Even though millions of Americans think they know Norma Zimmer, the Champagne Lady of Lawrence Welk fame can come and go without being bothered for an autograph.
Musical mastermind Welk helped change the shy, quiet Zimmer into a renowned force on television. She had the ability to make men and women cry, old married couples dance closely again and bubbles appear as if out of thin air.
Zimmer, who turned 74 recently, was named to the Idaho Hall of Fame this year based on her birthplace of Larson, Idaho - a defunct railhead near Mullan.
Zimmer was born after her violinist father had an accident in a Seattle shipyard, ending his musical career and sending him back to Idaho to work in the mines near Mullan in 1923. Zimmer says the injury “crushed dad’s spirit” and left him bitter and drinking heavily.
After an accident in the mine, her father took the family to Tacoma, where they lived through the Depression. In her autobiography, Zimmer describes life in a Tacoma tenement, then a tar-paper shack with no electricity or running water.
When she was 9, the family suffered from hunger and malnutrition. At that point, her mother joined her father in alcoholism.
Such a childhood would drive many kids today out of their home and onto a psychiatrist’s couch. But in the 1930s, that wasn’t an option and Zimmer’s family stuck out the hard times together.
“I adored my folks,” Zimmer says. “My father was a marvelous violin teacher and he did his best with all of us. My mother was a pioneer spirit, she made due for the family with nothing.”
When she was 16 and living in Seattle, a singing teacher at her high school told Zimmer that to get an A in his class, she would have to join his church choir. Her family had never gone to church, but she says she’s devoted her life to Christ since the first day she stepped inside for choir practice.
After graduating from high school, she did odd jobs around Seattle, singing at weddings for $5 a pop, clerking at the Bon Marche and working at a grocery store.
On the advice of a talent agent, she went to Hollywood and got hired by NBC as a singer for $24 a show. Her career took off shortly after joining a quartet called the Girl Friends, which sang backup for legends such as Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra during the 1950s.
Then in 1959, Lawrence Welk called when his tenor, Joe Feeney, came down with laryngitis just before the big Thanksgiving show.
Zimmer’s husband, Randy, rushed the music to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” to Welk’s studio and she had only one run-through with the band before going on the air live. When she finished, Zimmer says the NBC switchboards lit up with fans wanting to know who the new female singer was.
Welk continued asking Zimmer back week after week, and fan mail poured in to the show about the lyrical soprano. In 1962, Welk asked her to officially replace Alice Lon as the Champagne Lady, and Zimmer filled the role until the show went off the air in the 1980s.
Zimmer still gets giddy when she talks about the man and TV show that turned her into a star. She thinks Welk was popular for so many years because he did the standards people wanted to hear, and he always listened to his fans. Welk had 20 secretaries whose job was to read and answer his fan mail, including adding any song requests to his playlists for future shows.
“He really listened to his public, and he instilled that in us,” Zimmer says. “He really was like a father figure to all the people on the show.”
Zimmer recalls one instance where a band member fell ill, and Welk took over his house payments. When the man died, Welk paid for his daughters to go to college.
Welk also was one of the first U.S. bosses to offer profit-sharing to his employees, a group of about 40. Thanks to Welk’s generosity, all of the show’s regulars had about $500,000 waiting when the show went off the air, according to Zimmer.
Since then, Zimmer has been enjoying retirement with her husband. She lives in Park City, Utah, where she works out at a local gym three days a week, gardens religiously and hikes in the Wasatch Mountains.
Zimmer visits relatives and friends in Idaho, and a few years back, after her parents passed away, she had the chance to visit the farm she left when she was 2.
The old barn was there, as was the log cabin she was born in. Walking where her mother walked before she was born was an experience she’ll never forget, Zimmer says.
“I waded in the stream she waded in,” Zimmer says. “I went into the barn, and there was still hay up in the loft where my mother would go. It was a big, beautiful barn, and I climbed up, laid down like my mother used to, and just bawled my eyes out.”
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