The Lawrence Welk Show premiers on television (1955)
The Lawrence Welk Show made its national television debut on ABC Television on July 2, 1955, and was initially produced at the Hollywood Palladium, moving to the ABC studios at Prospect and Talmadge in Hollywood shortly afterwards. For 23 of its 27 years on the air, the show would originate there. The only seasons not produced there were 1965–66, 1976–77 at the Hollywood Palace and CBS Television City from 1977 to 1979.
The 1965-66 season was taped at the Hollywood Palace because that was ABC's only West Coast TV studio at the time equipped for live or taped color production; Welk had insisted that the show go color in 1965 because he believed that being broadcast in color was critical to the continued success of his program. Once a couple of studios at the ABC Prospect and Talmadge facilities had been converted to color in 1966, the show moved back there.
The show aired on ABC until 1971. When the show was cancelled by the head of programming there, Welk formed his own production company and continued airing the show, on local stations and, often from 7 to 8 P.M. Eastern time on Saturdays over some of the ABC affiliates on which he had previously appeared, along with some stations affiliated with other networks. The syndicated version of the program aired from 1971 to 1982.
When the show debuted nationwide, The Lawrence Welk Show was billed as the Dodge Dancing Party in 1955 and 1956. During 1956–59, Lawrence Welk was broadcast two nights per week. The second show's title was Lawrence Welk Presents Top Tunes and New Talent (1956–58) and then Lawrence Welk's Plymouth Show, after another Chrysler vehicle (1958–59). The Plymouth show was the first American television program to air in stereophonic sound. Due to the fact that stereophonic television had not yet been invented (it would be 25 more years before it would become standard), ABC instead simulcast the show on its radio network, with the TV side airing one audio channel and the radio side airing the other; viewers would tune in both the TV and the radio to achieve the stereophonic effect. Starting with the 1959–60 season the two shows were merged into The Lawrence Welk Show, reverting to monophonic broadcasts. The name stuck, and it became the most popular variety show ever.
The primary sponsor of The Lawrence Welk Show was Dodge (automobile maker), later to be followed by Geritol (a multivitamin), Sominex (sleep aid), Aqua Velva (aftershave), Serutan (laxative), Universal Appliances (manufacturer of home appliances), Polident (a denture cleanser), Ocean Spray (fruit juice) and Sinclair Oil (automobile fuel) served as associate sponsors for a short time. (During later years, a number of Welk cast members appeared in commercials for many of the show's sponsors, filmed specifically to air during Welk broadcasts.)
Move to syndication and public television
While the show was highly rated and continued to attract more audiences, ABC canceled it in 1971 for two reasons. The first was that the network had to cut three and a half hours a week of prime-time programming owing to the institution of the Prime Time Access Rule in 1971; the other was the fact that Welk's viewership was mostly of people over forty-five, mostly because of the music he chose to play, but also because younger viewers, the core viewing target that networks coveted, were either out during the Saturday night time slot, or were watching one of the other networks. Over the course of the early 1970s, several variety shows (including Welk's, but ranging from long-running series such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace and The Red Skelton Show to more contemporary shows such as Hee Haw, The Johnny Cash Show and This Is Tom Jones) were pulled from network schedules (particularly ABC and CBS) in a demographic move known colloquially as the "rural purge".
In response to ABC's move, Welk started his own production company and continued producing the show for syndication. Some independent stations put it in its old Saturday timeslot, and in many cases, it drew higher ratings than the network shows scheduled at that time. In many markets, the syndicated Lawrence Welk aired before the start of network prime-time on Saturday nights (7 p.m. Eastern Time); also in many areas, it competed against another show that was cancelled by CBS and resurrected in syndication, also in 1971 — Hee Haw. Welk's program was among a group of syndicated niche programs, others including Hee Haw and Soul Train, that flourished during this era. (The success of Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw in syndication and the network decisions that led to their respective cancellations were the inspiration for a novelty song called "The Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka," performed by Roy Clark, one of the co-stars of Hee Haw.)
Welk retired in 1982; at the time of his retirement, he was 79 years old, making him the oldest host of a regularly scheduled entertainment television series to date (a feat later surpassed by Bob Barker in 2003 and later by Betty White in 2012). Classic shows — largely, from 1967 to 1982 — were repackaged with new footage (either Welk or the show's cast introducing segments) for syndication during the 1982–1983 season as Memories with Lawrence Welk, after which they were withdrawn from distribution for a short time. In 1985, The Lawrence Welk Christmas Reunion was produced. It was the last show in which Welk appeared with the "musical family".
The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority acquired the broadcast rights to the series in 1986. In order to introduce the show to a new generation, they produced a documentary film, Lawrence Welk: Television's Music Man, hosted by Kathy Lennon of The Lennon Sisters. The film was a retrospective on Welk's life and career, featuring interviews with surviving members of Welk's "musical family", and scenes from the show. After its airing, reformatted versions of the Welk show were released to public television stations. Welk's segments from Memories with Lawrence Welk were used until his death, after which select members of the "musical family" took over as hosts. Reruns continue to air to this day (in many markets airing on Saturday nights at 7 pm, the same time the show aired during the latter years of its original run), with new and updated interviews with surviving cast members (Mary Lou Metzger hosts wraparounds that feature interviews, while Bobby Burgess currently hosts the ones that do not). The shows are occasionally "recut" and interspersed with segments from other episodes for time and diversity purposes; for example, a rebroadcast of Gail Farrell's 1969 debut actually featured an added song by Anacani, who hadn't joined the show until 1973.