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Did your family prefer 'The Lawrence Welk Show' or 'Hee Haw'?

J. H. Osborne • Apr 8, 2019 at 9:00 PM

Matthew Lane and I were just minding our own business the other day when coworker Rick Wagner lobbed one of his profound statements into our midst: “You know, back in the ’70s, there were two kinds of families. You either watched ‘Hee Haw’ or ‘Lawrence Welk.’ ”

I tried to argue, but something inside me told me he was right. But I remembered watching both. It just depended on whose home I was at on any given Saturday night. Rick and I agreed the two television shows aired against each other on Saturdays at 7 p.m.

Matthew, younger than us, accused Rick of oversimplifying things ... and maybe somehow negatively profiling folks one way or the other.

And then I blurted out my secret: Sometimes I still watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” on Saturday nights. Reruns air on East Tennessee PBS. I actually owe my Welk-on-PBS habit to my paternal grandmother, Maude Ward Osborne. It was a mainstay in her home, which I shared toward the end of her life, for decades. That’s where I would have seen Welk’s long-running show when I was a child. In my grandparent’s living room. They’d never kept their television in the living room until they retired and moved into that house. Before that, the TV was relegated to the den, as it was (and is) in my parents’ home (although the bedrooms also have TVs). But the den was in the basement of the home my grandparents moved into a few months after I was born. And they were retired. The TV became a fixture in the living room. Still, it wasn’t turned on — and tuned in, by turning a giant dial connected to a rooftop antenna — if one had company. Conversation prevailed. On the other hand, if dinner was over and coffee had been served and one’s guests wanted entertainment, there was Welk, with his famous “wunnerful, wunnerful.”

Welk’s show started out as a local program in Los Angeles in 1951, then ran on ABC from 1955 until 1971. Welk continued to produce new shows, aired in syndication, until 1992. His style was described as “champagne music” and the show’s musical numbers — episodes typically featured a theme — were considered wholesome and a potential escape from the realities of the day. There is one blip in this reputation that still stirs conversation online. In the early ’70s, an episode supposedly featuring a “gospel” theme included two show regulars performing “One Toke Over the Line,” a song that mentions “sweet Jesus” and a woman named Mary. But most folks think the song’s lyrics are about marijuana use. (The clip is available on youtube.com.)

In the final years of my grandmother’s life, I’d get our dinner ready and set up the TV trays she’d gotten with K-Savers or S&H Green Stamps probably in the 1960s. And she’d click the remote (no more antenna) until the TV reached channel 2, PBS. And we’d watch a vintage Welk show. Near the end, she didn’t always realize they were vintage. And I didn’t let on.

My earliest memory of “Hee Haw” is of my brother, Keith, and his friend Steve Stidham performing ... shall we say a tribute? ... to one of Hee Haw’s most enduring skits for the Lincoln Elementary talent show.

“Gloom, despair, and agony on me.

Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.

If it weren't for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.

Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”

Just like on the show, they’d stop between verses and tell a corny joke.

“Hee Haw” aired on CBS from 1969 to 1971, when it fell victim to what is known as the network’s “rural purge.” But it, too, like Welk’s show, continued production and aired in syndication until 1992. Rick said he thought “Hee Haw” was meant to be the country cousin to “Laugh In.” But according to Ryan Darrow’s article, “Hee Haw Television Show,” published by the Tennessee Historical Society’s Tennessee Encyclopedia, the program was born from the ashes of “The Jonathan Winters Show” when two writers pitched the idea of a variety show set in the South — and CBS bit. Although CBS cut ties with “Hee Haw” after a couple of years, the show was filmed in Nashville for more than 20 years. The show’s skits took place in fictional Kornfield Kounty. And anyone was was anyone in country music guest starred at some point.

I went back and looked through some TV listings from newspapers from the mid 1970s and Rick and I were right. At 7 p.m. on Saturdays, WJHL offered “Hee Haw” and WCYB offered “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Oh. WKPT offered “The Avengers” on the dates I checked.

In the 1990s, The Nashville Network (TNN) aired “Hee Haw” reruns. And they are available on DVD. PBS stations across the nation continue to air classic episodes of Welk’s show. On April 13, the scheduled show is “Hooray For Hollywood” from 1975. “Take Your Girlie To The Movies” opens the show. Bobby & Cissy dance to “The Entertainer,” Guy and Ralna sing “True Love,” Tom Netherton sings the unforgettable “As Time Goes By,” and Sandi, Gail & Mary Lou join Larry Hooper for “Toot, Toot Tootsie.”

Now I need to look for those TV trays.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]

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