Things That Shouldn't Be Archived #9 — Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

By May 18, 2011Blog

As you no doubt heard, the Original Champagne Lady Norma Zimmer passed away recently. This was sad news to me because I felt rather a close connection to Lawrence Welk’s stable of performers. Though I didn’t grow up during the height of its popularity, The Lawrence Welk Show reruns have been a staple of Public Broadcasting for decades. And, I don’t know if this makes me sound incredibly cool or like the nerdiest loser around, but, I spent many a Saturday evening in college eating dinner with the show and concocting elaborate, imaginary backstories for the performers, stories full of dark character flaws and tense relationships that betrayed their happy family onscreen presentation.

Ah, youth! And the entertainment options of the low income college student! Anyway, one of the actually interesting things about watching Lawrence Welk was seeing all of the patterns and repetitions that occurred over the years, or even within shows: Costumes and sets re-used, camera angles and edits (and the same exact camera progression used for the first half of a song and the second half), and the Welkian set of standard songs.

Unfortunately, the same way that costumes get a little threadbare over the years, the songs, too, seemed to follow a natural rate of decay. Whereas it may start out as something actually pleasant, like this:

Neil LeVang

It would soon degrade into well intentioned kitsch, if a blandly literalized interpretation. Though you can’t help but love the twins:

Otwell Twins and Aldridge Sisters

And then finally, it stumbles into full blown Las-Vegas-pills-and-booze-bloat:

Guy and Ralna

Not sure if this is the kind of education that PBS meant to provide. Let’s leave it off with some Norma to bring a little effervescence back.

Joshua Ranger

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • I’m not trying to be a naysayer here, but isn’t this a bit too subjective of an approach to selection criteria? From a 2011 perspective, these types of performances may seem trite or forced, but to a 2050 or 2100 eye, with the right descriptive metadata, there’s plenty to learn about mid-20th century variety shows. If only some Lawrence Welk performances were kept (on a selective basis based on aesthetic preference) any future user of the Welk archives would get a terribly skewed view of the program. Just my opinion on the subject. I do agree that we can’t save everything, but I feel like early 21st century aesthetics aren’t the only set of aesthetics and perhaps selection criteria should be based on other determinations, or at least a representative selection of content versus one based on performance evaluation.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on this, Josh. Please do respond. Thanks.

    • Josh says:

      Subjective? Rather, yes. To totally not answer your question, I would respond that this blog series has not been about literally expulsing artifacts from archives, but rather about a personal reckoning with how one manages memory and cultural consumption. What does one retain, what does one let go, and, ultimately, how do memory and consumption merge and influence one another…and does that merger create problems in one’s assessment of the cultural object?

      In that way, then, maybe I can answer your question. Selection is necessary, and something every archive must define and deal with. For a Lawrence Welk archive, their scope would be material related to Lawrence Welk, and thus it would make sense to have broader selection criteria of all or the majority of material. The Paley Center may only select a handful of episodes to represent the history of the program, perhaps focused on “representative” episodes or major events (first color episode; shift from ABC to independent production). Somebody hast to make those decisions – otherwise no decisions get made and nothing is saved – and I would say that aesthetics is always some sort of factor here, though an aesthetic informed by subject area expertise. I would perhaps offer that “aesthetic” is not always equal to high quality or beauty, but an appreciation of qualities associated with a genre, style, artist, etc.

      It is a crapshoot as far as what may be valued in the future, but at the same time there are other cultural products that are selected to build a fuller picture of a time or movement than a single source product can provide. I would argue that, say, five episodes each from 20 different variety shows is better than 100 Lawrence Welk shows.

      My own selection criteria are more heavily aesthetic, but it’s my personal mental archive, so I can live with that.

  • Jeff Martin says:

    I don’t know about aesthetic criteria, but I do know some backstage scandal: Welk fired the previous Champagne Lady, Alice Lon, because she crossed her legs on camera in such a way as to expose her knees. Welk didn’t go for what he called “cheesecake” on-air. Also, Guy and Ralna got divorced.

    • Josh says:

      I always imagined that Bobby’s dance partner who left the show to open a health food store was a bit of a scandal. Dang hippie.

  • I can dig it, Josh. On a personal level, I agree, selection is heavily aesthetic, and often emotional, even sometimes a little economic. On a professional level, I often feel torn between logic and practice (the two don’t always mix). I enjoy reading and interacting with your posts, especially in light of their engagement with memory. The constructed concept of “archives” is not synonymous with memory, although I think often it is mistaken as such. I find memory, as a point of departure, to be a deeper and richer well. Keep up the great writing. Thanks for the response.

    • Josh says:

      Some much better, more concise points than in my response. Selection can be not just a little influenced by economics — at least initially. I feel like picking out the “best” or most distributable to start is the first step towards later preservation. Funders and administrators need a good reason for the first pass. Later passes can build off of that.

      But I totally agree that “archive” is not synonymous with memory. I have the luxury in these blogs to lean on theoretical stances and personal feelings when discussing issues — our work touches on so much more than our work. These luxuries, however, are not always available in archives with real monetary and workflow concerns. There, decisions are much more influenced by practical and institutional concerns, the kinds of issues I have to consider in professional avenues. So, if the Lawrence Welk archives do call (Hi!!1! I really am a fan!!!), it’s not my 19-year-old self they are getting. Good for them, and good for me to deaccession.

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