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Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 – May 17, 1992) was an American 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".

Early years

Welk was born in the German speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakotamarker. He was sixth of the eight children of Ludwig and Christiana Welk, ethnic Germans who emigrated to America in 1892 from Odessamarker, Ukrainemarker, which was then part of the Russian Empiremarker.

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

Lawrence Welk decided on a career in music, and convinced his father to buy a mail-order accordion for $400. 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 didn't 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 diction lessons in the 1950s and could speak almost accent-free, but he realized his public expected to hear him to say: "A-one, an-a-two". When asked about his ancestry, he would always reply "Alsace-Lorraine, Germanymarker," from where his forebears had emigrated to Russia.

Early career

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 band in North Dakotamarker 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 Dakotamarker. In 1927, he graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolismarker, Minnesotamarker.

Although many jazz musicians scorn Welk, he did one notable recording in that style in November 1928 for Indianamarker 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 Hotelmarker in Pittsburghmarker, 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 Chicagomarker and Milwaukeemarker areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicagomarker, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 7,000.

His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotelmarker in New York Citymarker 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

In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angelesmarker. That same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLAmarker in Los Angeles where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beachmarker. 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.

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 December 8, 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 had 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 Orleansmarker 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. The tune knocked the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" out of the #1 position, and kept the Miracles' "Shop Around" from becoming the group's first #1 hit, holding the record at #2.

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.

Personal life

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-TVmarker and KCBS-TVmarker 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 Louisianamarker.

Later years

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, Californiamarker in 1992 at age 89 and was buried in Culver Citymarker's Holy Cross Cemeterymarker.


In 1961, he was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakotamarker.

He served as the Grand Marshal for the Rose Bowlmarker'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 Famemarker, located at 6613-1/2 Hollywood Blvd.

In 2007, he became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indianamarker.


Welk's band continues to appear in a dedicated theater in Branson, Missourimarker. 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, Californiamarker, about northeast of San Diegomarker. 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 Escondidomarker; 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 Statesmarker and Canadamarker 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.

See also


All books written with Bernice McGeehan and published by Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.marker), 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


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