“Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Fabulous” by Ann Hillesland

renoir (Wunnerful)
Dance in the City by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1883

When I was seven, I dreamed of being on The Lawrence Welk Show.  Every Saturday night, my family would eat dinner around the television, the only night we were allowed to have it on during dinner. I’d be riveted, watching Myron Florin’s accordion flash, the imperviously smiling Bobby and Cissy twirl across the dance floor, and Norma Zimmer, blonde hair artistically poofed, warble “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.”  As the youngest of six, I never rated a spot on the couch. Instead I sat on the floor with my taco or slice of homemade pizza and a Pepsi instead of the usual milk.  Dapper Lawrence Welk would wave his conductor’s baton as the orchestra played amid a swirl of bubbles, declaring his trademark “Wunnerful, wunnerful!”

I had no idea that I was idolizing the squarest show on television in 1972. Though I enjoyed the antics of Laugh In, I always felt hyper and drained afterwards. And though I watched Sonny & Cher and loved belting out “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” I could never imagine wearing Cher’s navel-baring outfits, nor did I want to be as mean as she was, always putting down Sonny. In contrast, everyone was smiling on the The Lawrence Welk Show.  The women’s wide-collared shirts, puff-sleeved dresses, and pleated jumpers could have come out of my own closet. I could see myself kicking down a prop fence during “Don’t Fence Me In” and singing “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” without embarrassment.

The one cast member I emulated above all was Sandi. I envied her marvelous cheekbones and flowing red hair. I was round-faced, my dirty blonde hair always ragged because I habitually fell asleep with gum in my mouth and my mother had to cut out the hardened blobs. Sandi looked perfect, smiling, calm. She mostly sang as part of a trio:  Sandi, Gail, and Mary Lou. Together they harmonized to “Swinging on a Star,” dressing up in flowing-sleeved evening gowns and leaning together close as sisters as their voices blended sweetly.

My family sang together, especially when we were camping and had no TV or other music (my parents forbade radios and cassette players during camping). We sang folk songs, John Denver, songs from musicals. The older kids harmonized, but I always sang melody, too young to sing a part and too convinced that I should be the star and have the melody anyway. After all, someday I was going to be on television, singing in front of the orchestra while gossamer bubbles floated behind me.

Eventually I outgrew The Lawrence Welk Show. He was an old man in white shoes, and no matter how flashy the silver was, an accordion was not hip. Even the ads were awful, touting Geritol and Rose Milk, the hand lotion my grandmother used. By high school I worshiped Deborah Harry and Pat Benatar. But I never pictured myself in a catsuit in front of a rock band. Instead, I sang in the school chorale and the chorus of “Oklahoma,” and tried—and failed, due to my terrible dancing—to make it into the school singing and dancing group, the Thor Throats (the school mascot was the Vikings).

After I graduated from college, I stopped singing except in the car or shower. I got a job, got married. A few years ago, though, deciding I missed singing, I joined the JewelTones, ten women who dress up in wide-shouldered 40’s outfits or glamorous long dresses and harmonize on songs from the 40’s and 50’s. Our official name is the JewelTones, but we call ourselves the Fabulous JewelTones because, well, why not?

Recently, we sang for a 50th wedding anniversary party in a Methodist church social hall, which had a stage at one end and a basketball hoop at the other. The woman’s wedding dress, displayed on a mannequin and smelling of mothballs, crowded us on stage left. In the unseasonably hot night, all the doors were thrown open, and people scooted their chairs to see us better from the round tables. The audience was mostly elderly, with a few bored-looking grandchildren thrown in. We started the show with “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” which features many short solos, and when I stepped forward to sing my solo, I concentrated on a white-haired lady near the back who was mouthing the words. Every 90th birthday party, retirement home, or “fun after 50” group has a few people who know all the words, maybe singers themselves who idolized Doris Day or Bing Crosby. The crowd laughed at our schtick, at the silly hula dance in “Makin’ Love Ukulele Style,” at the moment when our (male) pianist donned a dress and added his baritone to “Sisters.”

As I was swinging my arm in our synchronized train motions during “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” it struck me—I was in the Lawrence Welk show. I was wearing a long red dress, on stage with other women in long red dresses. Our emcee bantered between songs as we got props: a suitcase for a train ride, a feather boa for vamping it up. No prop fences or haystacks, but we do our best with what we can carry. We smile all the time and sound as sweet together as Sandi, Gail, and Mary Lou. Who cares if we’re not hip? Who cares if our most fervent supporters take Centrum Silver? We weren’t on television, but when the anniversary couple came back stage and said our show was everything they’d hoped it would be, I felt as good as Sandi must have felt.

One of the JewelTones has a bubble machine she wants us to use as a prop. Her idea is a silly version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” but maybe I should propose that old Lawrence Welk closer “Adios, Au Revior, Auf Wiedersehen.” We could sing “Here’s a wish and prayer that every dream comes true” while the bubbles cascade behind us and the lights dazzle our rhinestones into diamonds.

 

 

Ann Hillesland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in literary journals including Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Review, Monkeybicycle, Open City, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2012. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.

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