Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001 | 8:26 a.m.
When a police officer pulled over Barney Liddle a trombone player with then up-and-coming Lawrence Welk Orchestra who was rushing from a gig in Milwaukee to meet his wife in Chicago the officer couldn't help but ask the driver who the attractive young lady sitting beside him was.
With little worry, the musician calmly stated, "She's a singer with the band."
"That's one I've never heard before," the suspicious officer retorded.
But it was true. The year was 1947 and the young passenger was Helen Ramsay, a 16-year-old songstress from Bedford, Mass., who, after auditioning in New York City for Welk, found herself traveling cross-country with the accordion-playing conductor and a tribe of male musicians, performing in hotel ballrooms and concert halls.
"We were doing 300 to 400 miles a day, traveling from one bandstand to another," 69-year-old Helen Ramsay Lawson, now a Las Vegas resident, said. She recently recalled the many stories she accumulated during the two years she was on the road with Welk, from 1947-49.
Lawson was Champagne Lady No. 4, the fourth in a line of seven Champagne Ladies (featured vocalists who for decades served as the orchestra's signature piece).
Moving from showroom to showroom, she made $100 a week, half of which she sent home to her mother. The other half was spent paying her own hotel and restaurant tabs.
It was an independent move for a teenage girl in the late '40s. The only other women joining her on the road were Welk's secretary and, occasionally, a band member's wife.
The group performed in such places as the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, the historic William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh and the extravagant Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of "The Lawrence Welk Show," which airs locally at 6 p.m. Saturdays on PBS station KLVX (Channel 10). A new season of repeats from yesteryear (original broadcasts were taped from 1955-1982) begins Saturday.
On Friday longtime Welk performers Ralna English and Bobby Burgess and Welk's son, Larry Welk Jr., are scheduled to be on CNN's "Larry King Live" (Cox cable channel 20) to talk about the late band leader, who for decades delivered a bubbling blend of unusually charismatic singers and dancers to the living rooms of America.
Lawson was never a member of the television-show cast. She quit the orchestra two years before it burst onto television in 1951 because, she said, her stressful experience on the road with Welk literally gave her "hives," forcing her to pack her things and move back home to her family in New York City.
"He was too controlling. Too interfering in your life," Lawson said of the bandleader as she sat behind a counter at the bowling alley at the Castaways (formerly the Showboat), where she has worked as a desk clerk for 22 years.
Traveling across the country with a stern bandleader known for keeping a tight leash on his performers may have been a little overwhelming for a teenager, she said in retrospect.
There was always the watchful eye of the conductor, who said she was too hefty -- although at 5-foot-3 inches tall, she weighed just 125 pounds.
"In those days you had to be 90 pounds," Lawson said. "I would go to an out-of-the-way restaurant thinking, 'Nobody would find me here.' Sure enough, (Welk) would."
But, she added, "I have a lot of good memories. (The band) took good care of me. It taught me a lot, streetwise."
There are the endearing memories of the many times that the blushing teen was the butt of Welk's practical jokes.
There was her nickname, J.B. (short for jail bait), which she acquired from the guys in the band who, she said, would "sweat blood" every time she got in their cars because they were taking a minor across state lines.
She tagged along with the boys in the band to parties. She once kicked actor Burt Lancaster out of a hotel room after he mistakenly got the impression that she had hanky-panky on her mind. She also joked with the musicians on long drives to performances.
The young brunette with an enticing smile was photographed, promoted, broadcast over the radio and donned evening gowns made by her mother. She once nearly gave Welk a heart attack when she wore an outfit that was considered too risque by the conservative band leader.
"One night I went onstage in a strapless dress and Lawrence Welk just about had a hemorrhage," she said.
The ruffled Welk was concerned that the dress would fall down. He took her offstage during a break and taped the dress to her front and back before sending her back out.
"I was very uncomfortable the whole evening," Lawson recalled with a chuckle.
This wasn't the only time, however, that Lawson irked Welk.
One night at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., where the band had been performing, she danced with comedian Victor Borge. Welk told her that if she danced with Borge again, Welk would have to let her go.
"He felt upstaged," she said, recalling the evening.
Not heeding the warning, a sassy Lawson had told Borge: "Lawrence is going to let me go if you dance with me again. So please make sure you come up and dance with me again."
Lawson met Welk in 1947 when her manager sent her to an afternoon audition at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.
"He hired me on the spot," Lawson said.
But it wasn't so much a dream come true for the then 15-year-old, who had never been all that crazy about performing -- a career her mother had started her in when Lawson was just a toddler.
Lawson was singing on the radio at 2 years old. By the time she was 6 she was entertaining servicemen at Army and Navy bases in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
When she was 15, the family moved from Bedford, Mass., to New York to further her career. Before long she was singing at a club called the Sawdust Trail on 47th Street.
"When I was performing I put my heart and soul into it, but I don't know if I liked it," she said.
Nor did she like the sanitized and wholesome sounds that Welk orchestrated. To this day she refers to Welk's music as "ricky-ticky, Mickey-Mouse music."
She was never surprised, however, by the success Welk achieved through his television show. "I knew he would (be successful) eventually," she said. "He was a go-getter. He knew he was going to be big. He had some good managers."
And the audience fell for his charisma, she added. "He'd smile at everybody."
The charismatic bandleader was born in 1903 to German immigrants in a sod house in Strasburg, N.D. His family spoke only German. At age 21 he took the accordion that his father bought him (in exchange for work on the farm) and set out to make music.
Speaking no English, he traveled throughout the midwest forming bands such as Welk's Novelty Orchestra and the Hotsy Totsy Boys.
In 1951, nearly 25 years after he left home, Los Angeles television station KTLA broadcast one of Welk's dances. The show received an overwhelming response from viewers, and Welk moved permanently to television.
The show aired for four years on KTLA before it moved to ABC for a 16-year run. Welk's Champagne Music, performed by the wholesome likes of the Lennon Sisters, Norma Zimmer and accordionist Myron Floren, was a hit.
When ABC dropped the show in the 1970s, "The Lawrence Welk Show" went into syndication for 11 years, finally landing on public television. Today it draws 5 million viewers, says Susie Dowdie, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority Foundation, which produces the syndicated shows.
Welk died on May 17, 1992, at age 89, but fans still cherish him, as well as the many performers whose careers he launched, such as Zimmer.
At welk.buffnet.net/, a fan-run website for "The Lawrence Welk Show," dedicated fans exchange information about the shows, the stars, favorite memories and the Welk Resort Center & Champagne Theatre, which opened in Branson, Mo., in 1994.
A year ago Lawson traveled to Branson (where "The Lawrence Welk Show" the show is still being performed live at the Champagne Theatre), to join nearly 50 former and present cast members in taping a three-hour PBS fund-raising special titled "Lawrence Welk: Milestones & Memories."
The show aired nationally during the March pledge drive, and featured a movie short of Lawson and Welk. Lawson joined the four other surviving Champagne Ladies -- Lois Best (1938-39), Jayne Walton (1939-45), Roberta Linn (1950-53) and Zimmer (1960-present) -- onstage.
After leaving Welk's group in '49 because of stress, Lawson sang with band leader Bernie Cummins before meeting her future husband, Johnny Haluko, a musician with the Xavier Cugat Band, and moving to Las Vegas. The two were married in 1952.
During the 1950s and '60s, Lawson performed at El Cortez, the Frontier and Sands before retiring from her singing career at age 35.
Lawson never did become a big fan of "The Lawrence Welk Show."
"I think I watched only two shows," she said. "I just wasn't into that kind of music."
But meeting Welk's performing "family" (as it's been dubbed) in Branson was a treat.
"Oh, it was wonderful," Lawson said, shining similar to the way she did in the photos of her youth. "Norma Zimmer is the nicest lady you'd ever want to meet. The Lennon Sisters were just beautiful."