Age-old Affection

On a 2002 trip to Branson, Gladys Gerhardt (Vonny’s mother), Vonny Rohloff, Janet, Kathy and Mimi Lennon gathered for a photo. (Vonny Rohloff photos)
On a 2002 trip to Branson, Gladys Gerhardt (Vonny’s mother), Vonny Rohloff, Janet, Kathy and Mimi Lennon gathered for a photo. (Vonny Rohloff photos)
The lure of singing groups was so strong Vonny Rohloff formed a “girl group” with Kayla and ReNae Olson, performing as a trio at West Central Minnesota area talent shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The lure of singing groups was so strong Vonny Rohloff formed a “girl group” with Kayla and ReNae Olson, performing as a trio at West Central Minnesota area talent shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Remembering Lawrence Welk inspired me to pledge

Recently, I did something I've never done before; I pledged to public television.

My monetary pledge was phoned in while watching a rerun of the "Lawrence Welk Show," one of my all-time favorite programs.

The late bandleader's "musical family" has provided so many memories I wanted to support it.

The variety show has been a staple in my television viewing almost since it began in 1955. I joined the viewers in 1957 when my family got our first television set.

Every Saturday night we faithfully tuned in to Lawrence Welk.

I fondly remember the winter months when we would bathe early and then huddle in our pajamas over the living room furnace grates, where warm air flowed up from the coal-burning furnace in the basement, as we watched the show.

It's hard to describe the effect the Lawrence Welk show had on its TV audience at the time, beamed into little living rooms like ours all over the Midwest. The glamorous sets, the catchy dance numbers and the heartfelt ballads made a colorful, melodious highlight in our week.

Like many other girls my age, my idols were the Lennon Sisters. I wrote a letter to them and was thrilled to receive a postcard in return with their picture on it. The youngest sister, Janet, and I were the same age, born in 1946, so I was especially drawn to her. Coloring books and cutting out clothing for paper dolls of the Lennon Sisters gave me many hours of entertainment as a child growing up in Barrett, Minnesota.

My mother was a schoolteacher and gifted pianist, and she also loved the show and knew many of the songs performed each week.

Since the two next-door neighbor girls — ReNae and Kayla — also had musical talent, Mom put us together as a trio, kind of like a small-town version of the Lennon Sisters, and she accompanied us on the piano.

We sang and danced at ladies' aid meetings, bridal showers, American Legion events and summer community celebrations.

We even won first prize at the Grant County Fair talent show in Herman, Minnesota, and a prize in the Fergus Falls Winter Wonderland talent show. We also sang and danced on the first televised Jaycee-sponsored "Jingle Bells," a Christmas benefit program in Alexandria.

Still riding the glory of my first appearance on the airwaves, I remember telling ReNae and Kayla, "Our trio could become as popular as the Lennon Sisters!"

We performed through my high school years, and then college and careers parted us.

Cute boys and the latest fashions

It wasn't just the music that attracted us to the "Lawrence Welk Show." Every week we were eager to see the performers' stylish costumes and hairdos.

"Champagne Lady" Alice Lon dressed in beautiful full skirts held out like bells by can-can petticoats, which was the style in the '50s. So I convinced Mom to buy me can-cans too.

I remember thinking Rocky Rockwell was so cute, and recently I learned other girls thought so, too, as he's listed as one of the most popular Welk performers.

Dancer Bobby Burgess was just 14 when he was cast on "The Mickey Mouse Club." He won over my age group on the afterschool show and his career continued as he went on to flash his winning smile while dancing on the Welk show. With his longest-time partner, he was memorably introduced by Welk as "a-Bobby and a-Cissy."

I have even more respect for Bobby now — I currently take tap lessons, love to go dancing, and particularly like watching all of the dance steps he choreographed on the PBS reruns.

Accordion player Myron Floren is another Welk favorite. When the Bel-Rae Ballroom in Arden Hills was still open, I attended a dance where Floren was the headliner.

The ballroom was packed, and my friend Carolyn and I shared a table with total strangers. He played and played, and I thought, "He enjoys playing for us almost more than we enjoy listening to him."

I wish I could go back to that night and relive it over and over. Floren was a talented musician who truly loved what he was doing.

Several books have been written about the show, and I've read about the inspiring careers of Welk, Floren and Norma Zimmer. Though he might seem a master of ceremonies somewhat removed from the show to first-time viewers, it was Welk's talent and drive that took him and a mail-order accordion from Strasburg, North Dakota to the entertainment capitals of the world, and his love of performing that helped him spot the same passion in the talented people he hired for the show.

Many of those performers continued onstage after the show ended. In 2002 my mother and I visited Branson, Missouri, known for its musical entertainment.  Although we attended numerous shows, the "Welk Stars Reunion" was our favorite. We enjoyed songs by the Lennon Sisters as well as other Welk performers, including Ralna English of "Guy and Ralna" and clarinetist Henry Cuesta. After the show, the Lennon Sisters graciously met their fans, and I had my picture taken with them. The photo is now a real keepsake.

The tradition continues

On many Saturday nights, I plan my evening dinner so that I can tune in to TPT 2.3 (Channel 17) and watch the "Lawrence Welk Show." Occasionally, if there is a good "champagne music" dance number, I ask my house companion Yul, an excellent dancer, to dance in the kitchen with me. We may waltz or foxtrot around the kitchen table. I can still kick, dip and spin in that space if I keep an eye out for a corner!

Not long ago, my great-nephew Samuel spent Saturday evening with me. At 6 p.m. I tuned in Lawrence Welk. As we finished eating, the little guy seemed interested in the music so I moved him from the table to the family room, and we sat on the sofa and listened to the wonderful music.

He watched intently and did not fuss even though he was only 18 months old. Music has a way of bringing people together, even over generations.

Lawrence Welk brought my family together so many years ago, and the show is still entertaining us today. May my financial contribution be meaningful and help support TPT programming so the tradition will continue for at least another 50 years.
 
Vonny Rohloff can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.
 

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