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Lawrence Welk

Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 - May 17, 1992) was an American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted 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 (and critics) as "champagne music".

In 1996, Welk was ranked #43 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.[1]


Early life

Welk was born in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota. He was sixth of the eight children of Ludwig and Christiana (Schwahn) Welk, ethnic Germans who emigrated to America in 1892 from Selz, Kutschurgan District, in the German-speaking area north of Odessa (now Odessa, Ukraine, but then in southwestern Russia).

The family lived on a homestead that today is a tourist attraction. They spent the cold North Dakota winter of their first year under an upturned wagon covered in sod.

Welk decided on a career in music and persuaded his father to buy a mail-order accordion for $400 (equivalent to $|r=0}}}} as of 2012)[2]. He promised his father that he would work on the farm until he was 21, in repayment for the accordion. Any money he made elsewhere during that time, doing farmwork or performing, would go to his family.

A common misconception is that Welk did not learn English until he was 21. In fact, he began learning English as soon as he started school. The part of North Dakota where he lived had been settled largely by Germans from Russia; even his teachers spoke English as a second language. Welk thus acquired his trademark accent, a combination of the Russian and German accents. He took elocution lessons in the 1950s and could speak almost accent-free, but he realized his public expected to hear him say: "A-one, an-a-two" and "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!" When he was asked about his ancestry, he would always reply "Alsace-Lorraine, Germany," from where his forebears had emigrated to Russia (and which, at the time of Welk's birth in 1903, had become part of the German Empire).

Early career

On his 21st birthday, having fulfilled his promise to his father, Welk left the family farm to pursue a career in music, which he loved. 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.[3] 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.[4] Photo of Welk in Chicago, 1944.

Although many associate Welk's music with a style quite separate from jazz, he did record one notable song in a ragtime 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 that specialized in dance tunes and "sweet" music. Initially, the band traveled around the country by car. They were too poor to rent rooms, so they usually slept and changed clothes in their 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. Welk collaborated with Western artist Red Foley to record a version of Spade Cooley's "Shame on You" in 1945. The record (Decca 18698) was #4 to Cooley's #5 on Billboard's September 15 "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" listing.[5] From 1949 through 1951, the band had its own national radio program on ABC, sponsored by "The Champagne of Bottle Beer" Miller High Life.


In addition to the above mentioned "Spiked Beer", Welk's territory band made occasional trips to Richmond, Indiana and to Grafton, Wisconsin to record a handful of sessions for the Gennett and Paramount companies. In November, 1928, he recorded 4 sides for Gennett spread over two days (1 side was rejected) and in 1931, he recorded 8 sides for Paramount (during two sessions) that were issued on the Broadway and Lyric labels. These records are quite rare and highly valued.

From 1938 to 1940, he recorded frequently in New York and Chicago for the Vocalion label. He signed with Decca in 1941, recorded for Mercury and Coral before moving to Dot in the early 1950's.

The Lawrence Welk Show

In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The 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. The show became a local hit and was picked up by ABC in June 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 to solo on his accordion.

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. In the TV show's early days, the band would rarely play tunes from the current charts except strictly as novelty numbers. On December 8, 1956, two examples on the same broadcast were "Nuttin' for Christmas," which became a vehicle for Rocky Rockwell dressed in a child's outfit, and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel," which was sung by violinist Bob Lido, wearing fake Presley-style sideburns.

Welk never lost his affection for the hot jazz he 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, calm, 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 it 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.

Musical satirist Stan Freberg and his frequent collaborator, arranger Billy May, recorded a scathing 1957 parody of the Welk TV show titled "Wunnerful! Wunnerful!" featuring Freberg, voice actor Daws Butler and members of Jud Conlon's Rhythmairs, mocking the show's corny nature, the band's more predictable arrangements and Welk's own mediocre accordion work. Studio musicians on the session included top Hollywood jazz players, many of whom scorned Welk's music and eagerly participated in the parody. After several "performances" and frequent asides from Freberg of "turn off the bubble machine," the machine spun out of control, sending the Santa Monica Ballroom floating out to sea. Welk was not pleased with Freberg's parody (a hit single that year) and denied he ever used the phrase "Wunnerful! Wunnerful!" though it later became the title of his autobiography.

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 Kesner, 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 "Calcutta", which achieved hit status in 1961.[6] 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; it was recorded in only one take. The tune knocked the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" out of the #1 position, and it kept the Miracles' "Shop Around" from becoming the group's first #1 hit, holding their recording at #2. It sold more than one million copies and was awarded a gold disc.[7] The album "Calcutta" also achieved number-one status. The albums "Last Date," "Yellow Bird," "Moon River," "Young World" and "Baby Elephant Walk and Theme from the Brothers Grimm," produced in the early 60s, were in Billboard's top ten; nine more albums produced between 1956 and 1963 were in the top twenty. His albums continued to chart through 1973.[6]

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.[8] 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.[8]

The Lawrence Welk Show embraced changes on the musical scene over the years. For as long as it existed, the show featured fresh music alongside the classics, even music originally not intended for the big-band sound. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the show incorporated material by the contemporary sources The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, The Everly Brothers and Paul Williams and so on, albeit in Welk's signature "Champagne" style. Originally produced in black and white, in 1957 the show began being recorded on videotape, 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 9 p.m. (Eastern Time), moving up a half-hour to 8:30 p.m. in the fall of 1963. 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 ended 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 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.

Personal life

Lawrence Welk at ground breaking for the new Union Bank in Santa Monica, California, 1960
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 (August 26, 1903 - February 13, 2002), 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 the 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.

A devout, life-long Roman Catholic, Welk was a daily communicant, which is corroborated in numerous biographies, by his autobiography and by his family and his many staff, friends and associates throughout the years[9]

Later years

Welk's grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California 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.


  • Moritat A Theme From Three Penny Opera { US # 17 - March 1956 }
  • The Poor People Of Paris { US # 17 - April 1956 }
  • On The Street Where You Live { US # 96 - June 1956 }
  • Weary Blues { US # 32 - August 1956 }
  • In The Alps { US # 63 - August 1956 }
  • Tonight You Belong To Me { US # 15 - November 1956 } (Featuring Lennon Sisters)
  • When The White Lilacs Bloom Again { US # 70 - November 1956 }
  • Liechtenstein Polka { US # 48 - December 1957 }
  • Last Date { US # 21 - December 1960 }
  • Calcutta { US # 1 - February 1961 }
  • Theme From My Three Sons { US # 55 - April 1961 }
  • Yellow Bird { US # 71 - July 1961 }
  • Riders In The Sky { US # 87 - October 1961 }
  • One A-Two A-Cha Cha Cha { US # 117 - December 1961 }
  • Runaway { US # 56 - May 1962 }
  • Baby Elephant Walk { US # 48 - September 1962 - AC # 10, 1962 }
  • Zero-Zero { US # 98 - December 1962 }
  • Scarlet O'Hara { US # 89 - June 1963 }
  • Breakwater { US # 100 - June 1963 }
  • Blue Velvet { US # 103 - October 1963 }
  • Fiesta { US # 106 - October 1963 }
  • Stockholm { US # 91 - March 1964 }
  • Apples And Bananas { US # 75 - April 1965 - AC # 17, 1965 }
  • The Beat Goes On { US # 104 - April 1967 }
  • Green Tambourine { AC # 27 - March 1968 }
  • Southtown U.S.A. { AC # 37 - February 1970 }

Sources: Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2006 Billboard Top Adult Songs 1961-2006 Billboard Bubbling Under The Hot 100 1959-2004


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 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.[10]

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 38 miles north of downtown 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 upscale timeshares, and a theater that contains 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, including Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell, Anacani and Big Tiny Little.

Welk's variety show has been parodied in a recurring 2000s sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which he is portrayed by Fred Armisen.

See also


All books written with Bernice McGeehan and published by Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), except where indicated:


External links

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