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Welk's 'family' puts on a fitting birthday tribute


Nostalgia reigned and celebration ruled as members of the TV's original "Lawrence Welk Show" took to the stage Tuesday night in Abravanel Hall. A monthlong tour across the United States is celebrating Welk's 100th birthday, but the Salt Lake audience received a special treat. Since March 11 was the day of the famous bandleader's birth, extra festivities were included.

Featured performers were singer Ralna English, tap-dancing/marimba-playing Jack Imel, singer/dancer Mary Lou Metzger, country crooner Ava Barber, musician/singer Dick Dale, jazz clarinetist Henry Cuesta, accordion player Tim Padilla, and Russian dancers Pasha and Ilona, backed by the Champagne Musicmakers, under the direction of Bobby Tillery.

In addition to birthday cake, the Salt Lake audience was treated to performances by singer Guy Hovis (teaming with English on "Let There Be Peace on Earth"), accordion player Myron Floren (his "Battle Hymn of the Republic" brought the audience to its feet) and appearances by champagne lady Norma Zimmer and two of Welk's children, Donna and Larry.

The entertainers have still got it, folks. From beginning to end, the show was filled with good humor, sparkling variety and ear-pleasing melodies.

Imel was cute as a button, playing the marimba (it's easier to spell than "xylophone," he said) and tap dancing — sometimes both at once. Dale sang songs he never sang during his 32 years on the show, "because Joe Feeney always got to sing them," such as "Danny Boy."

With his renditions of polkas and waltzes and show tunes, Tim Padilla made you wonder why the accordion ever went out of fashion. Pasha and Ilona — young, new talent introduced in the Welk tradition — combined dance with acrobatics as they performed ballet, waltz and the Charleston, among others. Barber playfully twanged her way through songs such as "San Antonio Rose" and "Southern Nights" and enlisted help from audience members Joe and Don on a fun "Y'all Come."

English and Metzger were in fine form with everything from Broadway show tunes to gospel favorites. And Henry Cuesta's clarinet work was nothing short of amazing. He also teamed with Imel on the drums for a tribute to Big Band music of the '30s — no wonder Lawrence Welk saw such possibilities in this music.

The show ended with a tender video birthday tribute to Welk, followed by a rousing medley of patriotic songs. It was toe-tapping, feel-good music all the way through, a fitting tribute to the legacy of the bandleader, served up by the entertainment family he put together so many years ago. All that was missing was Welk himself, but you sort of figured he had to be there in spirit.