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It may or may not be true that Lawrence Welk is the most popular easy listening artist of all time, but it's difficult to think of anyone who is more prominently associated with the genre. Welk's long-running TV variety show was a huge success in its time, and remains an enduring favorite in reruns. And while Welk recorded prolifically, his true musical legacy was built through the doggedly innocuous, wholesome aesthetic of his show. He was an unlikely television star -- his thick German accent and on-camera stiffness would have been crippling liabilities for many other hosts. Yet Welk was beloved in spite of -- or, perhaps, because of -- those limitations, mainly because he knew his audience and paid close attention to what it wanted. In the process, he created a stable of familiar performers whose regular appearances were eagerly anticipated by his viewers. Demanding and particular, Welk put them through rigorous rehearsals, and aggressively enforced the inoffensive, nonthreatening tone that made the show so palatable for viewers of all ages. For people who considered themselves remotely hip, that tone made Welk's name synonymous with sanitized entertainment, and an easy target for derision. He and his acts were often dismissed as hopelessly square, by turns fluffy or sentimental, and reflecting an idealized purity that didn't really exist anywhere. He also drew criticism for the extreme scarcity of minority performers on the show, seemingly another symptom of its kowtowing to white-bread Middle America. Yet that essential conservatism helped give The Lawrence Welk Show an amazingly lasting appeal; after it lost its network slot, it spent more than a decade in syndication with greater success than ever, and found new life when its reruns became the chief source of revenue for many public television stations across the country.
Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in the small, heavily German town of Strasburg, ND. His parents had fled the unrest in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed border region between Germany and France, and settled on a small farm on the outskirts of town. One of eight children, Welk dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work on the farm, and spoke almost nothing but German up until his teen years. He learned to play polka music on his father's accordion, and at age 13, he began performing professionally at local dances and social events. Four years later, he convinced his father to buy him his own accordion; in exchange, he promised to work on the farm until he was 21, and to give all his musical earnings to the family up to that point.
Upon turning 21, Welk took up music full-time, playing in various polka and vaudeville-style bands around the area. He eventually formed his own quartet, the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra, and in 1927 decided to head south to New Orleans in search of work. On the way, the group stopped in Yankton, SD, and was offered a one-week deal to perform on local radio; they were such a success that they were signed to a permanent contract. Welk's band stayed headquartered in Yankton for the next ten years, playing both locally and all over the Midwest; they went through several name changes, including the Hotsy Totsy Boys, the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, and the Biggest Little Band in America.
In 1937, Welk moved the group to Omaha, and it soon grew into a ten-piece outfit, playing swinging dance music in the so-called "sweet band" style. A 1938 gig at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh prompted one fan to compare Welk's light, bubbly music to champagne, and Welk adopted the tag from then on, describing his sound as "champagne music." In 1940, at the height of the big-band era, Welk secured a booking for his group at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago; it proved such a success that Welk moved his family to Chicago and wound up with a ten-year residency there. The waning popularity of big bands subsequently forced Welk to go back on tour to make ends meet. In 1951, he made a successful appearance on a late-night TV show in Los Angeles. The idea of working in television captured his imagination, and led him to move to L.A. the following year.
The Lawrence Welk Show made its national debut in 1955 as a midseason replacement on ABC. Over the next few years, it amassed enough of a following to become one of the network's most popular shows, making catch phrases out of Welk's oft-repeated "wunnerful, wunnerful" and "ah-one and-a two." Its trademark visual style was built around low-budget cardboard props, bright pastel colors, and bubble-blowing machines. Welk played the roles of host and bandleader, populating his play list with pleasant arrangements of well-established standards and pop hits. The emphasis was always on songs his audience would already recognize, though he and musical director George Cates did showcase comic novelty songs and the polka music Welk had grown up with as well. Welk built up a solid base of recurring featured performers, the best known of which included accordionist/assistant conductor Myron Floren, ragtime pianist Jo Ann Castle, singing group the Lennon Sisters, Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, Irish-style singer Joe Feeney, tap dancer Arthur Duncan (the show's lone African-American regular), dancer and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess (who went through a succession of female dance partners), and a featured female singer dubbed the Champagne Lady.
Welk established his reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian early on. He never allowed comedians to appear on the show, for fear of an off-color joke slipping through, and he refused alcohol and cigarette products as sponsors. In 1959, he fired the first Champagne Lady, Alice Lon, for displaying too much leg during a telecast. Irate viewers wrote in to protest the firing, and Welk tried to hire her back, but she would have none of it; her replacement was Norma Zimmer, who remained with the show for quite some time. Burgess' female dance partners were subject to the same kinds of whims, and Fountain -- arguably the most talented regular -- reportedly left over what Welk felt was an inappropriately jazzed-up Christmas song. More problematic for some modern-day viewers might be the show's watered-down handling of ethnicity; while not really offensive for its time, some of the ethnic theme shows would be considered embarrassing by today's standards, and dancer Duncan's mannerisms came in for criticism as the civil rights era dawned.
Meanwhile, Welk had been managing a productive career as a recording artist. He had released records in his early days, but naturally he hit a whole new plateau once he had the power of television behind him. Between 1956 and 1963, 19 of Welk's LPs reached the Top 20, and ten of those made the Top Ten. Welk achieved his greatest popularity on record with the Dot label during the early '60s, spearheaded by the smash instrumental hit "Calcutta," which became his only number one -- and, for that matter, Top Ten -- single in 1961. The accompanying LP of the same name also reached number one, and five more albums -- Last Date, Yellow Bird, Moon River, Young World, and Baby Elephant Walk and Theme From the Brothers Grimm -- climbed into the Top Ten over the next two years. Although Welk never equaled that run of success, he continued to chart albums on a regular basis up through 1973.
In 1971, ABC canceled The Lawrence Welk Show, feeling that its target audience was growing too old to appeal to advertisers. Welk quickly secured a syndication deal that placed his show on over 200 stations around the country, and kept right on producing it up through 1982. As the '70s wore on, many of the old performers retired or moved on, to be replaced by similar acts that essentially followed the show's long-established blueprint. But even if there were fewer individual standouts, the show still filled an audience niche that otherwise went largely ignored. Following his retirement in 1982, Welk settled in Santa Monica, CA, and soon established a combination resort/retirement community, the Lawrence Welk Country Club Village, in Escondido. He also acquired a vast music publishing catalog, as well as other real estate holdings.
Starting in 1987, some public television stations began airing reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show, to the delight of an elderly viewing base. As the '90s wore on, public TV came to rely more and more on The Lawrence Welk Show as a staple moneymaker during pledge drives, thus ensuring its continued availability and popularity well after Welk's passing: he died of pneumonia on May 17, 1992. The band he once led continued to perform at the Champagne Music Theater in Branson, MO.
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.
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 $4,584 as of 2013) 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, 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. 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 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. 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."
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. 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 (allmusic.com 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.
Since Welk's show targeted an audience of mature, middle-aged viewers, 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. This stood in comparison to the contemporary American Bandstand, which catered to a youth audience and played new music.
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,", 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.
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. 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 between 13 and 26 February 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. 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.
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.
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 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. ABC dropped the show in 1971 on the grounds that its audience was mostly over the age of 45 and they couldn't advertise products targeted at youth on it. 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.
Personal life 
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 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 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."
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 menuAn accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurantAn accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurantAn accordion-themed ash tray
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.
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, California, in 1992 at age 89 and was buried in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery.
Singles "Moritat (A Theme from 'The 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" featuring The Lennon Sisters (US #15, November 1956)"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)"Scarlett 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, Welk was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakota.. 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.
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.
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 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.
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 0-13-971515-0Ah-One, Ah-Two! Life with My Musical Family, 1974, ISBN 0-13-020990-2My America, Your America, 1976, ISBN 0-13-608414-1Lawrence Welk's Musical Family Album, 1977, ISBN 0-13-526624-6Welk 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 0-13-919092-9You're Never Too Young, 1981, ISBN 0-13-977181-6