Wall Lake: Birthplace of Andy Williams

2010-12-31T00:00:00Z 2012-09-26T11:45:04Z Wall Lake: Birthplace of Andy WilliamsBy Tim Gallagher tgallagher@siouxcityjournal.com Sioux City Journal

Andy Williams had a confession of sorts he shared over the phone recently from his theater in Branson, Mo.

"I've been insecure all my life," said Williams, days removed from an 83rd birthday party that followed another sold-out Christmas show at his $12 million complex in the tourist mecca of the Ozarks. "Our father taught us we weren't as good as others. He taught us to work. It's terrible, but it worked."

Williams shares a lifetime of examples in his New York Times bestseller "Andy Williams: Moon River and Me," his autobiography.

He starts the book where it all began for him: Wall Lake, Iowa. Forever known as "The Birthplace of Andy Williams."

Williams relied on his memory, talks with brothers and his Aunt Cornelia of Des Moines in compiling much of his 308-page book. The first couple of chapters set the scene for his life in the Sac County town where his parents struggled to make ends meet.

Jay Emerson Williams worked for the railroad and sold insurance at night. His passion? Show business. The man who could sing and play six instruments himself learned early that his sons could harmonize. It came through evenings in the clapboard house at Wall Lake, when everyone would gather around the piano.

This was the 1930s, of course, well ahead of the TV days Andy Williams would emulate in Christmas shows that millions came to know and love as a Yuletide entertainment staple.

"When I was little, I'd stretch out on the worn, warm floorboards with my head under the piano stool and watch my father's feet on the (piano) pedals; for some reason that fascinated me," Williams wrote.

Jay and his wife Florence joined the two oldest Williams boys (not Andy) in forming the first choir at the Wall Lake Presbyterian Church. Andy wore his father down with his begging for inclusion. And at age 7, he became a choir member.

Andy shares memories of his first choir session, the constant practicing at home to please his dad. He also remembers dividing the $10 he and his brother earned for singing at the wedding of the daughter of one of the neighboring farmers.

"My shared turned out to be $1, which didn't seem a very fair division of the spoils to me, but since Bob was 10 years older and very much stronger, it was pretty much take it or leave it," Andy wrote.

He spent his first professional payment that afternoon on sodas and candy in Wall Lake.

Weeks later, Jay Williams came home and told the family they would be leaving Wall Lake for the city lights of Des Moines. Auditions and regular work would follow for the Williams Brothers before and after school.

They even worked for a time at a Des Moines funeral parlor, paying off the debt their family incurred with the funeral and burial of brother Buddy, who died at home at the age of 2. Andy Williams hated that job at the funeral parlor. He would sing at only one other funeral the rest of his life: that of his great friend, Bobby Kennedy.

While Andy Williams traveled the world, sold millions of records and became a multi-millionaire, he still could feel the tug of his father, or the curt nod of approval Jay Williams allowed after a song sung well.

It was both a blessing and a curse, maybe more of the latter. While Andy Williams performed regularly since the age of 7, he barely had two nickels to his name early in his adult life.

Was there a seminal point that began this trek to stardom?

"When I realized the stuff I was doing was all wrong," he said of the mid-1950s. "I had no name value, no record, no money. I got an agent who booked people into little dumb places for $300 a week. I didn't have enough money to take a piano player. I had to go out and find someone with a violin, a drum, an accordion."

It was all wrong. Williams came the realization in 1954 while sitting in a hotel dive in Cleveland, Ohio, one night eating...gulp...dog food. He returned to New York, made a collect phone call and had a brother send him $100 cash. He then took a swing at popular music and landed a temporary gig at The Blue Angel night club.

The first night there? He was approached after the show by Bill Harbach, who was putting together a concept called "The Tonight Show" for Steve Allen. Harbach needed a male singer.

Williams' first question: "Who is Steve Allen?"

He auditioned, landed the job and soon got the feeling he was where he needed to be. His world again opened.

"I worked at it very hard, which is something I had always known -- work. And fortunately I got a job on TV," he said.

He hasn't left the scene since. He's never forgotten tiny Wall Lake either. In his first TV show, in fact, Williams included a section called "Wall Lake" were guest Charlie Weaver would talk about the happenings in Wall Lake and read from the Wall Lake Blade newspaper.

While that show was dropped after a season, it did plant the seeds for Williams' future family shows. The holiday living room singalongs with the Osmonds can be traced directly to the house at Wall Lake, a house still open by appointment for tours and open weekends during the summer.

Williams donated most of the photos that hang in his birthplace, as well as several other items. He has supported the old hometown, too, making a contribution in the name of his parents when a fund drive commenced for the new Wall Lake Community Center.

And while he could have stayed comfortable -- professionally speaking -- headlining at Caesar's Palace as he'd done 20 years and spanning the globe -- Andy showed the Jay Williams maverick streak by bolting for Branson. This was nearly two decades ago, a time when country acts attracted 4 million people to this Ozarks community.

"How stupid was I to put $12 million cash into my own theater here?" Williams asked with a laugh. "No doubt there's a streak of my dad in me. No doubt I took a chance."

It's been good as gold, like the man's voice. The tourists that used to number 4 million? Williams was hoping to get a small percentage of them. He did. And the number has since nearly doubled.

"It works because it's inexpensive and a tank of gas can bring millions here," he said.

It also works because the man behind the mic is doing what he did seven-plus decades ago. He's showing his Iowa work ethic, workinf his tail off to make sure the customers have a good show.


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