Article written by Billy Cox for
"Florida Today" on March 2004
Twenty-two years have passed since "The Lawrence Welk Show" last mesmerized millions of blue hairs and confounded critics, and it's been more than a decade since the man died of pneumonia at 89.

Still, in testament to the show's enduring legacy, Clay and Sally Hart will walk into a restaurant or grocery store where, every so often, a stranger's embrace is par for the course.

"It's Sally! Oh my goodness! I watched you every Saturday night with my grandmother and my mother! Is that really you?' " Sally Hart said. "It's like we're members of the family."
It's a long walk from the ABC Studios in Los Angeles -- which once hosted Welk's weekly offerings of "champagne music" -- to Cocoa Beach, where the Harts have lived since 2000. And the cultural tremors that rocked the nation since the avuncular maestro ignited his innocent mix of song, dance and vanilla smiles during Eisenhower's presidency are too vast to itemize here.

But for the Harts -- who were Welk show regulars in the late 1960s and early '70s -- the man's German-accented nalapropisms and "Wunnerful, wunnerful!" bromides often overshadowed his considerable skills as a band leader.

Although his 27-year reign ended in 1982, if you count the endless reruns, most recently on PBS stations, "The Lawrence Welk Show" has been entertaining Americans every year since 1955.

That's an unparalled record for continunity, made especially remarkable by the fact that the productions -- from the long, languid panning shots to the polka accordians to the breezy standards -- look hopelessly antiquated against contemporary variety-show fare.

"What Lawrence knew better than anyone else was his audience," Clay said. "We were all a bunch of young squirts back then, with our own ideas about how things should be done. But he wanted to keep the reigns tight, and he did. And it worked. He was the greatest person with the fans I've ever seen. All the way down to making sure the last little old lady in the audience got the autographs she wanted."

Sally, a small-town girl from Oregon, joined the show with duet partner Sandi Griffiths in 1967, as replacements for the famous Lennon Sisters. Clay, a Providence, R.I., native, was well on his way to notoriety as a country music star when his hit, "Spring," was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1969 (Johnny Cash won for "A Boy Named Sue"). But that was the same year Welk offered him a permanent gig and monster ratings -- and he couldn't say no.

The two got married in 1974. Sally left that year, and Clay followed in 1975. With Welk paying scale wages, the two decided to perform and record on their own.

By 1990, the Harts were out of the industry altogether and trying their hand at business. Sally did her part to save the Earth by developing recyclable tote bags for Publix. She even got contracts to produce a line of tote bags featuring Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon characters, until some off-the-record developments helped the line run its course.

Today, after having spent the last 33 years together ("24 hours a day," intones Sally cheerfully, "seven days a week"), they're about to publish a self-help guide called "Who's Talking." And after having written 13 original wedding songs for young relatives, the Harts -- who sing and play guitar at the drop of a hat -- are ready to burn the anthology into a new CD.

Exuding easy smiles and a relaxed banter, the Harts look like they could step back into the Welk-music time warp without missing a beat.

Which is exactly what they'll be doing next month, in a "Forever Blowing Bubbles" mini-reunion tour set for Pennsylvania and Ohio.

For eleven years in a row, the Welk Resort and Champagne Theatre in Branson, Missouri., has been onew of the main reasons the little town of 6,000 people has been drawing anywhere from six to seven million visitors a year.

Founded by Lawrence Welk Jr. and headlined by the Lennon Sisters, the 2,000 seat theater boasts some of the hottest tickets in town.