Lawrence Welk: 'Uh-One and Uh-Two...'

Winistorfer, Jo Ann. "Lawrence Welk: 'Uh-One and Uh-Two...'" North Dakota Living, May 2002, 30.

"Uh-one and uh two..." With those words and a wave of his baton, legendary bandleader Lawrence Welk, North Dakota's most famous native son, prompts his "champagne music makers" to play another song. As they pour out their mellow music via horns, windwinds, strings and voices, the TV cameras pan the audience as couples twirl around the dance floor to the tune of two-steps and waltzes. Sometimes Lawrence himself, setting aside his baton, dances the polka with a pretty girl.

From humble beginnings, Lawrence Welk grew to be an American cultural icon whose music touched the lives of millions of people. "The Lawrence Welk Show" is the longest-running musical variety show in television history -- "an unprecedented record," according to CNN's Larry King, who saluted the show's 50 years on television on his "Larry King, Live" program on April 5.

Humble beginnings

From an early age, Lawrence Welk demonstrated an aptitude for music. Born March 11, 1903, in a sod house, he was the sixth of nine children of Ludwig and Christina Welk, Germans from Russia immigrants who homesteaded just north of Strasburg, North Dakota.

Lawrence was born into a musical family. In his autobiography, "Wunnerful, Wunnerful," he recalls that "my earliest clear memory is crawling toward my father who was holding his accordion. I can still recall the wonder and delight I felt when he let me press my fingers on the keys and squeeze out a few waving notes."

Lawrence had only a fourth-grade education, and spoke no English as a youth. Music, it seems, was his first language; German, his second. When he later learned English, his thick German brogue became one of his trademarks.

By the time Lawrence turned 17, he was determined to make music his career.He persuaded his father to lend him $400 for a piano accordion, in exchange for working the farm for four years. During this period of servitude, he played for numerous weddings and barn dances. After putting in his time on the farm, Lawrence left home on his 21st birthday to pursue his dream.

Lawrence's first job ranged from selling pianos (he never sold one!) to playing his accordion in other bands and variety shows. He toured for a time with a troupe of performing artists, playing his accordion and acting in dramatic sketches. Life on the road meant travel over rough roads during all kinds of weather, and sometimes making one's bed in a cornfield.

Lawrence soon established his own orchestra, playing at fairs, carnivals, theaters and dance pavilions around the Midwest. At one point, Lawrence hired new musicians when his old ones quit, thinking the band would never amount to anything.

In 1931, Lawrence married Fern Renner, a nursing student he met in Yankton, South Dakota. They would eventually have three children: Shirley (1932), Donna (1937), and Larry Jr. (1940).

The band (under various names through the years) soon graduated to engagements at ballrooms of leading hotels across the country. This often meant extended absences from home. "Home" for Lawrence ranged from Omaha to Chicago. The family eventually settled in Southern California.

Down to business

Lawrence had a creative mind and a keen business sense. He also had good intuition, and a solid sense of what his audience liked to hear. His priority was always to please his listeners/viewers while providing them with wholesome entertainment.

Welk was one of the first band leaders to use radio as a source of publicity in the 1920s and 1930s. His music cheered listeners during the Depression and the war years. In 1951, his regular radio shows transferred to television. In 1955, his show was switched to the ABC network, where it aired for 16 years. This was followed by 11 years in syndication.

Besides television and live ballroom performances, the "champagne music maker" also cut a number of records, including "Calcutta," which topped the charts for 11 weeks in 1961.

The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the first to break the race barrier--beginning with black dancer Arthur Duncan. Since then, the show has featured music representing all races, religions and cultures. Musicians, often dressed in costumes, acted out their musical numbers.

Over the years, TV audiences welcomed members of Lawrence's musical family into their homes: performers such as the champagne Music Lady (there were several over the years), the Lennon Sisters, tenor Joe Feeney, dancers Bobby Burgess and Cissy King, and ragtime piano player Jo Ann Castle. Myron Floren replaced Lawrence as the band's official accordion player, and later as its director.

Honored by his state

Lawrence Welk was always proud to tell his listeners and fans that he was from North Dakota. In turn, his home state bestowed him with honors.

In 1961, he received the state's highest honor by being the first recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. In 1965, he received an honorary doctorate of music from North Dakota State University.

Lawrence Welk's birthplace in Strasburg has been restored and is now a visitor's center celebrating the life of the famous bandleader.

Lawrence died of pneumonia at his home in Santa Monica, California, on May 17, 1992, the year the restoration was completed. He was 89. His music, however, lives on, delighting audiences during weekly television shows and at performances at the Champagne Theatre in Branson, Missouri.

Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Living.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller