Lawrence Welk was the biggest and best square America ever had. Today (03.10.15) is the 112th anniversary of his birth to sodbusters in Strasburg, North Dakota.
By Don Surber – Cross-posted at AskMarion –> The reruns of the Welk shows on PBS were the only thing that made my father-in-law, who just passed away from Alzheimer’s, smile and remember his parents for a short time.
Serious music critics dismissed it as champagne music. Light music people danced to. Accordionist and orchestra leader Lawrence Welk embraced the idea. He wrote a bright and fluffy instrumental called “Bubbles in the Wine,” which would be his orchestra’s theme song until he retired his baton nearly 50 years later.
He was a square, as in square deal and eating three square meals a day. The only thing artificial about him was the polyester in his suits. His message was to have a good time. People did. Hence the left mocked him.
From 1955 to 1971, he owned Saturday nights on ABC. His hour-long musical variety show featured no comedians (for fear of someone making an off-color joke), cheap props, and plenty of dance music. The singers used something all too rare these days: Harmony.
When ABC executives got bored with his elderly audience (his main sponsors were a laxative named Serutan, Geritol… and Dodge) he did a last show in which he thanked them, and moved on. He started his own syndication network, signing up 135 ABC affiliates, 29 NBC affiliates, 27 CBS affiliates and enough independent stations to have network about as large as ABC. He called it the Lawrence Welk Network. It wasn’t his ego, it was his company’s brand.
The new network made its nationwide debut just one week after the final broadcast of “The Lawrence Welk Show” on the ABC-TV network. ABC had announced its cancellation of the Welk show after 16 seasons in the Spring of 1971. Lawrence Welk and his producers had anticipated the network’s eventual cancellation of his long-running weekly, one-hour musical variety series. What’s remarkable, though, is that within 90 days, Lawrence Welk, at age 68, became the first national television figure to be personally responsible for the largest weekly syndication network at that point in time in television history.
The show would go on for another dozen years until at 79 he retired in 1982.
He was born on March 10, 1903, in Strasburg, North Dakota, to German immigrants from the Ukraine, the sixth of their eight children. They lived in a wagon covered in sod for insulation. His parents apparently never learned English. Lawrence Welk was poor and he had a poor education, but he worked hard and he had a dream.
In 1967, when Lawrence Welk was at the height of his popularity, Maurice Condon of TV Guide trekked to Welk’s hometown, where he found store owner Pius Kraft, who remembered well young Lawrence Welk.
“How did Lawrence get started on the accordion? Aha, you should have heard his father, Ludwig. Now he could play the accordion. When they came over here they had the clothes they wore, no more. Except for the accordion. It had been in the Welk family three, maybe four generations.”
“Farming was hard then. Up with the sun, to bed with the sun. But when there was a wedding! In those days any respectable wedding took three days-they were real weddings! And there was Ludwig Welk with the family accordion, playing as long as there was anyone left to dance!”
“Lawrence plays the accordion very good. But then, Ludwig taught him. You know how Lawrence got his own accordion? It cost $15 and he didn’t have $15. That was a lot of money then, he was just a boy. So he got the money by trapping. Muskrat, beaver, badger. He skinned them, sold the pelts, paid for the accordion.”
“I tell you, Lawrence has gone a long way, for a boy who had little education. He never finished fourth grade. Went to the boarding school over there; the Ursuline nuns used to teach there. Then he got sick, for a long time, never got back to school.”
“I did hear that Lawrence took a correspondence course with a music academy in Minneapolis. He got a diploma in piano tuning. It’s a good thing for a man to have a trade to fall back on, but I don’t suppose he’s ever had to tune pianos for a living.”
His sister, Anna Mary Mattern, told Maurice Condon a slightly different tale about that first accordion: It was a rhinestone-studded piano keyboard instrument. She said, “He told Pa if he would buy it, he — Lawrence — would repay the purchase price of $200 over a four-year period, out of his earnings. My father agreed, Lawrence got the accordion, and he paid it back in two years!”
But the reason that in 1967 Lawrence Welk, then 64 years of age, did not tune pianos because he worked so hard and so long as a musician and orchestra leader. His first “orchestra” was a four-man band. They played weddings and such. They landed a gig in New Orleans, but a blizzard socked them in Yankton, South Dakota. That turned into a break for him. He got a show on the local radio station, WNAX. But later his band members rebelled.
From accordion historian Jay Landers:
At one point Welk’s entire band walked out on him and said his persistent bookings “in the sticks” and his German accent held back the band! Out of that despair, Lawrence Welk decided that his band needed a “sponsor”, and he contacted a dealer on the West Coast and bought wholesale lots of chewing gum called Honolulu Fruit Gum.
Lawrence Welk made more money selling Honolulu Fruit Gum in ballrooms, drugstores and restaurants in the Midwestern states, than he did playing music! He bought it for a fraction over a penny per package and retailed it for a nickel. His band bus was painted with “Lawrence Welk and His Honolulu Fruit Orchestra”. The band wore (and hated) white full-sleeved shirts and paper flower leis when they played. There was no air conditioning and when it was hot and sticky the color in the leis would run and at the end of the evening the members of the band would be wet and every color of the rainbow! Financially, though, there were big statewide contests for Miss Honolulu Fruit Gum, and contestants were often sponsored by service clubs or the Chamber of Commerce, which was great for the band and the music side of the business. Eventually, interest in the contests diminished. Worse, ballroom managers complained about the dance floors being knee-deep in gum wrappers, and gum stuck to walls and floors, which often had to be re-sanded and re-polished.
Ah, Lawrence Welk invented bubble gum music. And music videos, as he recorded a few musical shorts in and around 1940. But so did many groups. A tax on big band entertainment to support World War II ended the Big Band Era as it drove prices high. Television was coming.
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.
Gregory Hines said he secretly watched Lawrence Welk and was inspired to become a tap-dancer. While people busted Lawrence Welk’s chops for having only one black performer, that was one more than many other variety shows at the time had. While some cast members left — he fired his first Champagne Lady for showing too much leg — the loyalty of his musical family was incredible. A story in his Wikipedia entry explained why: He trusted them.
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.”
Calcutta was his only No. 1 hit.
Lawrence Welk became a good businessman, developing real estate and as a music publisher. Later, Welk developed resorts. And his orchestra continues today in Lawrence Welk Theater in Branson, Missouri.
The secret to his success was there was nothing artificial added. His thick accent, which was once his shame, was part of his success. He was an endearing entertainer. He was everyone’s beloved uncle at a wedding. And he took weddings seriously. He and his wife married and stayed married for 61 years until his death. He was a devout Catholic — a daily communicant.
His malaprops were many, as English was after all his second language. Welk once said, “There are good days and there are bad days, and this is one of them.”
But he also said, “Never trust anyone completely but God. Love people, but put your full trust only in God.”
And he said, “Dreams do come true, even for someone who couldn’t speak English and never had a music lesson or much of an education.’
Lawrence Welk knew he was a lucky man to be an American, which gave him the chance to fulfill his potential.
But we who got to listen to him and his musical family, were truly blessed. I don’t do many entertainers in these vignettes, but Lawrence Welk was a giant. A square one, but a giant nevertheless.