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