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HOLLENBECK: Coming full circle with the show that gave us ‘champagne music’

May 16, 2011

There are people who become part of your life, yet you never meet them.
Such was the case with Norma Zimmer, the “champagne lady” of the Lawrence Welk show, and others who appeared in that musical cavalcade televised every week for many years.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Welk show in its early days, but my mother was a diehard from Day 1. If you were at her house on Saturday night, whenever the Welk show started, you were seated on the couch to watch all the Welk performers would offer.
It’s interesting how your perspective can change as you get older. Through the reruns in recent years — and in the specials that are occasionally aired on PBS — I’ve become a fan after the fact.
There were always segments I liked, but not the overall “bouncy” style of some of the music. However, I’ve developed more of an appreciation even for it in recent times because now I can look deeper into the performers’ faces and see the joy they obviously were experiencing while they were part of that experience, and I’ll confess I’m somewhat envious.
All of this has come to the forefront this week with the passing of the famous “Champagne Lady,” Norma Zimmer.
Reported to be “as likable a person as anyone could meet,” Zimmer reportedly was performing only a few months ago and news accounts said she “died peacefully” at her home at the age of 87. She was a singer close to her very last days. What a testament to what music can do for one’s life and spirit.
When I watched the show as a kid, the Lennon Sisters were my favorites, because at that time I was singing with an ensemble that had a similar sound — close, lyrical harmony.
You look back at some of the dumb things you’ve done through the years, and there’s a memory connected to this group that even today I can’t believe, although I was part of it.
Our group — the Bel-Tones — was pretty popular in our part of the world. At some point we decided to make a demo, the details of which won’t come to me now. All I remember is going to a studio in Memphis and recording a song.
Everyone who shared an opinion with us gave us a favorable rating and we submitted the demo to someone. Can’t remember that part either now. But I do recall that we had a chance to possibly do some backup vocals for Ronnie Milsap and turned it down because we wanted it to be all about us. We were “better” than backup singers.
The wisdom of youth has no boundaries.
Back to the Champagne Lady and the rest of the Welk entourage.
My daughter used to spend time with my mother during the summers. She will tell you that she never dared question watching the Welk show when she was at Gram’s house.
When it was time for the show, they would take up their spots on the living room couch.
“Gram would play the piano on my legs while we watched,” Karen recalled as she reminisced about those special times with the grandmother she adored.
One of Mamma’s friends, whom we all called “Sweetheart,” used to compare my singing voice to Norma Zimmer’s. I didn’t think I sounded like her, but Sweetheart insisted that I did.
I asked my spouse about that once and his reply was, “She’s got a little more quiver than you do.”
Ed has a way with words (and a low vibrato tolerance).
But everyone seems to agree that Zimmer was a lovely lady who seemed to lead a blessed life.
I don’t even have to close my eyes to see her waltzing with Welk to the “champagne music.”
According to some Internet research, Zimmer decided to give up her professional life as her two sons were growing up. Welk reportedly told her it was all right for her to quit the road tours, but asked her to stay on the television show until he could find another singer. Each week, a new girl came on as a possible replacement, but he kept asking her to come back the following week. That went on for 20 years.
As the show’s Champagne Lady, Zimmer sang one solo and often a duet (usually with Jimmy Roberts); and there was that lovely dance with her leader at the end of the show as the bubbles bounced across the TV screen.
The show may have bordered on the corny side at times, but it was entertaining, it had really nice music and never once did it include a single crude language..
Isn’t that amazing.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of the Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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