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
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
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
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
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Living.