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Is there life after Lawrence Welk?

The champagne bubbles have long since popped. The smiles _ so wide you could nearly project a movie across each set of gleaming white teeth _ have long since faded.

And life, Jo Ann Castle knows only too well, rarely mirrors the syncopated sweetness of the Lawrence Welk Show.

Still, says the pianist, "They were wonderful years. Basically, they were wunnerful, wunnerful years. You can put a little pun in there."

Castle, 52, is phoning from her home in Los Angeles, where she explains just exactly how sour things can turn.

At 18, she was a shooting star, asked to appear in a guest spot on the Lawrence Welk Show. On her 20th birthday, during another guest spot, she was offered a cake with candles blazing _ and the invitation, in front of millions of viewers, to become a Welk regular. "It was the greatest birthday present of my life," she says.

But by 46, she had left her third husband _ who had beaten her so badly she was in a cast and on crutches _ and was sleeping on her sister's couch, wondering how she could get show dates to afford her own apartment.

If her life sounds like a One Life to Live script, you wouldn't know it by her voice. She chatters happily on the phone. "You can ask me anything," she says as we set up the interview.

As promised, she is candid about her Welk days _ although, unlike others, who have accused Welk of everything from penny-pinching to icy coldness, she is mostly kind to her mentor.

No. He never insisted his cast smile. "He just picked nice personalities with talent to be on the show. He wanted somebody the average person would love to see on the screen and enjoy."

No. He wasn't unreasonably strict.

"The Lennon Sisters and I were not allowed to wear pants on the road, and people in the '60s were wearing pants. There were a few things like that. . . . He ran a tight ship."

On the other hand, yes, he was a reserved man who often seemed cold, if not cruel. "He hid his feelings," says Castle, who recalls the time she told Welk she was leaving the show, after 10 years, to devote more time to her children.

"We were sitting in two chairs or something and he turned away and sat with his head straight ahead. When he looked back, his eyes were all watered. I couldn't believe it. I had never seen Lawrence Welk with tears in his eyes. They weren't dropping down his face or anything. But that was the first time I thought he really, really liked me."

If the moment had its exhilaration, it soon passed. Almost immediately after she left the show, Castle's first marriage disintegrated. She took to the road, children in tow, playing fair dates, some nightclubs. "Things got very, very rough," she says. "I started not caring too much about my future career."

She married again. Her daughter, born with cerebral palsy and mentally impaired, died at age 15. Weeks later, she married again. Eventually, she walked out on her third husband with only a suitcase.

Castle breaks down at the recollection, excusing herself on the phone for a minute. But she refuses to remain maudlin. She is busy reconstructing her life, with show dates booked into '93.

In her shows, says Castle, she does everything from boogie-woogie to classical, from Fats Waller to ragtime. And, oh yes, "(I) do a polka _ they like that."

Which brings us to the obvious question: Whatever happened to the polka purveyors of yesteryear?

Few Welk alumni are still performing, says Castle. "As a whole, I think a lot of people he hired were just mediocre. The ones of us still making a living in this industry are very fortunate."

The Lennon Sisters perform occasionally, when all four agree to do a show. They "have to work," says Castle. Peggy teaches school, she says; Kathy is a receptionist in her husband's chiropractic office; Janet sings jingles for commercials with her husband; and Dianne is retired with her husband.

Some Welk stars sell real estate or insurance. Others _ including Castle, Bobby Burgess, Ralna Hovis and Myron Floren _ play occasional reunion shows. After the show, "I always say, "Come out in the lobby and look at our wrinkles,' " quips Castle.

As for the maestro himself: He turns 90 in March.

"The last time I saw him, we shot pool in his office," says Castle. "He put his arm around me _ I had a video camera there and he said, "You know who loves you?' He looked at my face and he said, "I do.' My boyfriend was taping this. And I said, "Say it again.' And he said, "I really love you.' "

No patsy, Castle offered a response born of hard knocks: "I said, "If you'd have told me way back then, I'd have gotten more money out of you.' "

Patti Thorn is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

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