Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 ? May 17, 1992) was a musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, hosting The Lawrence Welk Show from 1955 to 1982. His style came to be known to his large number of radio, television, and live-performance fans as "champagne music."
Lawrence was born in Strasburg, North Dakota, one of nine children of Catholic, German-speaking immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, via Odessa, Ukraine.
The family lived on a homestead outside of town, which today still stands as a tourist attraction. The first year they lived there, they spent the cold North Dakota winter underneath an upturned wagon covered in sod. Never intent on being a farmer, Welk became interested in a career in music, convincing his father to purchase a mail-order accordion for $400. He made a promise to his father that until the age of 21, he would continue to work on the farm in exchange for the accordion. Any money Welk made elsewhere, whether doing farmwork or putting on a show, would go to his family.
A common, but mistaken, belief is that Welk didn't learn English until he was 21 because he spoke German at home. Actually, he began learning English when he entered Grade School. Because the area of North Dakota in which he lived was populated primarily by Russian immigrants, most of his early teachers spoke English with a Russian accent. As a result, he acquired his peculiar, lilting accent, a combination of the Russian and German accents, for which he was particularly known, and which he demonstrated in public for the rest of his life. Although he took English diction lessons in the 1950s, and was able to speak relatively accent-free when with his family and close associates, he recognized that his public expected to hear him continue to say: "A-one, an-a-two". When he was asked about his ancestry, he replied always with "Alsace-Lorraine, Germany." .
Having fulfilled his promise to his father, Welk left the family farm on his 21st birthday to pursue a career in music. During the 1920s, he performed with the Luke Witkowski, Lincoln Boulds, and George T. Kelly bands, before starting his own orchestra. He led big bands in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. His band was also the station band for popular radio station WNAX, in Yankton, South Dakota. In 1927, he graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Although many jazz musicians scorn Welk, he did one notable recording in that style in November 1928 for Indiana-based Gennett Records. "Spiked Beer" featured Welk and his Novelty Orchestra.
During the 1930s, Welk led a traveling big band, specializing in dance tunes and "sweet" music. Initially, the band traveled around the country by car. Too poor to rent rooms, they usually slept and changed clothes in these cars. The term "Champagne Music" was derived from an engagement at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, when a dancer referred to his band's sound as "light and bubbly as champagne." The hotel also lays claim to the original "bubble machine," a prop left over from a 1920s movie premiere. The band performed across the country, but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 7,000.
His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City during the late 1940s. In 1944 and 1945, Welk led his orchestra in many motion picture "Soundies," considered to be the early pioneers of music videos, and the band had its own syndicated radio program, sponsored by "The Champagne of Bottle Beer" Miller High Life.
The Lawrence Welk Show
Main article: The Lawrence Welk Show
In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. That same year, he began producing "The Lawrence Welk Show" on KTLA in Los Angeles where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. After becoming a local hit, the show was picked up by ABC in Spring 1955.
During its first year on the air, the Welk hour instituted several regular features. To make Welk's "Champagne Music" tagline visual, the production crew engineered a "bubble machine" that spouted streams of large soap bubbles across the bandstand. Whenever the orchestra played a polka or waltz, Welk himself would dance with the band's female vocalist, the "Champagne Lady." His first Champagne Lady was Jayne Walton Rosen (real name: Dorothy Jayne Flanagan). Jayne left Welk's show after her marriage and later pregnancy. After Welk and his band went on television, she appeared as a guest on the show, where she sang Latin American songs and favorites that were popular when she was traveling with the Welk band. Novelty numbers would usually be sung by Rocky Rockwell. Welk also reserved one number for himself, where he soloed on his accordion. These features became so predictable that satirist Stan Freberg lampooned all of them in his topical comedy record, archly titled "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!" In Freberg's version, the "champagne lady" dances all over the maestro's accordion, and the hyperactive bubble machine goes haywire and floats the entire Aragon Ballroom out to sea. Billy May, who arranged the Freberg recording, used top-notch studio musicians who played Welk-like arrangements and used their talents and dislike for Welk's music to play them as badly as possible. Welk evidently took the satire to heart, because surviving kinescopes from the following season show the bubble machine used less often, and Welk's accordion solos scaled back. Welk was not pleased by the Freberg recording. He complained to Freberg, who recounted the story in his autobiography, that the record should have had Welk and the band "rescued" when the ballroom went out to sea.
Welk's television program had a policy of playing well-known songs from previous years, so that the target audience would hear only numbers with which they were familiar. Rarely, in the TV show's early days, the band would play tunes from the current charts, but strictly as novelty numbers. Two examples occurred during the same broadcast, on , 1956: "Nuttin' for Christmas" became a vehicle for Rocky Rockwell, dressed in a child's outfit; and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" was sung by violinist Bob Lido, wearing fake Presley-style sideburns).
Welk never lost his affection for the hot jazz he'd played in the 1920s, and when a Dixieland tune was scheduled, he enthusiastically led the band.
The type of music on "The Lawrence Welk Show" was almost always conservative, concentrating on popular music standards, polkas, and novelty songs, delivered in a smooth, calming, good-humored easy listening style and "family-oriented" manner. Although described by one critic as "the squarest music this side of Euclid," this strategy proved commercially successful, and the show remained on the air for 31 years.
Much of the show's appeal was Welk himself. His unusual accent appealed to the audience. While Welk's English was passable, he never did grasp the English "idiom" completely, and was thus famous for his "Welk-isms," such as "George, I want to see you when you have a minute, right now," and "Now for my accordion solo, Myron, will you join me?" His TV show was recorded as if it were a live performance, and was sometimes quite free-wheeling. Another famous "Welk-ism" was his trademark count-off, "A one and a two..." which was immortalized on his California automobile license plate that read "A1ANA2". This plate is visible on the front of a Model A Ford in one of the shows from 1980.
He often took women from the audience for a turn around the dance floor. During one show, Welk brought a cameraman out to dance with one of the women and took over the camera himself.
Welk's musicians were always top quality, including accordionist Myron Floren, concert violinist Dick Kessner, guitarist Buddy Merrill, and New Orleans Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain. Though Welk was occasionally rumored to be very tight with a dollar, he paid his regular band members top scale - a very good living for a working musician. Long tenure was very common among the regulars. For example, Floren was the band's assistant conductor throughout the show's run. He was noted for spotlighting individual members of his band and show. His band was well-disciplined and had excellent arrangements in all styles. One notable showcase was his album with the noted jazz saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
Welk had a number of instrumental hits, including a cover of the song "Yellow Bird." His highest charting record was his recording of "Calcutta." Welk himself was indifferent to the tune, but his musical director, George Cates, said that if Welk did not wish to record the song, he, (Cates) would. Welk replied, "Well, if it's good enough for you, George, I guess it's good enough for me." Despite the emergence of rock and roll, "Calcutta" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop charts in 1961, and was recorded in only one take.
Welk's insistence on wholesome entertainment led him to be a somewhat stern taskmaster at times. For example, he fired Alice Lon, at the time the show's "Champagne Lady", because he believed she was showing too much leg. Welk told the audience that he would not tolerate such "cheesecake" performances on his show; he later tried unsuccessfully to rehire the singer after fan mail indicated overwhelmingly that viewers disagreed with her dismissal. (He then had a series of short-term "Champagne Ladies" before Norma Zimmer filled that spot on a permanent basis.) Highly involved with his stars' personal lives, he often arbitrated their marriage disputes.
"The Lawrence Welk Show" embraced changes on the musical scene over the years. The show featured fresh music alongside the classics for as long as it existed, even music originally not intended for the big band sound. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the show incorporated material by such contemporary sources as The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, The Everly Brothers and Paul Williams, albeit in Welk's signature "Champagne" style. Originally produced in black and white, the show was recorded on videotape starting in 1957, and it switched to color for the fall 1965 season. In time, it featured synthesized music and, toward the end of its run, early chroma key technology added a new dimension to the story settings sometimes used for the musical numbers. Welk referred to his blue screen effect in one episode as "the magic of television."
During its network run, "The Lawrence Welk Show" aired on ABC on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. (Eastern Time). In fact, Welk headlined two weekly prime time shows on ABC for three years. From 1956 to 1958, he hosted a show titled "Top Tunes and New Talent," which aired on Monday nights. The series moved to Wednesdays in Fall 1958 and was renamed "The Plymouth Show," which expired in May, 1959. During that time, the Saturday show was also known as "The Dodge Dancing Party." ABC cancelled the show in the spring of 1971, citing an aging audience. Welk graciously thanked ABC and the sponsors at the end of the last network show. The Lawrence Welk Show continued on as a first-run syndicated show on 250 stations across the country until the final original show was produced in 1982.
Lawrence Welk at ground breaking for the new Union Bank in Santa Monica, California, 1960
Welk was married for 61 years, until his death, to Fern Renner, with whom he had three children. One of his sons, Lawrence Welk, Jr., married fellow "Lawrence Welk Show" performer Tanya Falan; they later divorced. Welk had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of them, grandson Lawrence Welk III, who usually goes by "Larry Welk," is a reporter and helicopter traffic pilot for KCAL-TV and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. One of his great-grandchildren, Nate Fredricks, reportedly enjoys the same love for music as his great grandfather did and plays guitar in a band.
Known as an excellent businessman, Welk had investments in real estate and music publishing. Welk was the general partner in a commercial real estate development located at 100 Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica, California. The 21-story tall white tower is the tallest building in Santa Monica, and is located on the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Bay. It was informally named "The Lawrence Welk Champagne Tower."
Welk enjoyed playing golf, which he first took up in the late 1950s, and was often a regular at many celebrity pro-ams such as the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Welk became a minister in the Universal Life Church. He was also a confidant of southern gospel singer Jimmie Davis, a Baptist who was twice elected governor of Louisiana.
After retiring from his show and from the road in 1982, Welk continued to air reruns of his shows which were repackaged first for syndication and starting in 1986 for public television. He also starred in and produced a pair of Christmas specials in 1984 and 1985.
Welk died from pneumonia in Santa Monica, California in 1992 at age 89 and was buried in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery.
In 1961, he was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakota.
He served as the Grand Marshal for the Rose Bowl's Tournament of Roses parade in 1972.
In 1994, he was inducted into the International Polka Music Hall Of Fame.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6613-1/2 Hollywood Blvd.
In 2007, he became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
Welk's band continues to appear in a dedicated theater in Branson, Missouri. In addition, the television show has been repackaged for broadcast on PBS stations, with updates from show performers appearing as wraparounds where commercial breaks were during the original shows. The repackaged shows are broadcast at roughly the same Saturday-night time slot as the original ABC shows, and special longer Welk show rebroadcasts are often shown during individual stations' fund-raising periods. These repackaged shows are produced by the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority.
A resort community, developed by Welk and promoted heavily by him on the show, is named for him. Formerly known as "Lawrence Welk Village," the Welk Resort and Champagne Village are just off Interstate 15 north of Escondido, California, about 55 miles (89 km) northeast of San Diego. Lawrence Welk Village was where Welk actually lived in a rather affluent "cottage." The resort is open to the public and contains two golf courses, dozens of upper class timeshares, and a theater containing a museum of Welk's life. The Welk Resort Theatre performs live Broadway musicals year round.
His organization, The Welk Group, consists of his resort communities in Branson and Escondido; Welk Syndication which broadcasts the show on public television and the Welk Music Group, which operates record labels Sugar Hill, Vanguard and Ranwood. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the Welk Group was known as "Teleklew" in which tele stood for television and klew was Welk spelled backwards.
The "Live Lawrence Welk Show" makes annual concert tours across the United States and Canada featuring stars from the television series, such as Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell, Anacani and Big Tiny Little.
Welk's variety show has been parodied twice on Saturday Night Live. Each time, he has been portrayed by Fred Armisen.
The Lennon Sisters - mainstay singers for Welk from 1955 to 1968
All books written with Bernice McGeehan and published by Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), except where indicated:
Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk, 1971, ISBN 0-13-971515-0
Ah-One, Ah-Two! Life with My Musical Family, 1974, ISBN 0-13-020990-2
My America, Your America, 1976, ISBN 0-13-608414-1
Lawrence Welk's Musical Family Album, 1977, ISBN 0-13-526624-6
Welk with McGeehan, illustrated by Carol Bryan, Lawrence Welk's Bunny Rabbit Concert, Indianapolis: Youth Publications/Saturday Evening Post Co., 1977, ISBN 0-89387-501-5 (children's book)
This I Believe, 1979, ISBN 0-13-919092-9
You're Never Too Young, 1981, ISBN 0-13-977181-6