Bandleader Lawrence Welk Dies; TV's 'Champagne Music' Conductor

Weil, Martin. "Bandleader Lawrence Welk Dies; TV's 'Champagne Music' Conductor." Washington Post, 19 May 1992, sec. D7.

Lawrence Welk holds a poster promoting his show in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1967.

Bandleader Lawrence Welk, the North Dakota-born accordion player whose bubbly "champagne music" and indefatigably wholesome style made his long-running television program an American cultural landmark, has died at age 89.

A spokeswoman told the Associated Press that Mr. Welk, whose shows have been television fixtures since 1955, died at home May 17 in Santa Monica, Calif., with family members gathered around. He had been suffering from pneumonia, the spokeswoman said.

A man who got his start at North Dakota barn dances and spent years on ballroom bandstands across the country, he was known for a friendly demeanor, simple melodies and unswerving dedication to giving large and admiring family audiences the kind of entertainment they wanted and understood.

Sophisticates might have found corniness in Mr. Welk's easy-listening, easy-to-watch style, but for many Americans it was, in the artlessly enthusiastic phrase he made popular, "wunnerful, wunnerful."

The "a-one, a-two, a-three" cue line for which he was known helped to spread his fame even beyond the millions who tuned in to his weekly shows that appeared on ABC from 1955 through 1971.

When the network canceled the show, it was not because his audience had become any less devoted to his 27-piece band, but because they were older and considered less desirable to advertisers.

A home-taught musician who worked to overcome shyness in his early career, Mr. Welk became a prosperous businessman who syndicated his show after the network dropped it. The last of the original Lawrence Welk shows went on the air April 18, 1982, giving him 27 years as a first-run performer. Since then he has been seen in reruns.

The accented English that he spoke throughout his career came to Mr. Welk honestly. His parents were born in Alsace, now part of France but once part of Germany. In 1892 they came to this country to farm in Strasburg, N.D.

In the remote, agricultural community, Mr. Welk spoke as much German as English as a boy, and he dropped out of school in the fourth grade.

An accordion that was a family heirloom and occasionally played by his father, Ludwig, helped whet an early interest in music.

Mr. Welk obtained his own instrument as a teenager, playing at farm weddings and other community events until he reached 21. Turning his back on farm life, although not on its values of hard work and discipline, Mr. Welk went off to seek his fortune through music.

Along with the inevitable one-night stands came appearances on radio station WNAX in Yankton, S.D. By 1927, his six-piece band, L.W.'s Hotsy Totsy Boys, had become regulars.

After he married in 1930, he tried to cut back on travel by turning to business, becoming successively the manager of a hotel, a restaurant and a music store.

His autobiography, the aptly titled "Wunnerful, Wunnerful," traces "champagne music" to a broadcast from a Pittsburgh hotel in which a radio announcer reported the message of Mr. Welk's fan mail: "They say that dancing to your music is like sipping champagne."

About the same time, Mr. Welk also composed his theme song, "Bubbles in the Wine."

Although Mr. Welk's musical style continually was cited for a frothy lightness characteristic of champagne, the bandleader himself was said to neither smoke nor drink.

Smooth and sweetly melodic, his music was heard increasingly throughout the country in the 1930s and 1940s, as his band expanded in its size and reputation.

In his early days, shyness and self-consciousness about his heavily accented English and lack of formal education made him a reluctant master of ceremonies for his band.

According to one account, he was stunned to be offered $l,750 a week by a Milwaukee theater manager. Even so, he said, he could not serve as emcee.

When the manager doubled the offer, however, Mr. Welk jumped at it. "For $3,500," he exclaimed, "I vill talk."

By 1946, the band had become popular on the West Coast at the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, Calif. In 1951, he began four highly successful years on a Los Angeles television station.

Even so, it was said, ABC was dubious about big bands' network broadcast appeal. But a spokesman for one of Mr. Welk's sponsors said he threatened to cancel his other two shows if the network didn't take Mr. Welk.

ABC put "The Lawrence Welk Show" on the air July 2, 1955. Ratings started low the first week, but quickly zoomed upwards. The show became a Saturday night institution for many Americans.

Modest and unassuming, Mr. Welk could shrug and explain to reporters, "Just luck, I guess."

But Mr. Welk also showed a deeper understanding of his success. He clung to the formula that had served well on local television in Los Angeles. The performers on the show appeared to be members of a family. The musical numbers were brief. Arrangements were simple.

There was ballroom dancing, the waltz and the foxtrot, to tunes that encouraged listeners in living rooms throughout the nation to leave their couches and try a few steps themselves.

"Our band is called corny and sentimental," he said on one occasion. "It is my experience that people like a certain amount of both."

Once he confided to an interviewer that he was something of a "rhythm man" and that he was even "a Dixieland man at heart."

Good taste also was important to Mr. Welk. His shows always included a "champagne lady," but one left in 1959 in a dispute over the length of her hemlines.

One important attraction of the show was Mr. Welk's own obvious enthusiasm for it.

"There's no greater joy than standing in front of a band and having it play to perfection," he said.

In addition to performing, which he had abandoned in the late 1980s, Mr. Welk had profitable interests in recording, music publishing and California real estate.

He and his wife, Fern, had three children, Shirley Jean, Donna Lee and Lawrence Jr.

Controversy erupted recently when Congress considered granting $500,000 to Welk's home town in North Dakota to build a museum of German-Russian heritage and foster tourism. The Associated Press reported that the grant, eventually withdrawn, was challenged as pork barrel politics. Refurbishment of Welk's birthplace, a related project, used private funds.

Reprinted with permission of the Washington Post.

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