"Well," said Kathy Lennon, the second-oldest Lennon Sister and a recent visitor to the Hart household, "the times seemed simpler during the Eisenhower days. Not that they were, but families seemed to do more nurturing, they did more things together. There were only three TV channels, no remote control, and the channel tended to stay fixed on one station.

"You watched Lawrence Welk on Saturday night, you watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday, Lucy on Monday, Milton Berle on Tuesday. There was a predictability to things. And with Lawrence Welk, if you subtracted the commercial breaks, you could count on hearing about 24 songs in less than an hour. That's a lot of music. And we came into their living rooms week after week. Viewers felt like they knew us."

The man who started it was the son of Alsatian immigrants, who was so isolated as a boy in North Dakota that he dropped out of the third grade and didn't learn English until he was twenty-one.

Although Welk's formula was an extraordinary hit -- a little pop, a little Latin, a little country, a little show-tune action, polished smooth around the corners with unremitting smiles -- Welk's viewer demographics were too old for most advertisers. In 1971, ABC canceled his show, even though it continued to draw top ratings.

That's when Welk made an unprecedented move: he syndicated his show through 200 independent stations, more than he had with the network. But that didn't placate his critics, who never nominated him for Grammy consideration.

Nor did success mollify aspiring young performers such as Tanya Welk Roberts, who wound up marrying Welk's son (at least for twelve years).

"When my parents told me they had an audition with Lawrence Welk, I fought them on it," said Roberts from her home in Latuna Canyon, Calif. "Are you kidding? I mean, Lawrence Welk was really cornball, and I had this rock band I was playing with at Disney."

"Plus, I was a teenage rebel. Here my sisters were out burning their bras, and we were having to worry about hemlines." (In fact, Welk canned popular "Champagne Lady" Alice Lon for waring skirts he deemed too short.) "Our peers in the business considered us losers. Even to this day, when they find out we were on Lawrence Welk, they still pooh-pooh us."

Roberts, who joined the show in 1967, just as the Vietnam War was heating up and edgy rock music scored protest movements, says she appreciates Welk much more from a distance.

"Oh, he'd be a cult star today," said Roberts, who'll join the Harts, among others, on the April (2004) reunion circuit. "He danced really weird, the way he distorted his body when he moved. People on TV never saw just how funny he was, because the networks only let him read off script, and sometimes he'd stumble over the words. The live show was where Lawrence was really at his best. He had an amazing rapport with his fans."

The Harts were on hand for one of the most riveting performances in the 1970s, when Welk sold out Madison Square Garden. The irony was that Welk's ratings were lowest in the nation's two biggest and most sophisticated markets, New York and Los Angeles.

"You say 'Lawrence Welk' today, and it's sort of a joke," Kathy Lennon said. "The industry didn't like him, but there's a huge gap between New York and L.A. that the industry knows nothing about. The only people who really loved this guy were the fans. And they still love his music."

For Sally Hart, who never realized her dream of becoming a singer/hoofer on Broadway, her road less traveled made little sense until she joined Welk at a live performance in Frankenmuth, MI. Only then did she understnad the significance of the detour she'd taken.

"I used to think, ugh! It's all older people out there. And I saw this woman in a wheelchair near the front, an older woman. I was singing a song, I think it was 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow.'

"Suddenly, I didn't see this old lady anymore. We looked into each other's eyes, and I saw this very young soul running through a field of wheat. She was free of her wheelchair, she was free of what was weighing her down. I mean, at that point, I got it. It changed me. And from that time on, I started loving every moment of every performance."