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From the Great Plains to L.A.: the Intersecting Paths of Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson

ISSUE:  Spring 2003

As the popular host of the “Tonight” show for nearly 30 years and Hollywood’s most powerful icon until his retirement in 1992, Johnny Carson stands as a significant cultural indicator of late 20th-century America. Born almost a quarter of a century earlier and several hundred miles north of his Nebraska counterpart, North Dakotan Lawrence Welk bridged two eras: pre-World War II United States, when radio reigned, and the postwar era, when television took over.

Although it might seem counterintuitive to consider Welk and Carson in juxtaposition, many things linked them as personalities and as entertainers. Both were the beneficiaries of perfect timing, launching their careers when, first, radio and, then television were in their infancies. Both established large and loyal followings by creating public personas that came across extremely engagingly on the tube. And both were small-town boys from the transitional area connecting the Midwest and the Great Plains who retained strong ties to their boyhood social environments while adapting themselves skillfully to the new conditions of American society that rapidly emerged after World War II.

Welk, who got started in show business in the 20’s just as radio was coming into its own, successfully managed the transition to television and became a national cultural hero in his own right, making a personal fortune in the process. Carson, the ultimate creature of television, accumulated even greater wealth and popular acclaim, emerging in the process as perhaps the most powerful person in the entertainment industry. Toward the end of his “Tonight” show tenure, People magazine gushed: “He is Mr. Television. Titan of talk, minister of celebrity, night watchman of the global village, comedian laureate of a nation that loves to laugh itself to sleep.”

Only in its reference to the “global village,” a term Marshall McLuhan popularized about the time that Carson catapulted to the top during the early 1960’s, did the magazine err in its characterization. The “Tonight” show’s brand of humor, it appears, was not exportable. In 1981, when NBC tested the waters for an abbreviated version of the program in Great Britain, it flopped dismally. “Who is this Johnny Carson guy?” inquired one London viewer. “I find it very difficult to laugh when the chat-show king is earning a multimillion-dollar salary reading cue boards.” A TV critic for the London Daily Mail remained mystified: “His monologue could be in Swahili for all we get from it.”

What rendered the program incomprehensible to Brits was exactly what made it so popular in the United States, reflecting the gulf separating the two countries’ popular cultures. (The Beatles and the Rolling Stones did much to bridge that gap during the early years of Carson’s reign on the “Tonight” show.) The Nebraska-bred talk show host’s comedic approach was essentially as a reactor. “I’m a reaction performer,” he told a writer. “I react off a situation.” His monologues, the favorite part of the show for him, contained commentaries on the political and cultural developments of the day. Careful to suppress his personal biases and opinions, Carson aimed his barbs willy-nilly at all points on the political spectrum, providing a running, if irreverent, commentary on changing times. In the process, he emerged as a significant cultural barometer. “I never really believed Nixon was finished,” one magazine writer noted, “until Johnny Carson began making Watergate jokes.”

Possessing an intuitive sense of what Americans wanted to watch and what they were thinking, Carson dished up easily digestible fare, making the “Tonight” show a juggernaut which saw more than a dozen rivals come and go, and which, for a time, was raking in 17 per cent of the entire network’s profits. “He is as crucial to the understanding of the nature of middle America (not necessarily in a geographic sense) as he is crucial (in a personal sense) to an understanding of the nature of television,” proclaimed a Life magazine cover story in 1970. “Johnny Carson is not only at home in middle America, he is middle America, and so is television.”

But before we get too carried away with Carson’s power and influence, it would be worth taking a look at his much different contemporary, Lawrence Welk. The accordionist from Strasburg, North Dakota, over the course of more than half a century, built up a large and enthusiastic following as he progressed from dance halls and church basements in the Dakotas to the glittering Trianon and Aragon ballrooms in Chicago, through a thousand other venues and one-night stands in cities—large and small—all over America. He landed finally in southern California, not far from the future home of the “Tonight” show. Having built a regional reputation in the Midwest with the help of WGN Radio in Chicago, he capitalized on his high ratings over KTLA-TV in Los Angeles during the early 1950’s to win a shot at a network program. Thus, after 16 years as a Saturday night fixture on ABC-TV, he continued successfully for many years with his own independent Lawrence Welk Network and finally with PBS reruns. Like Carson, Welk represented Middle America. His appeal was narrower, his audience being older, more unsophisticated, conservative, middle class, and female in orientation. He was “square” and proud of it. The ties linking him to his watchers were even stronger and more dependable than those between Carson and his viewers.

If Welk’s audience represented a narrower segment of the general public, it nevertheless was an important one. Historian Elting E. Morison, reviewing Welk’s autobiography; Wunnerful, Wunnerful, in the New York Times Book Review, commented, “The Welk program is a work of what Sinclair Lewis used to call measured merriment; it gives very precise expression to certain parts of that state of mind—the respectable intentions, the inhibiting pruderies, the operating platitudes, the residual wistfulness—that work in so many of us, or used to. Latter-day historians and sociologists in their expeditions into the heartland will do well to search out the tapes of the Lawrence Welk Program.”

Welk’s and Carson’s paths crossed several times during their careers. Carson auditioned for the role of host of “Who Do You Trust?” before an audience waiting to watch “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and Welk later made an appearance on the “Tonight” show in which Carson gamely made “a stiff-legged attempt” to dance a polka. Several interesting coincidences further connected the two. Both lived for a while in Omaha (the former temporarily making it the home base for his band during the late 1930’s; the latter, right out of college in 1949, initiating his radio-TV career there), both spent a decade or more in a big city (Welk in 40’s Chicago, Carson in New York City from 1957 to 1972), and both eventually wound up in Hollywood (Carson worked in Los Angeles two different times, both before and after moving to New York). Both men molded their careers around new media forms (Welk building a Midwestern audience over the radio waves, then emerging as a national entertainment figure on television; Carson quickly making the transition to television after briefly working in radio).

Both evinced great pride in having come from and in being identified with the small towns in which they had grown up (Strasburg, North Dakota, and Norfolk, Nebraska respectively), and they also took satisfaction, more generally, in their Midwestern roots. The character and behavior of both, moreover, were heavily influenced by their Mid-American origins, and both reflected the profound changes that were occurring in the culture, as small town America gave way to influences emanating from the nation’s metropolises during the middle decades of the 20th century.


The differences that separated the two, however, are more apparent, at first glance, than the things that united them. Part of the contrast was generational, Welk having been born in 1903 and Carson in 1925. Carson was cool, hip, with-it, and ironic, comfortable in the confines of Broadway or Hollywood, tuned in to the rapid changes that were transforming the culture. Welk, in contrast, was square, corny, old-fashioned, and committed, standing for an older, more traditional way of life and set of values. In interviews, in magazine articles and books, and on his show, the North Dakotan vigorously criticized the direction in which he saw American society moving. He welcomed the label of “square,” saying, “I grew up in a community of squares. I felt at home with them. And even today I’d say that most of the fans we meet on our tours may be somewhat on the square side.” Squareness, to him, was a badge of honor, a point of identification: “Squares as a group tend to enjoy clean fun, understandable music, pretty and wholesome girls, and entertainment that builds up and doesn’t tear down.”

To view Welk and Carson as starkly contrasting purveyors of two completely differing mind sets and behavioral styles, however, is too simple. We are better off considering them as traveling down similar paths, which wound up at different destinations but shared many common stopping points along the way. Welk grew up on a farm near the little town of Strasburg, North Dakota; Carson’s family moved from southwestern Iowa to Norfolk, Nebraska, when he was eight, and he spent his adolescence there, the son of a power company manager, whose income maintained his family comfortably in the middle class while the country was suffering through the Depression.

The households that the two grew up in were, according to all accounts, traditional in makeup and strict in their expectations. Welk was the sixth of eight children in a devoutly Roman Catholic, German-Russian family whose religious faith and strict standards of conduct received strong reinforcement from the surrounding community, which was predominantly German and Catholic in origin. The values and precepts which were instilled in Welk as a child maintained their grip on him throughout his life.

Carson was the middle child in a family of three, sandwiched between an older sister and a younger brother. (His brother Dick would serve as director for the “Tonight” show for several years.) Although his parents were not as rigid as Welk’s in their religious beliefs or parental approach, Carson did attend Christian Endeavor meetings at the Methodist church while he was in high school, and his mother, especially, seems to have been a stickler for abiding by the rules. Versions of what life was like in the family differ, and Carson himself has not been very helpful in sorting them out. One often-quoted remark that throws some light on the situation came from Dick, who noted that the family was definitely not “Italian” in its mode of expression. “Nobody in our family ever says what they really think or feel to anyone else,” he was quoted as saying.

High school friends of Carson, however, indicate that his was a happy household. In any case, it appears that religion was a more casual affair in the Carson household than it was in the Welks’, and Johnny apparently never made church-going part of his adult lifestyle nor considered religion to be an important part of his life. In contrast, Welk attended Catholic mass regularly, even when it was inconvenient for him while out on the road. He constructed a shrine to the virgin in his home, regularly read religious books and pamphlets, included religious songs on his television programs, and spoke frequently about the necessity for religious values in magazine articles and books to which he attached his name.

If parental values and religious upbringing became more fully internalized in the young Lawrence Welk than they did in his Nebraska counterpart, both, as they were growing up, developed high ambitions which could have been fulfilled only by leaving home and exploring the wider world. For Carson, the decision to leave was hardly a decision at all, but flowed naturally from the circumstances in which he found himself during the early 1940’s. Graduating from Norfolk High School in 1943, he joined many of his classmates in enlisting in the Armed Forces—in his case, the Navy. Back in civilian clothes three years later, he took advantage of his GI benefits and enrolled at the state university at Lincoln. Hoping for a career in radio, or maybe in the rapidly expanding field of television, Carson took his first job after graduation at radio station WOW in Omaha in 1949. Several months later, WOW opened the first television studio in a five-state area, and Carson quickly began angling for a program of his own. Since the medium was just in its beginning stages and everything for the moment was wide open, he got one.

Welk’s departure from home was more dramatic than his Nebraska counterpart’s and required greater determination, because both of his parents assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. When he indicated his desire to go out on the road with his accordion and make a living as an entertainer, they vigorously opposed the idea, considering it foolhardy and realizing the temptations that he would be prey to. In spite of this, Welk’s 21st birthday turned out to be a memorable day. Just as he had planned, he dressed up in a new suit that he had sent off for, inspected his packed suitcase one final time, said goodbye to his family, and marched off into the world. His father accepted Lawrence’s departure with greater equanimity than might be expected, because he figured he wouldn’t be gone very long. “He’ll be back in six weeks,” the crusty farmer predicted. But when Lawrence finally did return, it was in a second-hand car that he had purchased with money earned as a performer—proof of his success. While his road to musical fortune and fame turned out to be a long one, with many detours and side-trips along the way, his trips back to Strasburg over the years would be short stays to visit with family and friends, who were able to follow the arc of his career in newspaper stories and magazine articles.


Both young men’s decisions to leave home flowed out of earlier events and decisions. At about the same age, both went through experiences which changed their lives, setting them on the paths that they would follow the rest of their lives. They both discovered a passionate commitment that would only intensify during their adolescent years, leading them into careers in entertainment. For Lawrence Welk, the episode was traumatic and life-threatening. The summer he was 11 he started feeling bad and finally, after trying to go out and work in the fields, he told his father about a pain in his side. Quickly being diagnosed as having a burst appendix, the boy was rushed by one of the few automobiles in the community to Bismarck, 75 miles to the north, where it was discovered that peritonitis had set in. A seven-week hospital stay and bed rest for the better part of the following year provided young Lawrence with lots of time to relax and think and read—and play his father’s accordion. During his year of convalescence, music became his passion, and he was determined to do anything he could to escape the drudgery of farm work to pursue his dream of making music.

Carson’s life-transforming experience was much more mundane, but the commitment that emerged out of it was no less passionate. When he was 12, a friend showed him a deck of marked cards and a catalog that he had obtained from a magician’s supply house. Sending off for his own catalog and magician’s kit, young John Carson spent hours practicing tricks and perfecting his routines, even invading the family’s bathroom and inviting his mother to “pick a card, any card” while she was sitting on the commode. Though her son’s single-mindedness could be an annoyance and became a running joke in the family, Ruth Carson sewed him a black shirt with a white rabbit on the back and fashioned a banner for him emblazoned with his stage name, “The Great Carsoni.” Becoming something of a local celebrity, he performed in neighbors’ homes, church basements, and high school assemblies as well as for service clubs in town and in neighboring communities as part of Chamber of Commerce marketing tours. With the magic went the patter of humor. Later, at the University of Nebraska, Carson wrote his senior thesis on comedic techniques, which stood him in good stead when he started applying the methods he had described on his own radio and television shows in Omaha.


That is not the end of the stories, however. Both young men were determined to break out of the Midwest and make their marks on wider audiences. For Welk, the break came after years of trekking around the Midwest and venturing into big city markets such as Pittsburgh, New York, and Boston. After 10 years of operating mostly in Chicago during the forties, Welk moved his band to Ocean Beach, California, in 1951, just in time to become a hit on southern California television. His success in this regional market, in turn, earned him an opportunity four years later to debut on network television.

Johnny Carson’s path to national attention was both faster and more calculated. After a year in Omaha, he put together a half-hour tape of himself performing on TV and took it with him on a trip to the West Coast, where he tried to interest television stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles in hiring him. With help from a boyhood friend from Avoca, Iowa (where his family had lived before moving to Norfolk), he landed a job at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles. His work in California paved the way for his move to New York in 1957 as MC of a game show called “Who Do You Trust?” which, in turn, got him a chance at hosting “Tonight” in 1962. The rest, as they say, is history. (Ten years later, NBC moved the show to California, and Carson was back in familiar territory.)

Few people remember that during the 1950’s, while Johnny Carson was working his way up the television ladder, Lawrence Welk emerged as one of the medium’s most astounding—and inexplicable—phenomena. Just as Carson would later demolish every competitor that arose to challenge him as “King of the Night,” Lawrence Welk left every other big band in the dust, as they tried to emulate his success on national television. The North Dakota native may have been the “King of Corn” in the estimation of sophisticates, but Welk could only smile as bands led by Guy Lombardo, Ray Anthony, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and others gamely tried to imitate his success, only to fail in short order. His show remained strong in the ratings throughout the 50’s, sometimes topping “Bonanza” as the most popular one on the tube. Its Nielsen ratings remained strong, usually placing among the top 20 or 30 programs on the air.

A question that arises in any discussion of either Welk or Carson is how to explain their extraordinary degree of success. Media analysts and social scientists have advanced a variety of theories endeavoring to explain television’s function in our media-saturated society and the impacts of particular programs and performers, and their insights can assist in assessing Welk’s and Carson’s careers. During the 1950’s, as the medium was establishing itself at the heart of popular culture, mass culture and mass society theorists denigrated it for its standardized, repetitive, and superficial fare; noted its reliance on stale, simplistic formulas; and criticized its mindlessness, sentimentality, and predictability. Dwight Macdonald denounced the “public’s narcotized acceptance of Mass Culture and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and unpredictable (hence unstable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life.” Upon becoming chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration, Newton Minow famously condemned the “vast wasteland” that television had become. Both “The Tonight Show” and “The Lawrence Welk Show” fit the characterizations of television advanced by mass culture critics as being undemanding, lacking in intellectual stimulation, and prone to escapism and fantasy.

Left wing and Marxist critics, who blossomed during the 60’s and overlapped with theorists of mass culture in many of their criticisms of the media, went further in theorizing the role of ideology in influencing the behavior of producers and consumers of television fare. Orthodox Marxists attributed “false consciousness” to consumers of culture, who, in their view, were victims of an unfair economic system in which the “superstructure” of cultural assumptions, beliefs, and values was determined by the foundational economic relations of society. More complex and sophisticated models of cultural influence emerged in the writings of thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, whose work gained followings during the seventies, overlapping considerably with notions put forward by postmodernist thinkers. Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” proved particularly useful in distinguishing between coercive forms of control, which rely upon direct force or threat of force, from consensual control, the result of people willingly or voluntarily adopting the world view of the dominant group or groups in society.

Any interpretation that attributes Welk’s and Carson’s success in the medium to a one-way process of manipulating, tricking, or controlling their audiences is bound to fail. Obviously, what occurred in their cases was a dynamic, highly personal, and, in many ways, unique interaction between performer and audience in which both men intuitively understood the purposes and motives of their watchers and continually and effectively worked to reinforce the ties that bound their audiences to them.

While to the viewers of the programs, the relationships between them and their hosts may have seemed entirely personal—a one-on-one encounter between like-minded individuals—the real dynamic occurring during the process revolved around ratings, advertising, and dollars. Only as long as their programs attracted enough viewers to satisfy industry executives with their eyes on the bottom line would either performer be rewarded with increasing levels of compensation or, at its most basic level, staying on the air. The key factor in the business, as Todd Gitlin has pointed out, is uncertainty. This produces a paradox: “The networks place a premium on rationality, searching for seemingly systematic, impersonal, reliable ways to predict success and failure.” Driven by the desire for control and predictability, TV moguls stand ready to reward performers who enable them to achieve those goals. Welk, whose audience was more limited and demographically specific, managed to stay on network television for 16 years, then on his own syndicated program for another 11 years until his retirement in 1982, and his program continues to remain popular in reruns on public television today, more than half a century after he went on the air in southern California in 1951. Carson, meanwhile, saw his annual income climb to $25 million during his 30 years with NBC. To explain the extraordinary success of both performers, it is as important to understand what their audiences brought to the process as what the performers themselves contributed. Through their enactment of roles deriving originally from their origins as small town boys from the Midwest, Carson and Welk projected images that their audiences could readily relate to on a personal level. Each viewer could derive personal meaning from the programs as seemed fitting. “For culture is a process of making meanings in which people actively participate,” John Fiske reminds us, “it is not a set of preformed meanings handed down to and imposed upon the people.”

Ultimately, Alexis de Tocqueville can assist as much as current cultural and media theorists in sorting out the significance of the phenomena of Welk and Carson. “Democratic nations,” the French social observer wrote in the 1830’s, “cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it.” He noted that this was the inevitable result of a culture that caters more to the common citizen than to a cultural elite. “There will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.” Programs like Carson’s and Welk’s, in the minds of some viewers, may have been kitsch, may have been corny, and may have been pitched to the lowest common denominator, but they were certifiably popular. Upon further examination and in comparison with the video menu being served up in America today, it would be hard to argue that they were especially vapid or more deserving of censure than the current batch of offerings. In many ways, their connection to their audiences and the values and sentiments they promoted marked the two programs as notable cultural indicators of the era.


In reaching out to their audiences, both Welk and Carson took similar approaches to their work. The former was even more emphatic on this point and tirelessly repetitive in explaining it. For him, everything boiled down to a simple formula: in effect, “find out what your audience wants and give it to them.” He made the point a thousand times in a thousand different ways, always in some variation of the following: “I believe in giving people the land of music they like. That means simple music with a beat. There is no middle ground in presenting it. Our only objective is to satisfy the public desire for danceable rhythms.”

Carson, likewise, owed his success not to his ability to innovate, push the limits of the medium, or challenge his viewers’ intelligence. He had no desire to be another Jack Paar, stirring up the pot, generating controversy, and inviting disgruntled viewers to turn off the set. “I’m not equipped to talk about issues,” he told one interviewer. “In my opinion, neither was Paar. I’m not interested in using the show as a platform for the burning issues of the day. There’s no percentage in getting involved. I’m an entertainer, and this is an entertainment show. When people tune in at 11:30, they don’t want to hear about civil rights.” Carson defined his role on the show in a single word: “entertainment.” His purpose was not to inform, educate, excite, enlighten, uplift, or improve. It was the more mundane business of letting his watchers relax and enjoy themselves. A few laughs, interviews with mainly show-biz figures, and some musical acts: millions of Americans prepared for sleep with such entertaining fluff. “What’s wrong with listening to verbal Muzak?” some asked.

Welk’s happy, melodic dance tunes with a light beat got tagged the same way—as Muzak. But in his case, the charge carried more of a bite. Music reviewers, with few exceptions, remained unimpressed with the level of musical accomplishment in Welk’s bands and singing groups, while television commentators began to label Carson a comic genius. Critics, however, did acknowledge the huge popularity Welk enjoyed and admitted that he was giving people—at least a large group of them—what they wanted, so he couldn’t be written off entirely. Thus, articles with titles like “Lawrence Welk: The King of Musical Corn” and “Wonderful Lawrence Welk . . . Who Cares That He’s a Cube.”

Both Welk and Carson built their entertainment careers by gauging what their audiences desired and by giving it to them as simply and expeditiously as they could. Carson possessed an intuitive sense of his audience’s mood, being especially good at recovering from jokes that fell flat during the monologue. He understood just how far to push in demanding freedom to use double entendres and suggestive material on the show. His audiences provided instant feedback every night, but Carson made no effort to mingle with people once the show was over. His innate shyness and, after he became a big star, his desire to wall himself off from hordes of enthusiastic fans earned him a reputation as a loner. An acquaintance suggested that his problem was that “he can communicate with millions, but not one-on-one. He’s the loneliest man I’ve ever known.”

While Carson felt comfortable on-camera and uncomfortable off it, Welk was just the opposite. He visibly tensed up on the air, appearing ill at ease and sometimes stumbling over his lines. But off the air he loosened up, greeting strangers with a welcome smile, charming everyone with his unfeigned friendliness, and taking obvious pleasure in their company. “Watch him walk through an airport,” wrote his friend and book collaborator, Bernice McGeehan. “Heads turn, there are startled, questioning looks, and then—as they see it really is the person they think it is—broad smiles, outstretched hands, and cries of welcome.”Hey, Lawrence, how are you!” It’s as if they’re greeting an old and very dear friend, and, in a way, they are. Lawrence Welk is friends with the whole country.”

Different as they were in relating to their audiences, Welk and Carson both identified themselves as small town boys from the Heartland, and much of their appeal derived from this. “I’m a farm boy who got into the music business,” Welk liked to say. He referred frequently to his North Dakota origins, specifically identifying himself as a product of Strasburg. When Johnny Carson cracked that Welk’s music was “way-in,” the bandleader was the first to laugh at the joke, because he understood that’s just what his fans wanted.

Carson also made frequent references to his Nebraska background on his show and was quick to say, “A guy from the Midwest—that’s who I was, that’s who I am.” But Carson was a different type of Middle American; unlike Welk, who never really shucked the values and behaviors that he had picked up there, Carson retained a nostalgic affection for his small town upbringing while largely adopting the values and attitudes of the metropolitan places where he spent most of his adult life. In 1981, when he went back for a sentimental journey to his home town of Norfolk to make a television movie, largely written by himself and titled “Johnny Goes Home,” People magazine commented, “At 56, he somehow remains both a quintessentially Midwestern boy and an urbane Hollywood sophisticate who hobnobs with the mighty.”

The journeys that Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson began in 1924 and 1946 respectively took them far from home, but they never could get home out of their minds. Both of their identities were heavily influenced by their small town origins. Both of them ended up in the entertainment capital of the world—Los Angeles. But Carson traveled much further from home to get there. While Welk always remained comfortable among “his land” of people, Carson never seemed to be fully comfortable with anyone, outside of a small group of tennis partners and show biz friends. While the North Dakota farm boy became an evangelist for preserving traditional values and reinvigorating the “American way of life,” the Nebraska small town lad, like Ernest Hemingway, always felt vaguely uncomfortable with words like God, motherhood, duty, and sacrifice. Irreverent to the end of his career, Carson remained essentially a reactor to the people and events around him, while Welk possessed a highly refined, consistent ideology, centered on God, family, country, hard work, and self-control.

During the 1950’s, when these two Midwestern small town boys emerged to stardom on the new medium of television, Harvard Sociology Professor David Riesman made famous an interpretation of American personality in which he classified people into “inner-directed” and “other-directed” types. In the history of 20th-century culture, Lawrence Welk will go down as the epitome of the former and Johnny Carson of the latter.


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