Niche marketing

Culture | An American Legoland opens, the champagne still flows for Lawrence Welk, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

Lego my Lego
Would you visit a theme park where the big attractions were made from Lego toys? Legoland is such a place, and its American version opened up on 128 acres near San Diego this year. Thousands upon thousands of kids can take their parents to see everything from a giraffe to the White House to Egyptian pyramids made from millions of Lego blocks. In a world filled with high-tech electronic goodies, Lego has managed to hold an important place in kids' toy boxes. Over 300 million people worldwide have bought the multicolored pieces. England and Denmark already have Legoland parks, and another is in the works near Munich, Germany. It expects to receive 1.4 million visitors annually, even without the benefit of a popular mascot like Mickey Mouse. What explains the popularity of Lego? With a system that makes computer hardware builders green with envy, Lego toys are made to be compatible with one another, whether bought yesterday or in the 1960s. And unlike other hit toys, Lego blocks are always a fresh canvas. Endless other toys must use everything from ads to TV cartoons to give children an epic into which to fit their figures. But how many times can Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vader before Junior gets bored? Lawrence Welk, rebel
Lawrence Welk's musical legacy may never die. Hated by music buffs, canceled by ABC way back in 1971, and mocked by almost everyone, the late bandleader still attracts a following even now, seven years after his death. Today, Welk's record label keeps his music in print; his TV shows still appear in reruns. Two resorts, Escondido, Calif., and Branson, Mo., attract fans with live shows and memories of the days when Welk's accordion bubbled away. Welk's staying power is related to his personality. Born to a German-speaking North Dakota family in 1903, he was addicted to music and clawed his way toward success. Unlike numerous other colleagues, he held on tight to keep his career going while the big ballroom sound faded away. Behind the scenes, the captain of "champagne music" used his popularity to build a corporate empire ranging from music rights to real estate. "If you can handle the orchestra business right, you can get into the business world," he said. When ABC dropped his TV show, The Lawrence Welk Show, he went into the then-fledgling world of syndication. The bad news is that Welk's champagne music helped send the rock 'n' roll generation into rebellion against any and every pre-1950s style by turning everything into a sweetened, sentimental Jell-O concoction. In keeping his music alive, he oversanitized it to make it palatable to ever-older audiences. For many, his happy polka steps were something to rebel against. But it's still impressive that he and his successors kept the champagne flowing for an audience that was supposed to have died out 25 years ago. Phantom of the box office
Broadway's popularity is declining, but its health is boosted by mega-hit shows like Phantom of the Opera. This Andrew Lloyd Webber hit has seen 15 different productions run from Hamburg to Toronto since it opened in London back in 1986. Today, it remains near the top of the Broadway box office, and touring shows crisscross the USA. It may be the most successful stage musical of all time, collecting seven Tony Awards and $2.8 billion in ticket sales (a figure that would wow even Hollywood). For those who don't know the story, there really is no supernatural "Phantom" in this opera, but a masked madman lurking in the shadows of the Paris Opera House, terrorizing everyone and directing the career of his protege, a young soprano named Christine. Phantom sells because it is well performed and its Gothic worldview is a perennial in our culture. And yet, the audience can't root for the Phantom, and has no one else with whom to sympathize. The musical is technically masterful (complete with massive sets), but sadly forgettable.

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