Lawrence Welk, the cheery Strasburg, N.D., farm boy who became
America’s bubbly King of Champagne Music during 30 years
as a television bandleader, died Sunday night in his Santa Monica,
Calif., home. He was 89.
Welk, in declining health in recent years, was stricken with
pneumonia Sunday, said Shirley Fredricks, Welk’s daughter.
“Our family, except for my sister, who lives out of state,
were all with him,” she said. “He died very peacefully
and very sweetly.”
“Ah-one, ah-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful”
were Welk-isms that became part of America’s lexicon during
his decades on television, beginning with a local program in
Los Angeles in 1951. But success came to the self-taught maestro
only after he spent 25 years touring with his band, mostly in
His successful ABC program began in 1955. It was cancelled
in 1971 because sponsors thought the audience was too old, too
rural and too sedate. But Welk parlayed his popularity to form
an enormously popular syndicated program shown on nearly 250
stations in the United States and Canada.
Over the decades, Welk became, after Bob Hope, the second-wealthiest
performer in show business, and his band and production company
became the second-biggest tourist draw of Los Angeles, right
“The Lawrence Welk Show” ended on Feb. 25, 1982,
after 1,542 performances.
Even after retirement, Welk never left TV. His smiling presence
and brand of easy-listening, melodic dance tunes continued to
entertain millions of fans—mostly those of mature years—through
syndicated reruns and, since 1987, on public television.
“Lawrence Welk brought joy to millions and millions of
people,” North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl said Monday
night. “His wholesome music will continue to remind North
Dakotans, former North Dakotans and people all over this country
of the good old days. His music will live on for decades, and
he will not soon be forgotten.”
Welk’s failing health kept him from returning to North
Dakota in the past decade. But he once came regularly to the
state and to Strasburg, about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck.
He visited friends and family, play some golf and gave his time
to various causes.
Welk made a number of visits to Grand Forks and UND over the
years. In 1973, Welk served as a “visiting professor”
and led the University band in a Chester Fritz Auditorium concert
that packed the house.
Welk was the first recipient of North Dakota’s highest
honor, the Roughrider Award, in 1961.
“We wanted to honor somebody who was nationally known
to begin our award,” former Gov. William Guy recalled.
“Lawrence Welk was the ideal person. He was on of the
most kind and considerate people that I’ve ever known.”
Rep. Bryon Dorgan said he’d met Welk in the 1970s and
considers him “one of the great North Dakotans....a small-town
guy with very big ideas.”
His name was drawn into the national spotlight in 1990, but
in controversial fashion. Congress considered granting $500,000
to Welk’s hometown to help build a Germans from Russia
heritage museum and foster tourism. But the grant eventually
was withdrawn when it was cited as a supreme example of pork-barrel
A related project, the refurbishment of Welk’s birthplace,
was accomplished with private funds.
Welk, who accompanied his musicians with his accordion and
danced a graceful waltz with his Champagne Lady vocalist, never
wavered from the easy-listening, melodic style he started playing
in North Dakota.
Detractors called Welk’s music Mickey Mouse music dispensed
to geriatric audiences. But when swing, rock ‘n’
roll, bebop, progressive and other pop genres came and went,
Welk’s music always found an audience.
“We try to please our audience,” he told an interviewer
in 1964. “We try to bring it some joy, happiness and relaxation
and always to be in good taste—the kind of entertainment
that should come into the home.”
Welk’s accent came from his parents, Ludwig and Christina
Welk, who were born in Alsace-Lorraine, a region of present-day
France that was once part of Germany, and moved to Russia in
1878 to escape religious persecution. In 1892, they emigrated
to America and settled on a farm near Strasburg.
Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in his parents’
sod farmhouse. He was one of eight children. The boy dropped
out of the fourth grade to farm full time.
Ludwig Welk was a stern father, but at night he sometimes entertained
the children with an accordion that had been in the family for
generations. As a youngster, Lawrence practiced on the accordion
and yearned for his own. He bought a cheap one, but it soon
fell apart. The boy then set his sights on a $400 model.
His father finally agreed—provided the boy would work
on the farm for four years and turn over all his earnings at
weddings and barn dances. At 21, Lawrence announced he was leaving
the farm for life as a musician. “You’ll be back,”
his father predicted. “You’ll be back just as soon
as you get hungry.”
After a tedious grind of playing one-night stands with pickup
bands, Welk formed a three-piece “Biggest Little Band
in America” to help inaugurate radio station WNAX in Yankton,
Over the years, Welk developed the style that would make him
famous: bouncing, effervescent, with a steady beat that invited
dancing. He found the name for it—“champagne music”—while
broadcasting from the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh in 1938.
The Welk band continued playing in some of the biggest hotels
and ballrooms across the country before appearing on Los Angeles
TV in 1951. High ratings led to a summer replacement show two
years later on ABC.
He and his wife, Fern, whom he married in 1931, made their
home in his Champagne Towers complex in Santa Monica.
In addition to his wife, Welk is survived by a son, Lawrence
Jr.; two daughters, Shirley Fredricks and Donna Mack; 10 grandchildren;
one great-granddaughter; and two sisters.
Reprinted with permission of Grand Forks Herald.
ah-two’ By 1973, when this photograph was taken,
Lawrence Welk was an established household name. However,
he still found time to return to his home state. Above,
he conducts the UND band.