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.
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 tught 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 off-key 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 for free 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 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. Newsweek'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 TelePrompTer 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.
Welk, who had been battling the effects of pneumonia, died peacefully on May 17, 1992 at his home in Santa Monica, California, with his family at his side.
by Joanna Rubiner
Lawrence Welk's Career
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.
Lawrence Welk's 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.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- Champagne Music.
- Hymns We Love.
- (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.
- Coakley, Mary Leis, 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.
- Periodicals 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.