Adored by loyal fans, ridiculed by the younger set, bandleader Lawrence Welk still managed to lead one of the longest-running shows in television history. From 1951 to 1982 this camera-shy bandleader stiffly conducted his orchestra’s trademark “champagne music,” while good-looking, clean-faced young men and women danced, sang, and smiled their way across the television screen. With his signature phrases “ah-one an ah-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful,” Welk either thrilled or bored hundreds of thousands of people every Saturday night for years, and in reruns after the show ceased production.
Born on March 11, 1903, in a sod farmhouse near the village of Strasburg, North Dakota, Welk was one of eight children. To avoid religious persecution, his parents, Christine and Ludwig Welk, had fled their home in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. The mixed heritage of this area—it was once part of Germany—helps explain Welk’s unusual accent. Although his polka playing accordion talents led people to believe that Welk was Polish, his parents actually emigrated from France to Russia and then to the United States, resulting in a mixed German and middle European twang.
Although Welk was born in the United States, his second-generation accent was thick. He lived in a rural German-speaking town and dropped out of school in the fourth grade in order to farm full time. In the New York Times, Welk credited his incredible success in part to his hard youth; he did not speak English until he was 21. He remarked, “There’s something you learn by hardship, by a little fear.”
At night, blacksmith-turned-farmer Ludwig Welk taught his son to play the accordion. By the time Lawrence was 13, he was playing at barn dances, weddings, and other social events. Although he regularly performed with local bands, his extremely loud and sometimes offkey playing often prompted his removal from the group. At age 17 Welk decided to form his own band. Lack of funds prevented him from hiring other musicians, but he eventually found a drummer to accompany him. Local radio stations let the Biggest Little Band in America, as they were called, play forfree in exchange for publicizing upcoming dance engagements.
At age 21 Welk left home, and by 24 he had formed the Hotsy-Totsy Boys. At the same time he began investing in a series of small businesses. Although original, an accordion-shaped grill that served “squeezeburgers” failed to charm the customers. Not even his Lawrence Welk’s Fruit Gum Orchestra succeeded—free gum at
For the Record…
Born March 11, 1903, near Strasburg, ND; son of Ludwig (a blacksmith and farmer) and Christine (maiden name, Schwab) Welk; died May 17, 1992, of pneumonia; married Fern Renner (a former nurse), 1930; children: Lawrence, Jr.; Shirley; Donna.
Played accordion at barn dances, weddings, and other social events, beginning in 1916; radio debut with Biggest Little Band in America on WNAX radio, Yankton, SD, 1927; formed and performed with Hotsy-Totsy Boys and Lawrence Welk’s Fruit Gum Orchestra at hotels, ballrooms, and radio stations throughout the U.S., 1927-51; appeared on KTLA-TV, Los Angeles, 1951-55; Lawrence Welk Show debuted and ran on ABC television, 1955-71; Lawrence Welk Show ran in syndication, 1971-82; public television rebroadcast shows as Memories With Lawrence Welk, beginning in 1987.
Selected awards: Orchestra named top dance band in America, 1955; National Ballroom Operators of America Award, 1955; favorite TV musical program, TV Radio Mirror, 1956-57; Outstanding Family TV Show, American Legion, 1957; Horatio Alger Award, 1967; Freedom Awards, 1968 and 1969; Brotherhood Award, National Council of Christians and Jews, 1969; honorary doctorate of music, North Dakota State University, 1965; American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, 1976; honorary L.H.D., St. Mary of the Plains College, KS, 1978.
dance engagements only made for a sticky dance floor. He kept at it, though, and soon the popularity of his ever-growing band led to a slew of engagements in ballrooms, hotels, and on the radio across the Midwest.
It was during this time that the term “champagne music” was coined to describe Welk’s style. During a 1938 live radio broadcast from Pittsburgh’s William Penn Hotel, a radio announcer read a fan letter over the air: “They say that dancing to your music is like sipping champagne.” Band Leaders magazine called the music “lilting, danceable music,” and a Variety writer liked the band’s enthusiasm. News week’s David Gates called it “a sedate blend of woodwinds, strings and muted brass, tripping through familiar melodies above ripples of accordion and Hammond organ.” Welk had suggested several origins for this “champagne” sound. “You have to play good to hold a note,” Gates quoted Welk as saying. “We decided to play short notes so nobody would notice we weren’t that good. The audience wrote letters that our music was bubbly like champagne.” Gates commented, “One problem with this story: Welk didn’t hire bad musicians.”
The decline in big band popularity prompted Welk’s move to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. In 1951 the band landed an engagement in the Aragon Ballroom on the Ocean Park pier in Los Angeles. KTLA-TV broadcast that night and for four weeks from the Aragon. The flood of calls to KTLA on that May 2 evening was so overwhelming that KTLA extended Welk’s contract for four years. In 1955 the show, which had been in the Top Ten in Southern California ratings, was hired by Chrysler Corporation for a weekly broadcast on ABC. On July 2, 1955, the Lawrence Welk Show had its nationwide premiere.
Through long-term contracts, Welk was able to retain the relatively unknown group of performers he’d hired. Audiences grew to love ballroom dancers Bobby Burgess and Elaine Niverson in their cowboy outfits; toothy singers Guy and Ralna; the elegant dancing, singing “Champagne Lady”; booming bass Larry Hooper; and even Big Tiny Little always playing “Mairzy Doats” on the piano. But the most applause erupted when Lawrence Welk was heard to say, “Here dey are, dah luffley Lennon Sisters,” although even they never made it much beyond the state fair circuit.
Throughout the years on television, Welk’s pathological shyness, due in large part to his thick Alsatian accent, caused him to keep his eyes glued to the TelePromp Ter for even the briefest announcement. He was known to be as bashful and wholesome off the camera as well. There could never be cigarette or beer advertising on his show, nor would Welk ever hire comedians, because he feared off-color jokes. The orchestra’s material was combed for suggestive lyrics, and a female performer was once fired for wearing a miniskirt. No matter how high the hemlines rose everywhere else, it was always the idyllic 1950s to Lawrence Welk.
Every Saturday night for years brought the lilting strains of Welk’s theme song, “Bubbles and Wine,” over the ABC airwaves. But by 1971 sponsors felt, in the words of the New York Times, that the show’s audience was “too old, too rural and too sedate.” Welk was sure there were still enough folks at home who loved his music. He launched a heavy campaign for himself, signing up more than 250 independent television stations in the United States and Canada and keeping the show alive until 1982. In 1987 the Public Broadcasting System began running reruns of the show as Memories with Lawrence Welk.
Although many of Welk’s early businesses failed, he could still be shrewd off the dance floor. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s his entrepreneurial skills were at work in real estate and publishing. Some of his investments included the Lawrence Welk Village, a 1,000-acre resort and retirement complex in Escondido, California; the 1960s folk revival label Vanguard Records; a huge music library; and the rights to 20,000 songs, including all of composer Jerome Kern’s work. Welk’s 1971 best-selling biography, Wunnerful, Wunnerful, simply added to his riches.
In time Lawrence Welk became the second wealthiest performer in show business, just behind comedian Bob Hope. His band and production company became the second-biggest tourist draw of Los Angeles, following Disneyland. Welk continued to make appearances until his advanced age ended his career in 1989. On May 17, 1992, Lawrence Welk succumbed to pneumonia and died at age 89.
“You have to play what the people understand,” Welk had always said. “Keep it simple so the audience can feel like they can do it too.” Lennon Sister Katy told People, “If we would want to try out a song, [Welk] would always say it would only work if the woman in Minnesota doing dishes could hum it afterward.” That simple sweet image is what remained after his death, overriding Welk’s reputation for thrift—he gave out penknives with his name on them instead of tipping—and for sometimes being very strict with his performers.
Welk’s many recognitions included honorary doctorates, numerous awards for his orchestra, and the distinction of playing at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural ball. In 1990 Congress approved a $500,000 grant to build a German-Russian museum at Welk’s birthplace as a tribute, but when critics later cried “pork-barrel politics,” the grant was rescinded. Private sponsors eventually paid for refurbishing the North Dakota farm.
A 1992 musical anthology of Welk’s work spanning the years from 1957 to 1981 was well received. Although detractors called Welk’s music corny, critics such as Jeff Tamarkin in Pulse! reminded, “Welk hired fine musicians and led them well.” And the bandleader represented the idea that romance and luxury should be within everyone’s reach, even if only for the short time each week when his show was on the air. Newsweek’s Gates quoted Welk as saying, “Where I lived on a farm by a small town, poor, I always felt the other folks were—oh, maybe a little better.” Gates wrote, “His core audience, rural people of modest means who weren’t getting any younger, sure knew that feeling. He was there to say, Don’t you believe it.” Because of Lawrence Welk, everybody and everything was wunnerful on a dance floor full of bubbles and champagne music.
(With Bernice McGeehan) Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life With My Musical Family, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
My America, Your America, Prentice-Hall, 1977.
This I Believe, G.K. Hall, 1979.
You’re Never Too Young, G.K. Hall, 1981.
On Ranwood, except where noted
Polka & Waltz Time, MCA, 1961.
Celebrates 25 Years on Television, c. 1980.
Plays for a Dance Party, 1985.
Dance to the Big Band Sounds, 1987.
Best Of, 1987.
16 Most Requested Songs, Columbia/Legacy, 1989.
Salutes the Big Bands, 1990.
A Musical Anthology, 1992.
Hymns We Love.
Coakley, Mary Lewis, Mister Music Maker, Lawrence Welk, 1958.
Welk, Lawrence, and Bernice McGeehan, Wunnerful, Wunnerful!, Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Welk, Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life With My Musical Family, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Welk, My America, Your America, Prentice-Hall, 1977.
Welk, This I Believe, G.K. Hall, 1979.
Welk, You’re Never Too Young, G.K. Hall, 1981.
Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, May 19, 1992; May 24, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, May 29, 1992.
Forbes, September 26, 1983.
Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1992.
Maclean’s, December 21, 1992.
Newsweek, June 1, 1992.
New York Times, May 19, 1992.
People, November 19, 1990; June 1, 1992; June 22, 1992.
Pulse!, November 1992.
Time, June 1, 1992.
Times (London), May, 20 1992.
U.S. News & World Report, June 11, 1992.
Variety, May 25, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, May 20, 1992.
Washington Post, May 19, 1992.
The music performed by Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) and his Champagne Music Makers alternately has been admired and reviled for the bandleader's insistence on inoffensive subject matter emphasizing American patriotism and traditional Christian values and arrangements emphasizing melody over improvisation and technical skill.
Lawrence Welk had been performing music professionally for more than 35 years before garnering national exposure as host of his own television program in 1951. Four years later, Welk's local Los Angeles program was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), bringing his particular brand of music into millions of American homes twice a week for 15 years. The network subsequently canceled the show when executives determined that Welk's program was not attracting a younger demographic viewing audience coveted by advertisers. Welk rebounded with a syndicated program following the same format as his network telecasts and recognized even greater financial success. Reruns of the popular series continued to be broadcast weekly on Public Broadcasting as late as 2000, a testimony to the enduring appetite of a large portion of the American television-viewing public for wholesome entertainment.
Born in a Sod Shack
Welk was the sixth of eight children born to German immigrants Ludwig and Christina Welk. The Welks arrived in the United States after an exile in Russia and, after a long trip by ox-drawn cart, settled on a land claim in Emmons County, North Dakota, in 1893. Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in Strasburg, North Dakota. The family lived in a wood-sided sod home and earned their livelihood through farming. The Welk family spoke only German, schooling their children in a parochial school staffed by German-speaking nuns.
Welk's education was cut short when he suffered acute appendicitis when he was ten years old. The prolonged recovery from the resulting appendectomy and subsequent peritonitis allowed Welk to abandon school and focus on farm work, fur trapping, and teaching himself to play his father's accordion. The elder Welk earned extra money by performing at local barn dances, and his son soon followed in his footsteps. As Welk recalled in his autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful, "My earliest clear memory is crawling toward my father who was holding his accordion. I can still recall the wonder and delight I felt when he let me press my fingers on the keys and squeeze out a few wavering notes." When he was 17 years old, Welk made a deal with his father that committed him to continue working on the family farm until his 21st birthday in exchange for a $400 accordion. In addition, Welk promised to give his parents all the monies earned with his new instrument.
A Long Musical Internship
In 1924 Welk left home with three dollars pinned to the inside of a new jacket, his accordion, a thick German accent, and an extremely limited grasp of the English language. He toured with such bands as the Jazzy Junior Five, Lincoln Bould's Chicago Band, and George T. Kelly's Peerless Entertainers. Welk recalled that Kelly "taught me all he knew about show business, traveling, booking, and how to get along with all kinds of people." After leaving the Peerless Entertainers, Welk formed a quartet with drummer Johnny Higgins, saxophonist Howard Keiser, and pianist Art Beal. This lineup became known as the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra and, later, the Hotsy Totsy Boys and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.
In 1927 the band decided to relocate to New Orleans to escape the early and harsh winters of North Dakota. The band never made it farther than Yankton, North Dakota, however. The quartet auditioned for local radio station WNAX, and the success of the audition's live broadcast netted them a contract for a regular radio program featuring the orchestra's music and commercials for hog tonic and other agricultural products.
The band was able to parlay its radio success with live performances and appearances throughout the Midwest, necessitating the purchase of a tour bus for the expanding entourage. While in Yankton, Welk met and courted Fern Renner, a nurse working in Yankton's Sacred Heart Hospital. The pair married in 1931 in Sioux City, Iowa. By the mid-1930s, Welk moved the orchestra's base of operations to Omaha, Nebraska.
In 1938 the orchestra garnered major performance exposure for a concert at the St. Paul Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where, according to a legend perpetuated by Welk, the group's music earned the descriptive "Champagne Music" from a listener who pronounced that the orchestra's music was "effervescent, like champagne."From that time forward, the band was billed as The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk. During the 1940s, Welk and his band performed as the house orchestra at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois. After a successful decade in Chicago, Welk moved what he called his "musical family" to Southern California, where a 1951 late-night appearance on television station KTLA became the springboard for his later national fame.
Found Television and Chart Success
Response to his band's first televised performance in 1951 led to Welk's increasing popularity among southern Californians. In 1955 ABC debuted The Dodge Dancing Party, which was renamed The Plymouth Show Starring Lawrence Welk in 1958 and The Lawrence Welk Show in 1962. The show's mixture of instrumental music, songs performed by a variety of staff singers, and dance numbers was so successful that Welk's program was soon broadcast twice weekly.
Throughout the program's network run, Welk ignored contemporary trends in the music industry while assisting the launch of several careers, including surf guitarist Dick Dale, jazz musician Pete Fountain, country singer Lynn Anderson, and the Lennon Sisters singing act. While other variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show featured performances by Elvis Presley, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, the music selected for Welk's program relied heavily on traditional Tin Pan Alley and Big Band standards that endorsed Middle American values, patriotism, and morality. Such was his adherence to this approach that one of Welk's "Champagne Ladies," Alice Lon, reportedly was fired after displaying too much knee to the television viewing audience while singing a song perched atop a desk.
In fact, Welk was known as a very rigid taskmaster, requiring that the members of his musical ensemble rehearse constantly and follow what he perceived to be virtuous lives. He also abjured musical arrangements that he deemed "too fussy" or complicated favoring instead music that emphasized a song's melody more than its rhythm. "Our fans told us with cheers and applause and requests that they liked 'our' music, music with a heart, a beat, music you could remember and hum, that brought back memories." Welk also commented, "I'm not a creative kind of musical director in the sense that I come up with something entirely fresh and unusual. I think my usefulness lies in evaluating somebody else's ideas and adapting them."
The songs performed on his program were introduced in Welk's trademark accent and vocal mannerisms, which betrayed his inability to pronounce the letter "D" and his difficulty with certain English pronunciations. Several of his trademark phrases—"Wunnerful, Wunnerful" and "Ah, One-uh an-uh Two-uh"—became part of the national lexicon. Welk's program also served as an effective promotional device for the hundreds of albums his 45-piece orchestra recorded during the 1950s and 1960s. While most of these recordings were remakes of compositions from other writers, Welk scored a number-one hit in 1961 with a harpsichord instrumental titled "Calcutta" and another moderate hit with "Baby Elephant Walk."
Became Pioneer in Syndication
Welk's refusal to allow most rock 'n' roll and pop songs on his program and his insistence that his performers dress modestly and groom themselves according to Eisenhower-era standards resulted in Welk's program becoming a source for ridicule by many comics as the epitome of "square" conservatism. The truth, however, was that ratings for Welk's program remained consistently high. Despite this fact, the ABC network cancelled the program in 1971 in an effort to attract more youthful audiences, reasoning that more advertising revenue could be generated from a younger demographic.
Tremendously wealthy from real estate transactions and music publishing (he owned all the publishing for the songs of Jerome Kern), Welk considered retiring. Don Fedderson, Welk's producer, however, suggested that Welk continue to produce the program independently of ABC and offer it to stations to broadcast prior to their network prime-time schedule. Fedderson suggested offering the program free to any station desiring to broadcast it in exchange for reserving five minutes of national advertising that Welk's producer would solicit. The results were dramatic: When the Lawrence Welk Show debuted as a syndicated program in September 1971, it appeared on more than 200 stations, more than ABC's total number of affiliates at the time.
Welk continued to produce new programs for syndication until his semi-retirement in 1982. New programs edited from his 11 years of syndicated programs and 16 years of network television continued to be broadcast on Public Broadcasting stations since 1987. Following his death on March 17, 1992, in Santa Monica, California, from pneumonia, Welk's heirs opened the Lawrence Welk Theatre and Resort in Branson, Missouri, where many of the television program's stars performed.
Knopper, Steve, editor, Music Hound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Welk, Lawrence, with Bernice McGeehan, Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life with My Musical Family, G. K. Hall, 1975.
Welk, Lawrence, with Bernice McGeehan, Wunnerful, Wunnerful!, The Welk Group, 1971.
Forum (Fargo, North Dakota), May 16, 1999.
The German American Corner,http://www.germanheritage.com/ (February 21, 2002).
"Lawrence Welk," Red Hot Jazz,http://www.redhotjazz.com/(February 21, 2002).
"Lawrence Welk: Post-Modernist," Jeffrey Zeldman Presents,http:www.zeldman.com/ (1995-2001). □