Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though some strange thing happened to you. – 1 Peter 4:12
Norma Zimmer was a gifted soprano who performed for decades on television’s ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW.’ Welk even gave Zimmer the title of Champagne Lady, the highest honor among other fine women vocalists on the show. Zimmer accepted that appellation graciously in her autobiography, although with reservations about sounding like she would be promoting liquor.
She was raised by alcoholic parents in poverty in the Pacific Northwest. Her parents were emotionally abusive, they smoked cigarettes, and they did not yet know God. But Norma grew up to confess Christ on her own. Throughout her story she draws Christian lessons from a life of “tests” and “fiery ordeals.” Her gifted singing, confident will, and the generosity of early supporters enabled Norma to make a great career of radio/recordings, television, and Christian revival concerts. She describes her adult life with financial comforts, devoted family, and spiritual bliss. Yet through bad luck (or influence of her book editor), tests of her and family’s allegiance to God never abate: toxemic pregnancy, auto accident, crooked car salesman, crooked agent, twisted intestines, psoriasis, debilitating arthritis, broken back, brain shunt, family strokes, sister dies of liver disease, father dead in a car two days, family dog burns the house down, near death penicillin reaction, near death choking on beef Stroganoff, stranded on treacherous river rapids, water skiing accident, downhill skiing accident:
“…’one of the [ski-lift] workers climbed up on the tower to repair it and he called for a peen hammer. They threw one up to him but he missed it and it fell and hit your husband.’ I was crying, and praying, O God, help us! Please protect him, Lord!”
A prayer too late, if you ask me. I imagine if Job read Norma’s autobiography he would say, “Wow, this dame can’t catch a break.”
Still, what also never abates is Norma’s optimism about life, people’s good nature, and her faith in God’s long game. Some readers may discover her buoyant attitude and ornamented writing style ironic, others inspirational. If you are a fan of the ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW’, like I am, you already have a sensibility for what is over-decorated but enjoyable. If you take your Lawrence Welk more serious, you might also find Zimmer’s book metaphysically uplifting.
However, if you pray to read more detail about what it was really like working under Welk’s baton for twenty years, God’s answer will be No. There is not much behind the scenes here, except some descriptions of how busy Norma was on days driving between the studio and hospitals, and lists acknowledging all the backstage angels who kept Norma looking grand. I hoped for behind the curtain conflict among the performers, rather than hearing more about Norma’s redoubtable faith in Jesus, no matter what terrible shit life threw at her. I wanted to read more shit about Lawrence the hot-headed puritan, or the over-the-hill band member schtuping a teenage Lennon sister, or the on-camera star who had an off-screen champagne problem.
I admit that despite my being atheist, I did find Norma’s take on life encouraging. She was a person who absolutely believed that smiling into the video camera communicated a hopeful message to viewers. At another scene in the book she describes laying awake with her her croup-afflicted toddler Ronnie, worrying if she should take him to the hospital for a tracheotomy:
“He was barely able to breathe… I lay beside Ronnie, watching and praying. ‘God,’ I prayed over and over, ‘please heal our little son.’ Suddenly I noticed a brightness behind me… Standing near the bed was a lovely blonde woman with a white blouse and dark skirt… She just stood there with a radiant smile on her face, looking down at Ron. Then she just faded away. It was a glorious experience. I felt no fear – just awe. I have always believed that I was permitted to see Ron’s guardian angel.”
A blonde in a blouse and skirt? Who was her son’s guardian angel, Donna Reed?
Off screen Norma Zimmer sounds like she was a bit of a kook, but I’m also convinced, beyond a doubt, that she was a wunnerful, wunnerful lady.