For Cissy King, remembering lines has always presented a host of challenges. But the veteran dancer-turned-actress has no trouble firing off some of the funnier misspeakings of her former boss, television variety show icon Lawrence Welk. King, who grew up in Albuquerque, danced on the program for more than 11 years.
“You’re painting me into a condition,” she remembers him telling The Lennon Sisters when he “got into a flurry” with them. “Or, ‘Let’s put the cards under the table.’ Another one was, ‘That’s the straw that broke the camel’s hair.’ One time there was a pretty lady who came up and he said, ‘She’s my cup of dish,’ ” King laughs. “He knew that there was a phrase, but he was kind of oblivious that he was mixing metaphors, or whatever it is you’re mixing.”
King, who plays the part of gossip columnist Dora Bailey in Albuquerque Little Theatre’s production of Singin’ in the Rain, remembers a 1967 performance with the Welk dancers at The Pit. Welk was fretting over the correct pronunciation of “grand potentate.” “So finally it came time and he had to introduce the grand potentate,” King recalls, “and he goes, ‘You know, it’s so nice to be right here in New Mexico ... and I now want to introduce the Chief Totem Pole.’ ”
“The Lawrence Welk Show,” with its mixture of bubbly schmaltz and performances by world-class talents, aired nationally for almost 28 years from the mid-’50s to the early ’80s. In the late ’90s, Welk—whose trademark German-Russian accent and odd utterances were instant favorites with household audiences—was posthumously named one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
King was a junior at UNM when she got her lucky break on the show. At a ballroom competition in Hollywood in 1966, Welk dancer Bobby Burgess asked her for a dance. He commented on her ability to follow well. When she met him for more twirls the following day, he discovered she was quite the leader, too.
“We were dancing and I was like, Can I show you a couple things? Because I never liked the way he pivoted. It was like there was no technical structure,” says King, who had watched Burgess regularly for years on Welk’s show and before that on the “Mickey Mouse Club.”
After she improved his pivot, he told her that his dancing partner, Barbara Boylan, was terrified of lifts. It just so happened that King was a lifting expert; her partners from Joseph H. Vandapool’s School of Dance in Albuquerque frequently used her as the lifting guinea pig.
“I said, Bobby, you’re a big strong guy, you can do this,” King says. “So I taught him probably about eight or 10 lifts.”
And because Burgess was already impressed with Albuquerque ballroom dancers and remembered several routines he’d seen them perform over the years at various competitions, he asked her to teach the dances to him.
“He was zoned in on [us],” King says. “We were like a known little crowd of dancers—the Albuquerque dancers—and we’d go to competitions and they’d go, Albuquerque’s coming.”
Vandapool had distinguished his clan by bringing in renowned instructors from abroad to teach his students the new international style of ballroom dancing. “We just had this little, concentrated training, kind of like bringing in some wonderful art historian to train you and 14 other people,” King says.
Burgess called her a few months after their fateful dance and asked her to appear as his guest partner on “The Lawrence Welk Show.” It was February 1967, and Barbara Boylan was taking a quick break from the show to get married. King remembers that they performed an international quickstep, which is a fast fox-trot. Several months later, after Boylan left the show for good, Burgess invited her back as his regular partner. The first dance she performed with him as a permanent member of Welk’s “musical family” was a Charleston routine choreographed by Albuquerque dancer Mike Haley.
“I was like, jumping through the sky,” she remembers.
By the time King left the show in late 1978, she’d performed with Burgess for twice as long as Boylan had. She went on to choreograph shows for Six Flags theme parks and formed her own touring nightclub act, Cissy King & Two Fellas. She resided in Los Angeles until the earthquake in 1994 prompted her to hightail it to Hawaii for a spell.
King eventually moved back to the Duke City to help take care of her mother, and she joined the board of Musical Theatre Southwest as an honorary member.
Her agent had seen the Broadway musical Always ... Patsy Cline and instantly envisioned King in the role of Louise Seger, Cline’s real-life friend who narrates the entire production. “I was like, Oh yeah, I can do that, except for learning a lot of lines,” King says with a laugh.
MTS decided to put on its own touring production of the musical in 2004, prompting King to accept the role of Louise, with director Robb Sisneros guiding her through the troubled waters of her first attempt at acting.
“He would probably completely agree that I was a disaster in my rehearsals.”
She says Sisneros helped her run lines before the show opened. “He was falling asleep he was so frustrated and put out with me.”
But eventually King mastered the role and played it, fittingly, at the Welk Theatre in San Diego during a 10-week run of 80 shows. More roles followed: Hedwig’s mother in The Vortex’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Jeanette Burmeister in ALT’s The Full Monty, which she also later performed at the Welk Theatre.
King’s transition from dancer to actress has been something of a bumpy one, but she continues to waltz right into new roles.“You do those things,” she says. “The door’s open, you walk through it.”