|Birth Date:||11 March 1903|
|Birth Place:||Strasburg, North Dakota|
|Death Place:||Santa Monica, California|
|Occupation:||Musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario|
|Spouse:||Fern Renner (August 26, 1931 - February 13, 2002)|
|Children:||Shirley, Donna and Lawrence, Jr ("Larry")|
|Website:||Welk Musical Family|
Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 - May 17, 1992) was a musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, hosting 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 as "champagne music." He is a 1961 inductee of North Dakota's Roughrider Award.
The family lived on a homestead outside of town, which today still stands as a tourist attraction. The first year they lived there, they spent the cold North Dakota winter underneath an upturned wagon covered in sod. Never intent on being a farmer, Welk became interested in a career in music, convincing his father to purchase a mail-order accordion for $400http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/grhc/history_culture/lawrence_welk/wirereports.html. He made a promise to his father that he would continue to work on the farm until he turned twenty-one; in exchange for the accordion, he would work on the farm and any money he made working elsewhere, whether doing farmwork or putting on a show, would go to his family.
Welk didn't learn English until he was 21 because he always spoke German at home; thus, he spoke with a noticeable German accent for the rest of his life. When he was asked about his ancestry, he replied always with "Alsace-Lorraine, Germany" (Alsace-Lorraine is currently in France; at the time of Welk's birth up until the end of World War I it belonged to Germany). This information is explained in his autobiography, entitled "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!"
On his twenty-first birthday, Welk, having fulfilled his promise to his father, left the family farm 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 engagements in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These bands included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestrahttp://www.redhotjazz.com/welk.html. His band was also the station band for popular radio station, WNAX, in Yankton, South Dakota. In 1927, he was graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
During the 1930s, Welk led a traveling big band, specializing in dance tunes and "sweet" music. 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 band performed in many places across the country, particularly in the Chicago area. In the early 1940s, the band began a regular 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, and the band had its own syndicated radio program, sponsored by "The Champagne of Beers" Miller High Life.
When Mr. Welk was first starting with his band, they would travel around the US by car, too poor to rent rooms and usually left sleeping and changing their clothing in these cars. They would frequent the various cities and play on the same stages and bandstands that all of the "Big Band Era" bands played.
His first Champagne Lady was Jayne Walton Rosen (real name: Dorothy Jayne Flanagan). She was born in Mexico, daughter of a silver mine owner/manager. When Pancho Villa was terrorizing the rich (stealing everything they had and oftentimes killing them and their families) she fled from this danger, immigrating to the USA with her parents and sister, Jacqueline. They lived in San Antonio, Texas and Jayne attended Brackenridge High School (same school Carol Burnett attended). Jayne left his show after her marriage and later pregnancy (a son who was a child prodigy who performed at Carnegie Hall in the 60's). After Lawrence and his band went on television, he would invite her on his series as a special guest and she would sing Latin American songs as well as many of the favorites which were popular when she was travelling with him and his band (in his pre-television era.)
In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. That 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. After being a local hit, the show was picked up by ABC in the spring of 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" (Alice Lon, at the time). Novelty numbers would usually be sung by Rocky Rockwell. Welk also reserved one number for himself, and would solo on his accordion. These features became so predictable that satirist Stan Freberg lampooned all of them in his topical comedy record, archly titled "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!" (In Freberg's version, the "Near Beer Lady" dances all over the maestro's accordion, and the hyperactive bubble machine goes haywire and floats the entire Aragon Ballroom out to sea). Welk evidently took the satire to heart, because surviving kinescopes from the following season show the bubble machine being used less often, and Welk's accordion solos also scaled back. Billy May, who arranged the Freberg recording, used top-notch studio musicians who played Welk-like arrangements and used their talents to play them as badly as possible. May had done a similar spoof during his days with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, on a tune he titled "The Wrong Idea," mocking bandleader Sammy Kaye. Welk was not pleased by the Freberg recording. Again taking it to heart, he complained to Freberg, who recounted the story in his autobiography, that the record should have had Welk and the band "rescued" when the ballroom went out to sea.
Welk's television program had a policy of playing well-known songs from previous years, so that the target audience would only hear numbers with which they were already familiar. Rarely, in the TV show's early days, the band would play a tune from the current charts, but strictly as a novelty number. 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).
The type of music on "The Lawrence Welk Show" was almost always conservative, concentrating mostly 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 it remained on the air for 31 years.
Much of the show's appeal was Welk himself. His unusual accent appealed to the audience. (On one 1955 show, he mentioned Danny Thomas's series, "Mek Room fur Deddy.") 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"http://starbulletin.com/2002/05/05/business/story2.html. This plate is visible on the front of a Model A Ford in one of the shows from 1980.
He often took ladies from the audience for a turn around the dance floor. During one show, Welk brought a cameraman out to dance with one of the ladies 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 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 Welk's 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.
However, Welk's insistence on wholesome entertainment led him to be a somewhat stern taskmaster at times. For example, he fired Alice Lon, a "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. 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 continued to feature 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. The show, which was originally produced in black and white, was recorded on videotape starting in 1957, and it switched to color for the fall TV season that started in September of 1965. In time, it would feature synthesized music and, toward the end of its run, early chroma key technology would add a new dimension to the story settings sometimes used for the musical numbers. He referred to his blue screen effect in one episode as "the magic of television."
In 1967 a special edition of a magazine was printed up about Mr. Welk with wonderful stories about his entire career, and magnificent photos of his pre-tv days as well as pictures of persons in his band and show. Jayne Walton Rosen was in many of those photos.
During its network run, "The Lawrence Welk Show" aired on ABC on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. (Eastern Time). In fact, Lawrence headlined two weekly prime time shows on ABC for three years. From 1956 to 1958, he hosted a show entitled Top Tunes and New Talent, which aired on Monday nights. The series moved to Wednesdays in the Fall of 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. However, it continued on as a syndicated show on 250 stations across the country (including many ABC affiliates, but at an earlier time), until the final original show was produced in 1982.
Mr Welk, his wife, Fern, and Jayne Rosen stayed very close friends, and Jane was often invited to his ranch. She was with Fern when Lawrence became ill and passed on.
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., ended up marrying fellow "Lawrence Welk Show" performer Tanya Falan (they later divorced). Welk left 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 LA. One of his great grand children, Nate Fredricks, enjoys the same love for music as his great grandfather did as he plays guitar and is in a band.
Known as an excellent businessman, the maestro, thanks to wise investments in real estate and music publishing, was the second wealthiest entertainer in Hollywood, the wealthiest being Bob Hope. Today (2009) as one travels from Victorville to San Diego on I-15 one passes by many properties that Welk either owned at one time or helped develop.
After retiring his show and from the road in 1982, the maestro continued to air reruns of his shows which were repackaged first for syndication and starting in 1986 for public television. Welk also starred and produced a pair of Christmas specials in 1984 and 1985.
In 1994, he was inducted into the International Polka Music Hall Of Fame.
Has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6613-1/2 Hollywood Blvd.
His 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 the maestro and promoted heavily by him on the show, is still named for Welk. Formerly known as "Lawrence Welk Village", the Welk Resort and Champagne Village are just off Interstate 15 north of Escondido, California, about 55miles northeast of San Diego. Lawrence Welk Village was where Welk actually lived in a rather affluent "cottage". There are many other homes like this in this community in which notables such as John Wayne lived or came to stay to get away from Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as folks from his show who lived there, not to mention people in the Hollywood area who also owned or have owned property there. The Village has strict security. The resort is open to the public and contains two golf courses, dozens of upper class timeshares, and a theatre containing a museum of Welk's life. The Welk Resort Theatre performs live broadway musicals year round.
Welk was the general partner in a commercial real estate development located at 100 Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica, CA. 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."
His organization, The Welk Group, consists of his resort communities in Branson and Escondido; Welk Syndication which is responsible for broadcasting 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 the actual stars from the television series such as Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell, Anacani and Big Tiny Little.