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Lawrence Welk

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Title: Lawrence Welk  
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Subject: 1956 in music, Mickey McMahan, Norma Zimmer, Natalie Nevins, North Dakota
Collection: 1903 Births, 1992 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Musicians, American Accordionists, American Bandleaders, American People of German-Russian Descent, American Roman Catholics, American Television Personalities, Burials at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Coral Records Artists, Deaths from Bronchopneumonia, Deaths from Pneumonia, Dot Records Artists, Gennett Records Artists, Infectious Disease Deaths in California, Lawrence Welk, Mercury Records Artists, Musicians from Los Angeles, California, Musicians from North Dakota, People from Emmons County, North Dakota, Polka Musicians, Sweet Band Musicians, Vocalion Records Artists
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Lawrence Welk

Lawrence Welk
Lawrence Welk and Norma Zimmer, 1961.
Born (1903-03-11)March 11, 1903
Strasburg, North Dakota
Died May 17, 1992(1992-05-17) (aged 89)
Santa Monica, California
Resting place
Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California
Occupation Musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario
Religion Roman Catholic
Spouse(s) Fern Veronica Renner
(1931–1992) (his death)
Children Shirley Welk, Donna Welk, Lawrence "Larry" Welk, Jr.
Welk Musical Family

Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 – May 17, 1992) was an American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 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 1
  • Early career 2
  • Recordings 3
  • The Lawrence Welk Show 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Later years 6
  • Singles 7
  • Honors 8
  • Legacy 9
  • See also 10
  • Books 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

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). Welk was a first cousin, once removed, of former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer (Welk's mother and Schweitzer's paternal grandmother were siblings).[2]

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 $4,709 in 2015)[3][4] 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, typical of these Plattdeutsch or Low German-speaking immigrants who usually spoke the language at home long after they began to learn English at school. 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, was 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 big bands in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.[5] 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.[6]

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 (during this period, bands which played light, melodic music were referred to as "sweet bands" to distinguish them from the heavy, loud, rhythmic swing bands of artists like Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington). 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. Welk described his band's sound, saying "We still play music with the champagne style, which means light and rhythmic. We place the stress on melody; the chords are played pretty much the way the composer wrote them. We play with a steady beat so that dancers can follow it."[7]

Welk's big 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.[8] 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 1950s.

In 1966, with his orchestra, he recorded an album on the Ranwood Records label, with top-flight Jazz saxophonist Johnny Hodges, featuring a number of Jazz standards, including "Someone to Watch Over Me", "Misty" and "Fantastic, That's You". The album is generally highly regarded ( giving it 3 out of a possible 5 stars), but has been out of print for many years.

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 bubbles across the bandstand. While the bubble machine was originally engineered to produce soap bubbles, complaints from the band members about soapy build-ups on their instruments led to the machine being re-worked to produce glycerine bubbles instead. 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.

As Welk's show mainly targeted older viewers, they seldom played recent music that the audience might not be familiar with. 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. On another episode, The Lennon Sisters performed The Orlons' "The Wah-Watusi" with bass singer Larry Hooper wearing a beatnik outfit. This stood in comparison to the contemporary American Bandstand, which catered to a teenager audience and featured the latest acts. On a 1971 episode, Welk infamously billed the Brewer & Shipley single "One Toke Over the Line" (performed as a duet by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale) as a "modern spiritual,"[9] while social conservatives of the era saw it for its subversiveness. However, by later in the 1970s, Welk's programs often included current adult contemporary songs performed by his singers, including "Feelings" and "Love Will Keep Us Together" (made famous by Morris Albert and Captain & Tennille, respectively), and current songs were included up through 1982, the show's final year of production.

Welk never lost his affection for the jazz numbers he had played in the 1920s, and when a Dixieland tune was scheduled he enthusiastically led the band.

Befitting the target audience, 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 (the Canadian journalist and entertainment editor Frank Rasky) as "the squarest music this side of Euclid,",[10] 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 "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 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 [12] 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.[13] 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.[11]

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.[14] 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.[14]

Despite its staid reputation, The Lawrence Welk Show nonetheless did keep up with the times and never limited itself strictly to big-band era music. 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, all redone in a format that was easily digestible to older viewers. 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. During this period, the networks were in the process of eliminating programming that was seen as having either too old of an audience, did not appeal to urban residents, or both (the so-called Rural Purge). As The Lawrence Welk Show fit into this category, ABC ended its run in 1971. 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 shown on 250 stations across the country until the final original show was produced in 1982 when Welk decided to retire. While many longtime TV shows suffered a serious ratings drop during counterculture movement of the late 1960s, The Lawrence Welk Show survived largely intact and in fact experienced an increase in viewership during this time.

Personal life

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 (b. August 26, 1903, d. 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 a skillful businessman, Welk had investments in real estate and music publishing. He was the general partner in a commercial real estate development located at 100 Wilshire Boulevard 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," and Welk made his personal residence on the 8th floor.

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 was awarded four US design patents:

  • A musically-themed restaurant menu[15]
  • An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant[16]
  • An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant[17]
  • An accordion-themed ash tray[18]

A devout, lifelong 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.[19]

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. In addition, he owned a restaurant and club in Escondido where he filmed lead-ins for reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Welk completely retired from all public appearances in 1992 at the age of 89. He died on May 17 in his Santa Monica apartment surrounded by family and was buried in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery.[20] The cause of death was officially "bronchial pneumonia with cerebrovascular insufficiency as a contributing factor".[21]



In 1961, Welk was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakota.[22] He later served as the Grand Marshal for the Rose Bowl's Tournament of Roses parade in 1972.

In 1994, Welk was inducted into the International Polka Music Hall Of Fame.[23]

Welk has a star for Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6613½ Hollywood Blvd. He has a second star at 1601 Vine Street for Television.

In 2007, Welk 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.[24]

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: Welk Resorts (run his grandson Jon Fredricks), with communities in Escondido, Palm Springs, Branson MO, Lake Tahoe and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; 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 repeatedly parodied in U.S. popular entertainment for decades. In particular the comedy show Saturday Night Live has had a recurring sketch during the 2000s, 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:

  • 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


  1. ^ "Special Collectors' Issue: 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time".  
  2. ^
  3. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  4. ^ "It was a 'Wunnerful' Life". Grand Forks Herald. 19 May 1992. 
  5. ^ "Lawrence Welk's Novelty Orchestra". Retrieved 2009-04-06. 
  6. ^ "MacPhail History". Retrieved 2009-04-06. 
  7. ^ Bob Thomas, Associated Press (June 6, 1960). "Champagne style music making of Lawrence Welk". Ellensburg Daily Record. 
  8. ^ Billboard September 15. page 29.
  9. ^ Toking" with Lawrence Welk""". YouTube. 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2012-12-09. 
  10. ^ Minahan, John (1973). The Torment of Buddy Rich: A Biography. iUniverse. p. 74. 
  11. ^ a b "Lawrence Welk Biography & Awards". Billboard. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 
  12. ^ Fred Bronson (2003). "Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits". Billboard. Retrieved 20 April 2013. 
  13. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2ndl ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 141.  
  14. ^ a b "Maestro of bubbly is gone: Lawrence Welk dies at age 89," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 1992, p. A1.
  15. ^ US patent D137469, Lawrence Welk, "DESIGN FOR A MENU CARD", issued 1944-3-14 
  16. ^ US patent D157110, Lawrence Welk, "LUNCH BOX", issued 1950-1-13 
  17. ^ US patent D164658, Lawrence Welk, "LUNCH BOX", issued 1951-9-25 
  18. ^ US patent D170898, Lawrence Welk, "ASH TRAY", issued 1953-11-17 
  19. ^ Welk, Lawrence (1973). Wunnerful, Wunnerful!: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. Bantam Books.  
  20. ^ Lawrence Welk at Find a Grave
  21. ^ Certificate of Death at
  22. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award". North Dakota Office of the Governor. 
  23. ^ "Lawrence Welk". International Polka Association. Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  24. ^ Leland, John. "Old Fans Still Bubble Along to Lawrence Welk". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 

External links

  • Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show
  • Lawrence Welk at the Internet Movie Database
  • Lawrence Welk's recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, along with other info
  • Welk Musical Family website
  • Welk Musical Family blog
  • Lawrence Welk Collection at North Dakota State University
  • The Lawrence Welk Show: Video of "Calcutta" 1961 on YouTube
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