Lawrence Welk Left the Farm to Please
People With Music
"Lawrence Welk Left the Farm to Please People With Music." Watertown Public Opinion, 1983.
The following was written by Mr. Welk especially for Public Opinion
life is music, and always has been. They tell me I tried to make
a violin out of an old box and a few strands of horsehair when
I was only about three years of age. That’s hazy in my memory
but I vividly recall another time when I was very small and my
father let me press the keys of his push-button accordion and
squeeze out a few wavering notes! How I loved it! I think I knew
right then that I wanted to make music my life.
I was born on March 11, 1903 on a farm near Strasburg,
N.D., the sixth of eight children born to Ludwig and Christina
Welk who had emigrated from Odessa, Russia at the turn of the
century. They were real pioneers. Father built a sod house and
homesteaded the land, and our parents taught all us children to
love our country.
The biggest holiday of the year was always the Fourth
of July when each of us would be given a dime as our yearly allowance.
I used to spend hours trying to figure out ways to stretch that
dime, and I might say that lesson really took! As I look back
I realize that we lived a very difficult life in many ways, but
it was also truly joyful, filled with love and warmth and family
fun and always—music.
Father was a gifted accordionist—the neighbors
used to say he had the best sense of rhythm in the family and
he was always in great demand for barn dances and parties—and
my mother had a true and lovely soprano voice. That may be why
I have always loved a clear high voice such as Champagne Lady
Norma Zimmer has. To me, it is the essence of femininity.
Strasburg was a German speaking community, and German
was the language spoken in the Welk household, which accounts
for the accent which some people still believe is an affectation.
I was so self-conscious about my English that for the first fifteen
years in the music business I refused to say a word in public.
When I finally got up enough nerve to open my mouth
in front of an audience, my first words were, “a-one-and-a-two”....
I did my share of chores as I grew up (with time
out for an illness which put me in bed for nearly a year and ended
my formal education at the fourth grade), but I heartily disliked
working on a farm. I lived for the time I could earn my living
as a musician, and finally talked my father into buying me a $400
accordion so I could prepare for it.
I was seventeen at the time, and the deal was that
I would stay on the farm till I was 21 and turn over all the money
I earned playing for dances and parties to the family. Letting
me leave the farm for the life of a musician was a difficult decision
for my father—he was afraid I’d lose my Catholic faith
in the world of show business—but he finally agreed.
He stuck to his side of the bargain, and I did too,
turning over everything I earned until my 21st birthday. Then
I took my prized accordion, a few clothes, and $3.49 in cash and
set out to conquer the world!
Father had predicted I’d be back within six
months looking for a good meal, and he was nearly correct. There
were times in the next few months when I was painfully hungry,
but I finally managed to get a little band together and play enough
dates so that I could return to the farm in grand style two years
later, driving a brand-new fully paid for car. It remains one
of the high spots of my life!
In 1925 I joined a group called “George T.
Kelly’s Peerless Entertainers” and was billed as the
“World’s Greatest Accordionist”...rather extravagant
billing, I must admit. By 1927 I had my own band, and our radio
career started at Yankton at WNAX, owned and operated by Gurney
Seed and Nursery Company (some of our detractors claim that some
corn still remains in our music).
We played at the station during the day, and at
ballrooms in neighboring states at night. To help maintain this
strenuous schedule, we inaugurated the “sleeper bus,”
later adopted by many name bands.
The twenties saw my little band growing and playing
dance dates for miles around. And in 1931 I made the smartest
move of my life. I talked a young student nurse named Fern Renner
into marrying me. It has been solid marriage—we will celebrate
our 52nd wedding anniversary on April 18th. Fern and I have been
blessed with three children and 10 grandchildren and she has been
the best wife anyone could have.
During the thirties my band—now grown to about
10 pieces—operated out of Omaha, Neb. And on New Year’s
Eve in 1938 we finally played the engagement that catapulted us
into the ranks of big time. We opened at the William Penn Hotel
in Pittsburgh and, to our great joy, discovered that both the
critics and the dancers liked us.
We had a nightly radio broadcast from the hotel
and soon letters began coming in commenting that our music was
light, bright, frothy...like champagne. We took the cue and began
calling ourselves, the “Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.”
Our girl singer, Lois Best, was the first Champagne
Lady, and all the boys became Champagne Music Makers.
The forties saw us centered in Chicago where we
played most of the year at the beautiful Trianon Ballroom, and
Fern and the children and I settled down in nearby River Forest.
It was a wonderful time for all of us—I could be home for
dinner a good part of the time, and for a bandleader who had spent
months on the road, that was a real luxury.
By the end of the forties, however, Big Bands were
beginning to lose their appeal and ballrooms all over the country
were closing. I took the boys and went back on the road again,
trying to decide the best things to do. We played some engagements
in Portland, Ore. And then in Claremont, Calif. and then a six-week
engagement at the Aragon Ballroom on Lick Pier in Santa Monica.
Klaus Landsberg, manager of KTLA, a local television
station, put us on the air opening night, after a late evening
movie. As I recall, it was nothing really special. We played our
usual arrangements for the dancers...I danced with some of the
ladies, joked with the guest, did our usual show.
I really didn’t pay too much attention to
that telecast. But the next morning I drove to San Fernando Valley
for a golf game and as I was having a cup of coffee at the lunch
counter, people began coming up to me to say they’d seen
us on TV the night before and how much they enjoyed it. By the
time the 20th person had grabbed my arm and said he was coming
down to the ballroom because it looked as if we were having such
a great time, a flash of insight, an absolutely firm feeling that
the boys and I had ‘come home’ –that television
was the thing we had been looking for all our lives.
I went home and said to Fern, “I think we’ve
finally found our place in life.”
That was over 30 years ago. In the intervening years
we have been on TV every week (four years locally, and then 27
years over ABC and later in syndication)...and we are still on
the air every week with our new “Memories With Lawrence
I’m supposed to be retired, you know, but
I guess I’ve been in business too long to give it up entirely!
Taping a weekly show is a bit beyond our capabilities though,
so now I choose one of my favorite shows from the past, and add
my thoughts and comments to it, sometimes inviting one of our
Musical Family to chat along with me.
We shoot most of these new additions at our Lawrence
Welk Village near Escondido where we have a residential homes
park, a theatre, a restaurant and a motel. Fern and I spend a
great deal of time in our little Village which has absolutely
the best climate in the world, and playing accordion for our visitors
in the restaurant keeps me just busy enough to keep my hand in!
I’m still very close to my Musical Family
and we share so many wonderful memories! Sometimes people ask
me the reason for our unusual success—27 years on TV is
something of a record, or so they tell me. Well, apart from the
wonderful and talented people in our Musical Family, I think the
basic reason is that I was always able to earn my living doing
the thing I love most in the world.
From the beginning, as long as I could play my accordion
and entertain people and they seemed to enjoy it—I was in
heaven! I’m nearly 80 now, and I still feel the same way.
Then, too, I have always been grateful to my parents
for the strong religious faith and moral grounding they gave me.
I believe that it helped us on the straight, narrow path to lasting
success instead of going for the quick buck and easy journey,
and I’m grateful for that.
And I’m very very glad I grew up in the heart
of America, the Dakotas! The loyalty and faith and friendship
of the folks in that area gave our little band wonderful support,
and is something I will always cherish. I’ve been a lucky