December 16, 2007

Brushes With Greatness


It’s always interesting, isn’t it, to learn that someone you know is related to some celebrity or noted historical figure? I think it is. It may not be important or meaningful in any way, but it’s interesting. Hearing that someone is a descendant of Calvin Coolidge or is one of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ children always puts a spin on things, if only for a few minutes.

            It’s funny how many celebrities are related to other celebrities. I mean, who could’ve guessed just looking at them that Sigourney Weaver was the Great Doodles Weaver’s niece? Still, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

            I knew a woman once—a country singer—whose brother was a famous television star of the day. She used to get really pissed when people pointed this out. She was a rare case in that sense. Her career was just taking off, and she wanted to make it on her own merits. But between you and me, they shared the same unusual last name, so I’m not sure how long she was gonna be able to keep that secret.

            This sort of thing is rampant in political circles, too—look at how many presidents are related, sometimes distantly, to other presidents—but that has more to do with the self-perpetuating nature of wealth and power. As it happens, I have some illustrious blood flowing through my veins, too. It may not belong to a president, a leader of industry, or one of the original Mouseketeers (though the latter comes close), but my Uncle Larry, as he was known around the house when I was growing up, was still an American icon—a cultural force to be reckoned with.

            The sad thing is, as I type this I’m realizing that given the state of our cultural short term memory, most people may not even remember who Lawrence Welk was anymore. Well dammit, if you don’t, go look him up on those contraptions of yours now, then come back and finish the story.

            Every Saturday night for nearly four decades, Lawrence Welk and his orchestra brought millions of Americans a newfound appreciation for bland renditions of the standards, accordion music, grinning white tap dancers, champagne, and soap bubbles. Lots and lots of soap bubbles. With his catchphrase, “ah-one-a an’ a two-a,” he also taught us tolerance for people with funny Norwegian accents. Guy Lombardo might have mattered one night a year for the duration of one song, but we had Lawrence Welk all year round—and my family watched him every single Saturday night.

            The actual genealogy had always been a little fuzzy to me, so even though she had explained it to me a dozen times over the years, I called my mom this morning and asked her to explain it again.

            It’s like this: her Grandma Tilly—my great grandmother—was Matilda (“Tilly”) Welk, who was Lawrence Welk’s first cousin. So that makes him my . . . well it makes him something. So yeah, it’s not like he ever showed up at the family reunions or left us anything in his will, but that doesn’t matter—he was still Uncle Larry to me, and reason to be proud. When I was six, I even picked up an old accordion from a neighbor and tried to teach myself how to play. (That was the first of three accordions I would own in my lifetime, and I still can’t play a note.)

            When I was very young, I first learned the power of name-dropping on the schoolyard—or at least what amounted to name-dropping in the third grade. Simply by telling would-be assailants he was the son of a cop, I saw one kid regularly avoid playground beatings. Another kid, I remember, got away with being a complete asshole because he knew the editor of the local newspaper. Being able to say that you were connected in some way to a famous person seemed to give people a tremendous power, I thought.

            Now, here’s the problem. Leading a very sheltered existence so far as Lawrence Welk was concerned, and not yet fully grasping the whole “name dropping” business, I left the house under the impression that being related to Lawrence Welk might be able to protect me somehow. I was mistaken. In fact, it only made things worse. After I began telling people that I was related to him, more of them wanted to beat me up.

            Finally one day my friend Gary pulled me off to the side.

            “Man,” he said, “you gotta stop telling people that. It’s not something to be proud of.”

            I didn’t understand it—why knowing a fireman would be a help, yet being related to Lawrence Welk, who was on the television and had his own orchestra, would not. But I took Gary’s advice and shut my mouth.

            Only as I got a little older and began to hear all the jokes and snide references did I comprehend what Lawrence Welk actually represented to most people. To the smug, superior types from Johnny Carson to MAD magazine, “Lawrence Welk” was a synonym for boring Midwestern culture—banal entertainment for elderly proles who made casseroles and wore knitted shawls. Even when he died in 1992, news anchors across the country made fun of him. It was a travesty.

            Then in my teens I got another idea, and began telling people about my Uncle Larry again. Long before I ever heard the word “kitsch,” I gleaned the comic potential of low art and the commonplace. Someone who would actually brag about being related to Lawrence Welk might just as well get the word “loser” tattooed across his forehead.

            Whenever I found myself in the company of some smarty-pants going on about how they knew Bobby Darin, or were related to some Supreme Court justice, I’d put them to shame by puffing out my chest and announcing, “Yeah? Well I’m related to Lawrence Welk.” It had a way of sucking the wind out of any blowhard. (Either that or these people were suddenly just embarrassed to be seen talking to me.)

            As time wore on and the people around me in the bars and offices grew younger, I found myself met with more blank stares when I brought up Uncle Larry. They still went away thinking I was a loser and an idiot, but now it was because they didn’t know who the hell I was talking about, instead of knowing too well who I was talking about. I might as well have been bragging that I was related to ZaSu Pitts or Neville Brand. And in that, the tables have turned in a funny way, because now, see, I’m the one who considers them uncultured and unsophisticated for not having heard of him.

            In the end, then, it worked. Took a little longer than I would’ve liked, and certainly didn’t prevent any schoolyard beatings, but in the end being related to Lawrence Welk has finally given me the power I’d hoped it would when I was eight. Even if people still think I’m an idiot because of it.


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