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Welk resort is a legacy of the Champagne musicmaker

ESCONDIDO, Calif. - Grandma let me watch only two TV shows in her upstairs lair. Not her stories - those soap operas were too risque for a tyke.

At the Lawrence Welk Museum in Escondido, Calif., visitors can pose for photo-ops with cutouts of the maestro.
At the Lawrence Welk Museum in Escondido, Calif., visitors can pose for photo-ops with cutouts of the maestro.Read moreSAM McMANIS / Sacramento Bee

ESCONDIDO, Calif. - Grandma let me watch only two TV shows in her upstairs lair. Not her stories - those soap operas were too risque for a tyke.

No, these two mid-1960s programs were so radically different in tone and content that, in retrospect, I guess you could call Grandma a Renaissance woman, embracing culture both high and low. Those Saturday night viewing parties might go far in explaining my enduring affection for kitsch.

The shows: roller derby and The Lawrence Welk Show.

I'm not going to wax nostalgic about what a legendary "sports" franchise the Los Angeles Thunderbirds became; how announcer Dick Lane taught me the virtues of hyperbole; how Grandma would shake her fist at the screen when a dirty skater from the cursed Bay City Bombers sent her beloved Danny "Carrot Top" Reilly careering over the rail.

Rather, I'm going to bore you tearless by reminiscing about Lawrence Welk. I never cottoned to Welk - not my generation, sorry - and I hadn't thought about him in decades until I found myself recently driving from San Diego to Southern California's Inland Empire region on the world's widest freeway, Interstate 15. There, on the northern reaches of Escondido, a freeway sign alerted me to the Champagne Boulevard exit and something called the Welk Resort San Diego.

I had to stop. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this resort, featuring two golf courses, retail shopping and dining, time shares, a fishing pond, and hiking trails, also is home to the Lawrence Welk Museum, inside the recently expanded Welk Theater. A sucker for odd museums, I was all in.

When I stepped through the glass doors, memories flowed like the bubbly: Grandma. Saturday nights. Oatmeal cookies. The old guy with the baton saying, in his funny accent, "Wunnerful, wunnerful" when introducing a squeaky-clean group like the Lennon Sisters, then prepping the band with the catchphrase, "Ah-1 and ah-2. ..." The way Grandma swooned over the dapper, white-tuxedoed band leader with fervor equal to her allegiance to the L.A. Thunderbirds. Oh, and that annoying accordion music.

But the more I perused the memorabilia and read his up-by-the-bootstraps story - son of German immigrants, grew up in a sod house on the North Dakota prairie - the more affection I felt for the show. A hankering for simpler times, perhaps.

Plus, the maestro was enormously popular in his time - and maintains a certain stature even now, 23 years after his death. In the dimly lighted theater lobby-cum-museum, a plaque proclaims, "A total of 10,300,000,000 people! (You read that right! That's 10.3 billion!) ... have tuned in to the LAWRENCE WELK T.V. SHOW(*)" That asterisk, by the way, provides the source: Nielsen Television Rating Index.

The worker at the ticket counter, a chatty guy in his 20s named Javier, caught me writing down the figure and piped up: "You know, it's still on the air. Reruns on PBS."

The museum didn't draw many visitors during daylight hours, Javier said, but at night, when there's a play on (most recently, Oklahoma!), people revel in Welkanalia, posing for photos with the cardboard cutout wielding a baton on a re-creation of the "set," with a bandstand with horns strewn about and a fake ABC camera trained on "Mr. Wunnerful."

Apparently, though, camera-toting playgoers are more enamored with what was purported to be the "world's largest Champagne glass," a gold-and-glass marvel that doubles as a chandelier and might look more fitting in the Liberace museum.

The walls are lined with awards and gold records, including a large platter commemorating Welk's selling his millionth album in 1957. Family photos dominate, Lawrence always beaming with wife Fern, their three children, and 10 grandchildren. In other pictures, Welk poses with his "Champagne Ladies" - vocalists such as Norma Zimmer, Alice Lon, and pre-TV diva Jayne Walton.

What all but Welk's most avid surviving fans may not know is that he had a prodigious career before hitting the airwaves as an impresario and band leader - sort of the Jay-Z of his time. There's a classic photo of him and the boys filling in for Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, a newspaper headline proclaiming "Accordion Squeezer Succeeds," and plenty of other images of him dazzling crowds at mirrored-ball venues as early as 1924.

Come 1950, though, Welk headed West and found TV stardom, first locally on KTLA in Los Angeles, then nationally Saturday nights on ABC.

I tried to chat up Javier about the museum and the Welk Resort. He was happy to oblige, but kept mentioning that I needed to go to the restaurant to talk to Adriene. Before I hoofed it over there, I found out that this was not a retirement community, but a resort and hotel complex covering 450 acres - not counting the adjunct 200-acre Champagne Village mobile-home park - with 40,000 people owning time shares. There are Welk resorts in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Branson, Mo.; and Cathedral City, Calif., among other hot spots, but the Escondido site was the first. The maestro bought the land, now hard by I-15, in 1964.

"But, really," Javier said, "you need to talk to Adriene. She's been here all 50 years."

Adriene Edwards, 81, is a spitfire. She's director of guest services and special events, but on this day, she's serving as hostess for the lunch rush in the restaurant. Between seating diners, she gave me the same "history lecture" she gives new employees and residents most Monday mornings.

"It's a neat story," she said. "It's an American success story."

I asked how often Welk visited the resort and whether he interacted with guests.

"Of course, he did," she said. "He lived in Santa Monica, but he had a mobile home over in Champagne Village. He was wonderful. Or 'wunnerful.' Very genuine, very humble, very high morals. A man of integrity. He used to take his accordion out into the dining room and play for people."

Then, she excused herself to attend to diners. I headed back to the parking lot, but I didn't take a photo of the life-size bronzed sculpture of Mr. Wunnerful for posterity. Grandma, I thought, would have liked this place - but only if they televised roller derby, too.

Lawrence Welk Museum

At the Lawrence Welk Theater at Welk Resort San Diego,

8860 Lawrence Welk Dr., Escondido, Calif.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Cost: Free.

Information: 760-749-3448.