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Norma Zimmer and Lawrence Welk
Lawrence Welk waltzing with Norma Zimmer, known as "The Champagne Lady," became as much the bandleader's trademark, as his famed bubbles.

As mentioned in previous columns, I grew up in a family that never missed watching "The Lawrence Welk Show" every weekend.

So when I saw a wire report that Norma Zimmer, Lawrence Welk's popular "Champagne Lady," had died at 87, I wanted to share it with readers.

Accoding to the wire obituary written by Lynn Ebler, the Associated Press television writer, Zimmer "died peacefully Tuesday at her Brea, Calif., home" as announced Wednesday by Larry Welk, the bandleader's son.

According to the wire tribute, Zimmer performed on both Welk's network series and later the syndicated version of the show from 1960 to 1982. It was Zimmer's role to sing solos, along with duets with Jimmy Roberts, and most importantly, waltzing with Welk to the strains of his effervescent dance tunes he tagged "champagne music."

According to the wire story, "Zimmer took part in a tribute to Welk and his show held earlier this year at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills."

Welk, who stopped performing in 1989, died in 1992 at age 89.

Zimmer, born in July 1923 in Larson, Idaho, was a petite blonde who sang with The Girlfriends, a quartet that performed with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, including on Crosby's famed recording of "White Christmas."

Zimmer made several film and TV appearances, including one with Crosby in the 1950 film "Mr. Music" and in an episode of "I Love Lucy" (appearing in Lucy's dream about visiting Scotland) and was the voice of the White Rose in the 1951 Disney film "Alice in Wonderland."

She is survived by sons Ron and Mark, while husband Randy Zimmer died in 2008.

But what the wire obituary forgot to mention is that Zimmer was actually Welk's "second" Champagne Lady. In 1959, he fired his original "Champagne Lady" Alice Lon, who had been with the show since its TV debut in 1955. She was replaced with Zimmer, with Welk telling the press that Lon "showed too much knee and cheesecake doesn't fit my show." Lon, who hailed from Texas, died at age 54 in April 1981.

When singer and dancer Bobby Burgess appeared with "The Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show" at the old Drury Lane Dinner Theatre in Evergreen Park, Ill., in October 2002, he said during the TV series run, performers never had written contracts with Welk, only verbal agreements and handshakes.

"That meant you could be gone any week," Burgess said.

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"But if you followed the rules, you were fine."

Master of the accordion Myron Floren, who died at age 85 in July of 2005, also appeared with Burgess, along with dancer Arthur Duncan and piano player Jo Ann Castle at Drury Lane in 2002. He worked for Welk from 1950 until the television show ended in 1982 and like Burgess, said Welk was firm about his policies.

"Three rules: no drinking, be on time and no weight gains," Floren told me in 2002.

"Follow those, and you were safe."

Burgess, who turns 70 next week and was already famous from his childhood as one of the original "Mickey Mouse Club" Mouseketeers, married Floren's daughter Kristi in 1971.

Although Burgess said Welk was "up-front" when he hired any performer, informing he would only pay "scale," he was generous to those who were loyal, and promised that any entertainers who stayed with him for 10 years would get a generous retirement investment.

"Mine was in the six figures," Burgess said.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

 

 

 

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