A fixture of American television for several decades as the accordionist on the durable Lawrence Welk Show, Myron Floren (1919–2005) perhaps achieved wider visibility than any other exponent of his instrument.
Floren shared an upper Midwestern farm background with bandleader Lawrence Welk. "I'm the happiest, the most relaxed when I'm up on stage," he told Michael Kuelker of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I tell my audiences that I spent 16 years on a farm in South Dakota, and this is even more fun than farming." Floren played polkas and popular tunes of bygone days in America. His playing was widely admired, and he maintained that the durability of the Welk program, which flourished for 16 years on network television and continued on in independent broadcasts and syndication, was due to musical factors. "Lawrence had the sense to hire fine musicians in every chair," he told Kuelker. "It wasn't the corny band that people sometimes think."
Grew Up on Farm
Myron Floren was born on a farm in Day County, South Dakota, near the town of Roslyn, on November 5, 1919. Floren's birthplace has sometimes been given as the county seat of Webster, but Floren attended Roslyn High School; the family farm was located between the two towns. He was the oldest of seven children of Norwegian immigrant Ole Floren and his wife, Thilde ("Tillie") Louise Lensegrav Floren. People in the area depended on their own resources for entertainment, and when Floren was six he already had the desire to be a music-maker. "All the neighboring families would get together on Saturday nights, roll back the rugs, and do a little dancing," Floren told John Roos of the Los Angeles Times. "The thing that intrigued me most was this one neighbor who played a little button-box accordion. He played Scandinavian and German waltzes and polkas, and I just sat there watching him … completely fascinated."
The following year Floren's father gave him an accordion, ordered inexpensively from the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Floren was largely self-taught on the instrument, and he once attributed his dexterity (he played both keyboard and button models) to finger strength he had built up milking cows. Wanting to learn to read music, he took piano lessons for a time, bartering eggs to pay for them. Floren attended Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, between 1939 and 1941. He hoped to major in music, but was informed by the director of the college orchestra that the services of an accordionist were not needed, and he had no money for the $25-per-semester piano rental fee. Instead, Floren settled for an English major and a music minor, paying his way through school by giving accordion lessons at the Williams Music Company shop and, when he could, performing on the radio.
What would become an illustrious broadcast career for Floren began at Sioux Falls radio station KSOO in 1939, where he played Scandinavian waltzes and polkas to entertain farmers beginning their workdays. He dubbed himself the Melody Man. Floren's show there turned into an ongoing engagement for several years, but as World War II deepened, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He was turned down because of heart problems resulting from an episode of rheumatic fever during his childhood, so he decided to make a musical contribution, joining the United Service Organizations (USO) and entertaining troops at European stops. Floren earned a citation from the U.S. War Department for his efforts.
When Floren returned to the United States in 1945, he married Berdyne Koerner, one of his accordion students. The pair raised five children, all daughters. Floren moved to St. Louis in 1946, joining a country music group called the Buckeye Four that performed on radio station KWK, gaining wider exposure on the Mutual Broadcasting System network and on television station KSD. The accordion was at its high-water mark in country music at the time, due to the efforts of "Tennessee Waltz" creator and Wisconsin native Pee Wee King, and Floren's band flourished. "In those days we were known as hillbillies," he explained to Kuelker. "We'd play things like 'San Antonio Rose' and 'Letter Edged in Black.' We'd always play a tear-jerker." In 1949 and 1950, Floren also taught accordion at the St. Louis College of Music.
Forced Welk to Wave Surrender Flag
On March 7, 1950, Floren took his wife to a floor show at the Casa Loma ballroom in St. Louis for her birthday. The Welk orchestra was featured, and since Welk and Floren knew each other casually from their days performing on the radio in the Dakotas, Floren was invited up on stage. After he wowed the crowd with "Lady of Spain" and a few other pieces, Welk put the accordion parts for a medley of tunes in front of him, "I think to see if I knew how to read music," Floren told Kuelker. After he blazed through the medley he looked around and was surprised that Welk did not seem to be on stage. Then the bandleader emerged from under a piano, waving a white surrender flag. At intermission, Floren was offered a job that would end up lasting until the final new Lawrence Welk Show was broadcast in 1982. Welk's manager, according to Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times, had counseled the bandleader against hiring Floren, pointing out that Floren as an accordionist was superior to Welk himself. "Sam, that's the only kind of people I hire—the ones that play better than I do," Welk answered.
The affable Floren was given a new nickname, becoming "The Happy Norwegian." He spent a year touring with Welk, playing one-night stands, and then he moved to Los Angeles, where a temporary engagement for the orchestra on radio station KTLA turned into an ongoing engagement. The Saturday night Lawrence Welk Show began airing on television in 1953. Two years later the show made the jump to ABC, and Floren became a musician known to millions. His style was distinctive—rhythmically rock-solid but marked by the frequent use of trills and other ornaments.
Floren's role on the Welk program went beyond accordion music, although he could be counted on provide the polkas that remained at the core of the show's repertoire even as it grew to include influences from pop and rock music. "I guess we did one [polka] practically every week," he was quoted as saying on the website of the Polka Hall of Fame after his induction into that body in 1990. "I even remember an instance where we were saluting Duke Ellington and Lawrence added a polka just in case." But the sound of Floren's accordion was integral to that of Welk's entire "Champagne Music" concept, and he was the orchestra's longtime assistant conductor, leading the group when Welk himself picked up his accordion. He also served as the orchestra's manager.
In 1971 longtime Welk fans were dismayed when ABC cancelled the show, in favor of programming for a more youthful audience. The network remained unmoved by an outpouring of protest, but the show made a successful transition to the growing group of television stations unaffiliated with one of the three major networks. At its peak, the program ran on some 250 stations, more than had ever scheduled it during its run on ABC. In the 1970s the Welk orchestra performed at New York's Madison Square Garden for a crowd of 21,000. "You could feel the electricity in the air," Floren told McLellan. "Lawrence and I were looking out at this crowd from the stage, and he leans over to me and says, 'Isn't it wonderful what can happen in this country to a couple of farmers from the Dakotas?'"
Composed Original Polkas
Floren released some two dozen albums over the years, most of them on Welk's Ranwood label. His recordings emphasized polkas and waltzes, some of them original Floren compositions. His 1975 release The Polka King, for example, featured Floren pieces such as a Ukrainian-style "Accordion Polka" and the "Happy Norwegian Polka" in addition to standards such as the "Beer Barrel Polka." In later years, on albums such as First Class Polkas, Floren teamed with upstate New York polka bandleader Jimmy Sturr and wrote new music with him. Floren's list of compositions includes "Skating Waltz in Swing," "Swingin' in Vienna," "Kavallo's Kapers," "Windy River," "Dakota Polka," "Long Long Ago in Swing," "Minute Waltz in Swing," and "Accordion Man Polka." In 1981 Floren penned an autobiography, Accordion Man, with his daughter Randee.
In 1982 the Lawrence Welk Show finally came to an end, but reruns of the program had proved nearly as popular as the original shows had been, and the show found a home on the nonprofit Public Broadcasting System (PBS), where as of the early 2000s it was still aired on nearly 300 stations. It became PBS's highest-rated show at one point. The continued television exposure boded well for Floren's solo career, which in the 1980s and 1990s saw him playing about 150 concerts a year and logging a reported 150,000 miles on the road. He toured with other Welk veterans on package tours, and he had a strong presence on the polka circuit as he worked with the Jimmy Sturr Band. Floren also drew diverse audiences to solo shows. "I'm seeing more and more young people showing an interest … it's not just old-timers like myself," he told Roos. "Sure, it's a case of nostalgia for the older folks. But we see kids who play in their high school bands coming out as well."
Floren continued playing energetically into his tenth decade, returning to the stage even after a stroke and a colon cancer diagnosis. "It's like when you hear a good talk or sermon, it soaks in and after a while … you just feel better," he told Roos, referring to the sound of an accordion. "I mean, it gets to you. It's like the rush you feel playing golf right after making a hole-in-one." Myron Floren was finally slowed by a variety of health problems, and he died at his home in Rolling Hills Estates, California, on July 23, 2005.
Floren, Myron, with Randee Floren, Accordion Man, Stephen Greene, 1981.
Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1997; July 24, 2005.
New York Times, July 25, 2005.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 31, 1997.
"Myron Floren," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 19, 2006).
"Myron Floren," International Polka Association, http://www.internationalpolka.com/floren.htm (December 19, 2006).
"Myron Floren," Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show Online, http://www.welkshow.com/floren.html (December 19, 2006).