Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903. By happy coincidence, the 100th anniversary of that date will be the same night a live "Lawrence Welk" show will be in Salt Lake City.
The performance, put on by original cast members from the popular "Lawrence Welk" television show, will visit 23 cities during its 2003 tour. "But our biggest show will be in Salt Lake City (on Tuesday)," said Ralna English, a singer on the program.
In addition to English and the rest of the cast — which includes marimba-playing Jack Imel, dancer Mary Lou Metzger, country singer Ava Barber, jazz clarinetist Henry Cuesta and musician Dick Dale — a number of other Welk regulars will be here for the birthday celebration. Among them, champagne lady Norma Zimmer, accordion player Myron Floren and singer Guy Hovis. Lawrence Welk Jr. and his family will also be in the audience. And, after the concert, the audience will be treated to a special birthday cake.
"We're very, very excited about it," English said during a telephone interview from Branson, Mo., where she was in rehearsals before the troupe hit the road. "It's going to be a great show." They'll do everything from show tunes to big-band songs, with a patriotic segment, some country and a variety of dancing.
Lawrence Welk died in 1992, but his legacy is still going strong, said English. The fans won't let it die. "We're very grateful. We still have all these wonderful fans who come out to see us."
The program was on network television from 1955 to 1971. It was in syndication, with new shows produced, until 1982. In recent years, it has been picked up by public television. "We're the No. 1 syndicated show on PBS, and the only TV show that's still in production after 50 years." (The show appears Saturdays and Sundays on KBYU-Ch. 11.)
Part of the appeal, according to English, is that it was a family show. "Families still watch it together. It's been handed down from generation to generation." And families come together to the live shows. "Grandmothers bring their grandchildren, and grandchildren bring their grandmothers. Mothers bring their sons, and sons bring their mothers."
English became a regular on the TV program in 1969. And because there were so many regulars, people felt that they knew the performers. No one realized it at the time, but Welk was creating a musical family of his own. "We are all just like family. We stay in touch with each other. We've been through everything from birth and death and marriage and funerals together. We've experienced joy and tragedy and sorrow and happiness together."
Of Welk himself, English said, "he was a cute little guy. He was charismatic, bigger than life, really. He was mostly happy. I always think of him with a smile on his face. He liked to play practical jokes."
English, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., returns to Branson each year for the fall and Christmas season shows at the Lawrence Welk Theater there. She also travels around the country, appearing at civic centers, state fairs, senior expos and other venues. She has also appeared with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and with Doc Severinson and the Tonight Show Band.
Recently, English released a CD titled "My God, My Country," which is available through her Web site at ralnaenglish.com.
"Just like the Energizer Bunny, I just keep going," she said with a laugh.
If you go
What: Lawrence Welk 100th Birthday Celebration
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: 7 p.m., March 11
How much: $37.50-$39.50
Phone: 355-2787 or 1-451-2787