Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

WELK, LAWRENCE (1903-1992)

The sixth of eight children, Lawrence Welk was born on a farm near Strasburg in southcentral North Dakota on March 11, 1903, to Ludwig and Christina Schwann Welk, German Russian immigrants from the Odessa region of the Ukraine. Throughout his career, Welk claimed that his lifelong frugality, work ethic, and strong Catholic Church ties were products of his impoverished and strictly disciplined upbringing. A largely self-taught musician, Welk quit school during the fourth grade, purchased his first piano accordion at age seventeen, and left the farm on his twentyfirst birthday to begin a career as a regional musician and dance band leader.

In 1926 he began his first significant fulltime job in South Dakota as an accordionist and actor with the Peerless Entertainers, a small traveling show led by George T. Kelly, the individual Welk credited with teaching him the basics of advertising, showmanship, and audience sensitivity. From 1927 to 1937 Welk traveled the Plains states with his own six- to ten-piece territory band under various names (Welk's Novelty Orchestra, the Hotsy-Totsy Boys, and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra), and from 1927 to 1934 they played live radio shows over WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. During this period his most notable and regular bookings were in the seven Tom Archer Ballrooms located in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. In 1931 he married Fern Renner in Yankton. They had three children: Shirley (b. 1932), Donna (b. 1937), and Lawrence Jr. (b. 1940).

In late 1937 Welk got his first national exposure under management of the Fredericks Brothers with broadcast performances at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. It was during this booking in early 1938 that he began distinguishing his musical style as "champagne music," and soon thereafter he had his own waltz-ballad, "You're My Home Sweet Home," rearranged as "Bubbles in the Wine," his signature theme for the remainder of his career. While at the William Penn he also hired the first of seven "champagne ladies" (Lois Best, 1938–40; Jayne Walton, 1940–45; Joan Mowery, 1945–47; Helen Ramsey, 1947– 49; Roberta Linn, 1949–53; Alice Lon, 1953–59; and Norma Zimmer, 1960–82). From 1940 to 1950 Welk's band was based in Chicago, where he most often played the Trianon Ballroom.

Welk moved his band in 1951 to the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica, California, and was featured from 1952 to 1955 on weekly broadcasts from the ballroom over KTLA television. In 1955 Welk began weekly national broadcasts over ABC. After ABC dropped the show in 1971, it continued in syndication until Welk's retirement in 1982. During the early years of this period Welk hired his most famous band member, accordionist Myron Floren (1950); his personal manager, Sam Lutz (1952); and his musical director, George Cates (1956). All three remained with him until his retirement. In 1956 he hired the four Lennon Sisters as featured singers, the first of a long line of young singers and dancers who would become part of his "musical family" over the next twenty-one years. In order to keep his now famous musical family intact (he paid only union scale salaries, a policy that never changed throughout his career), he initiated a unique profit-sharing plan in 1956 based in part on how long a member of the show remained with the organization.

After building his audience through years of live appearances, he maintained their loyalty as television viewers with the stylistic consistency of his programming, the personalized presentation of his musical family, his famous accent and misstatements, and his simple, North Dakota farm boy demeanor. Welk retired at the end of the 1982 season, and the decision was made not to continue the show without him. Even though his show never received a broadcast award, it remains the most watched and longest running program of its kind in television history. Reruns continue over public television stations. In 1994 Lawrence Jr. opened the Welk Theater and Resort in Branson, Missouri, where the shows are headlined by members of the original television cast. The Lawrence Welk Archive, which contains his scrapbooks, band arrangements, and memorabilia, is located at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Welk died on May 12, 1992, in Santa Monica, California.

Robert W. Groves North Dakota State University

Schwienher, William. Lawrence Welk: An American Institution. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980.

Welk, Lawrence. Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk, edited by Bernice McGeehan. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

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