, and since 1987, has been the most-watched show on PBS, its exclusive broadcaster since then, according to PMN Trac, an independent organization that analyzes public television audiences.
Burgess, who was born in Long Beach and started dance lessons at 4, joined Welk’s coterie after myriad television appearances and a four-year stint as a fresh-faced Mouseketeer.
At 19, after winning a ballroom dance contest with partner Barbara Boylen (the first of his three Welk-show partners, preceding Cissy King and Elaine Niverson), the couple were asked to appear on the show, the first of many such guest stints.
“It went on like that for six months until he told us on the air we were regulars,” the cheery-voiced dancer said.
Paired with Niverson, Burgess will chasse, jitterbug and polka with wholesome spunk to such songs as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Roll Out the Barrel” on Saturday’s specials.
Burgess recalled the early days of live TV when an audience member dancing with Welk “was twirling around and flipped her wig off. It was embarrassing, but we got more mail on that and people talked about it for years and years.”
Despite such snafus, Welk liked the look of live TV so much that even when the show was prerecorded, he strove to retain a sense of being there, Burgess said.
“He never wanted us to stop (to reshoot a sequence) even if the singers forgot their lyrics or the dancers” flubbed up. In 21 years, he said, he remembers stopping only twice.
“One time, my partner got her foot whacked (while performing a Filipino pole dance), and she started crying. The other time, we were doing an outer-space dance and she hit some kind of dry ice and slipped and disappeared under the dry ice. But Mr. Welk was really into making it feel like a live TV show. He’d say: ‘They’ll never know the difference, and you covered well, let’s leave it in.’ ”
Burgess, who will appear on KOCE during pledge breaks Saturday from 7:45 to 10 p.m., said the weekly grind never got to him.
“It wasn’t like Mr. Welk said ‘let’s do the old songs,’ ” he said. “No, it was like he’d say let’s do a tribute to the big bands or a tribute to the swing bands, or an around the world (themed show) or a salute to Duke Ellington. There was so much material out there and the band was so great, I never felt we really repeated that much or it got stale.”
Even though the show virtually ignored the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll (though Welk sometimes adapted current tunes), Burgess was never bothered by the rap that it featured tinkly, innocuous music and lagged behind the times.
“I always loved rock ‘n’ roll and occasionally we got to do new moves, but I thought it was a terrific show. I really liked everything about it; I liked what I was doing and the people on it. I just let (criticism) go in one ear and out the other.”
The father of four children, Burgess never skipped a beat when the Welk show went into reruns. He still tours, mostly in the Midwest and the East, often donning white tails or sequined jerseys to appear with former colleagues in a “Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show” production.
“It’s so funny, because we’ll do a couple of days in (each city) and the next night is Frank Sinatra,” he said. “And you’d think, how can you do good business? Because our audience is so specialized (for an older crowd), that’s how. And you’ll see 45 buses lined up outside. They’ll just pack the places.”
* Former “Lawrence Welk Show” dancer Bobby Burgess will be featured in several dance routines Saturday in “Tribute to the Big Bands,” at 8 p.m., and “On Tour with Lawrence Welk,” at 9 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50. Burgess will also appear live from 7:45 to 10 p.m. for pledge breaks during KOCE’s current membership drive.