50 Years on National Television: The Lawrence Welk Show

"50 Years on National Television: The Lawrence Welk Show." Lawrence Welk Show Musical Family News 1, no. 1: n.d., 1-5.

The Lawrence Welk Band as it was on July 2, 1955
Front Row: (L to R) Jimmy Roberts (singer), Myron Floren (accordionist), Lawrence Welk, Alice Lon (Champagne Lady), Rocky Rockwell (singer/band), and Dick Kesner (band). Second Row: (L to R) Dick Dale (singer/band), Curt Ramsey (singer/band/librarian), Larry Hooper (singer/band), Bill Page (band), and Johnny Klein (band). Third Row: (L to R) Jerry Burke (band), Orie Amodeo (band), Bob Lido (singer/band), and Buddy Merrill (band). Top Row: Barney Liddell (band), Aladdin (singer/band), Woody Guidry (band), Pete Lofthouse (band), Buddy Hayes (singer/band), Jack Martin (singer/band), George Aubry (band), and Norman Bailey, (band).

It had been a very long and difficult road for Lawrence Welk, the ambitious son of immigrant farmers in North Dakota. He had left the farm at age 21, a non-English-speaking, self-taught musician and dreamer, determined to have a career in show business. Within a few years, he had started his own small band and had begun to make a name for himself in the mid-west, traveling from town to town, doing one night stands, learning how to please every kind of crowd.

Through the 1930s and ‘40s, Lawrence Welk rode the crest of the Big Band Era, playing in ballrooms and nightclubs all across the country, including a high-profile appearance in New York City. His band was constantly in demand and they appeared regularly at the best hotels in Chicago and other major cities.

By the end of the forties, the future of the Big Bands looked grim. Television had severely cut into the crowds who went dancing on weekends and one by one, legendary bands began to fold. But Lawrence Welk was not a quitter and he looked for ways to keep his band together.

California Calls

The future was looking grim for the Aragon Ballroom on Lick Pier in Santa Monica, too.

Charlie Lick asked his dance hall manager, Pops Sadrup, to check the records for the band that had done the best for them and the Welk Band was at the top of the list. Pops arranged for Lawrence to play an engagement in May, 1951 and the hands of fate were now steadily moving Lawrence Welk toward his destiny.

It wasn’t long before the Welk Band was invited to be on KTLA, the local television station in Los Angeles. Lawrence and his manager, Sam Lutz, decided to try something new, in addition to gambling the $200 shooting expenses they had to pay the station!

Right from the beginning, it was a winning situation for everyone involved: the Aragon Ballroom began to get the large crowds it needed; KTLA had a popular television program and even began to pay the band for their services; and Lawrence Welk and his band were on their way to becoming famous statewide, playing to bigger crowds than they had ever imagined, and learning the television business at the same time.

Dodge Comes On Board

Within a few years, the Welk Show was popular enough to attract good sponsors on their own. An enthusiastic advertising executive named Jack Minor had been assigned the task of finding a show for the Southern California Dodge Dealers to sponsor and his search turned up three program choices: Connie Haines, Xavier Cugat and Lawrence Welk. The dealers unanimously chose Welk.

Lawrence Welk’s first words on national television were “Thank you my good friends and a pleasant hello. It’s indeed a pleasure to be with you and we’d like to express our thanks to the Dodge Dealers of America for giving us this opportunity to play for you. We’re very happy about it so may we ‘Say It With Music.’” (The first musical number) Lawrence and Alice Lon waltzed to “Tres Jolie” on the first show and it proved to be so popular, they danced together on every show.

In his book, Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Lawrence wrote : “We were jubilant! We had a local television show with a nationally known sponsor and a nightly appearance at the Aragon Ballroom which seemed to get more successful all the time.”

It took a few years to accomplish but the end result was inevitable: The Lawrence Welk Show would be on coast-to-coast television, with Dodge as the sponsor. With the help of Jack Minor, Dodge executive Bert Carter and the up-and-coming producer, Don Fedderson, Lawrence Welk was offered a 13-week run as a summer replacement show. There were no guarantees for their future on national television but Lawrence and his band were willing to give it their best shot!

Ready, Willing & Able

Lawrence was excited and very nervous. He repeatedly offered just to lead the band and leave the talking to professional announcers but Don and Jack wouldn’t hear of it. Dodge had approved the Welk Show and that included the bandleader with the charming foreign accent. About six weeks before the show, there was a high level discussion about adding dancing girls and a big name comedian but Lawrence said “no” to those changes and held his ground. His show would be their own tried-and-true formula.

In Mr. Welk’s Words

“The great day began coming closer and closer. I planned and re-planned the opening show a dozen times. Alice Lon switched ideas for her costume daily. All of us were eager, anxious, thrilled at the chance, impatient, literally counting the days till we could begin.

“July 2, 1955, I walked into the ABC studios to find an air of barely controlled panic on the rehearsal stage. Everyone was on edge, but determined to do his best. It was boiling hot and since there was no air conditioning, the stagehands had dragged in heavy tubs of ice to and set up huge wind fans to blow across them to counteract the tremendous heat from the television lights.

“We were scheduled to go on air at five thirty Pacific Daylight Savings Time, and by four o’clock Alice was fully dressed and ready. She must have checked her makeup a hundred times, posing and pirouetting in front of the mirrors.

“We took turns sitting down at a battered old wooden table topped with a mirror and light bulbs and waited while the harried makeup men slapped some dark brown pancake powder on us. Then we changed into blue dress shirts – at that stage of the television game, shirts had to be blue in order to photograph white – and all of us wore Kleenex tucked around our collars so the makeup wouldn’t run and we looked like a bunch of penguins.

Musical selection #11 featured Lawrence and Myron Floren playing their favorite accordion duet, “12th Street Rag.” Myron played with the Welk Band from 1950 to 1982.

“It was time. Our producer, Ed Sobel was in the production booth with his eyes glued to the clock and his hand up. I stood watching him, clutching my baton tightly, almost frozen with fear, wondering how I had ever gotten into this spot and wondering how I could get out of it. Suddenly, his hand came down and I gave the downbeat to the boys. The strains of our theme song filled the air and flowed right through me. My terrible nervousness left me. As always, once the music began, I came fully to life and I was swept along through the rest of the program. It remains one of the high spots of my life!”

The Players

The cast, as seen on the front cover of this newsletter, included 21 people and Lawrence Welk. Happily, there are six of those musicians still with us today (Myron Floren, Dick Dale, Buddy Merrill, Rocky Rockwell, Woody Guidy, and Bill Page). They, and some of the behind-the-scenes people, have shared their memories of that momentous evening.

The first show ended vocally with “Goodnight Ladies” sung by Larry Hooper, Jimmy Roberts, Alice Lon, Aladdin and Bob Lido. Alice was the Champagne Lady from 1953-57; Aladdin was with the show from 1953-67; Larry was with the band from 1948-82; Bob, from 1953-82; and Jim, from 1954 to 1982. The theme song, “Bubbles in the Wine,” began and ended the show.

The other musicians and singers were with the Welk Band for many years and deserve a special word of gratitude for their outstanding talent and charismatic presence on camera. Lawrence always chose the best and the brightest, and for many of them, it was only illness that ended their years on the Welk Show.

People such as Myron Floren, Larry Hooper, Barney Liddell, Jimmy Roberts, Dick Dale, Bob Lido, and Jim Hobson were with the television show from the beginning until 1982, when it transitioned out of syndication and onto public television. Their long careers with Lawrence Welk are a testament to the way they felt about him and his unique philosophy of musical entertainment.

Jim Hobson

“When I was contacted by Sam Lutz to work on the show, I was a young guy directing shows on KLAC, Channel 13, including the ‘Liberace Show.’ I have to admit that I had never seen The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA! I was up-to-my ears in work and didn’t have much free time to watch TV. In spite of Lawrence telling me I combed my hair too close to my head, I decided to accept the challenge of directing a brand new, untested show, with a big band and singers.

“ABC decided that we would shoot the show in Studio E, which was an old barn of a place and pretty much rundown-at-the-hells. It was originally the old Warner Brothers Studio where they had made Phantom of the Opera, and had been hastily reconverted into a makeshift television studio for use in the forties and early fifties. It could seat about 350 people.

“All the lights necessary for a TV production hung from newly installed beams which fit in beneath the catwalks crisscrossing the cavernously high ceilings, several feet below the roof top. The place was so old that there were holes in the roof, and the sun shone through all the crevices, lighting up spots that shouldn’t have been lighted up. It was going to be more of a challenge than I thought.

“We rehearsed at the Aragon Ballroom for a couple weeks and I sat in front of the bandstand, watching the musical numbers, writing down the vocals, trying to get to know the cast and planning how to shoot them. I would have three cameras and my Associate Director would hand-write all the notes for each man on 3 x 5 cards with holes punched in them so they could hang on the cameras. There were about 1,500 shots per show. We had a 12-ton Chapman crane camera that the cameraman literally had to drive.

“When we finally got into the studio, I walked around with the lighting guy and tried to tell him what we needed. I had about 10 minutes to stage each musical number, at least it seemed that way. There must have been a crew of about 60 men, including carpenters, stagehands, prop guys and engineers. We were all learning what to do on the show at the same time, under the same pressure.

“About 45 minutes from airtime, I looked around and there was no audience! I couldn’t believe it. I had seen the crowd outside. After a few frantic minutes, I discovered that they had been seated in the wrong studio and I had them moved into Studio E.

“I directed the show from a control room on the second floor, seeing only what the cameras were shooting. My great stage manager kept things under control as best he could. The show was seen LIVE on the east coast and the kinescope was shown a few hours later on the west coast.

“After all my work pulling the crew together, I thought the next week would be a lot easier. Well, ABC took almost my entire team to the brand new and much heralded Disneyland, to shoot the opening festivities. They are 50 years old this year, too. I had to do the whole thing all over again with a crew borrowed from NBC!”

Lou Sanman

“I was the First Unit Manager at ABC and it was my job to convince Mr. Welk that Studio E would work just fine for his show. His biggest concern was that he would be close to the audience and have good eye contact with them. He wanted a dance floor, too, so I told him we would remove the first 3 or 4 rows of seats.

“After about an hour, I finally won him over and in comes Al Jarvis, a local disc jockey, who said, ‘Don’t do it, Lawrence. This studio’s no good!’ It was the only studio we had available so I had to start all over again to get him to agree to using it, and it took another hour! I worked with the Welk Show for two years and then I got a promotion and had to leave the show.”

Myron Floren

“We were considered something of a curiosity by the other people at the ABC studio, but I felt that we were destined to be an even bigger hit on the network than we were on local television in Los Angeles. Jack Minor came to see the final rehearsal and Ok’d all the numbers. My solo was ‘Tico Tico,’ still one of my favorites.

“The show was panned pretty badly by the critics but the public response was very encouraging. Once again, we all heard Lawrence say, ‘Let them print what they want as long as they spell your names correctly.’

“Jack Minor (our great supporter) felt that we could use a boost in the ratings so he arranged a musical tour of the country to promote the show. We would appear in conjunction with the local Dodge dealers in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Philadelphia on our first tour. Everywhere we went, the crowds were tremendous and the dealers were wild with enthusiasm. They met us at the airport in each city and drove us to our show location in a police-escorted motorcade of Dodge cars with our names printed on the sides. Our ratings improved steadily after each tour. At the end of the summer, Dodge decided that they would continue to sponsor us through the winter and then would decide if the arrangement would become permanent. Well, you know what happened! The rest is history!”

Rocky Rockwell

“In those days, I just couldn’t wait to get in front of the camera! I was completely free and easy in front of it. Lawrence used to say, ‘With Rocky, when the red light comes on, you never know what’s going to happen!’

The exuberant Rocky Rockwell charmed the audience with his signature song, “I Love Girls,” #7 on the program. Near the end of the number, two girls dressed in cardigan sweaters and circle skirts, ran over to give him a hug. Rocky was with the Lawrence Welk Band from 1951 to 1962.

50th Anniversary

“When we found out we were going to be on national television, we were really excited. Lawrence kept saying, ‘Be on your toes boys’ and sometimes his ‘B’ sounded like a ‘P’ and we always had a good laugh about that and so did he!

“I was actually about to bust my pants, I was so excited. I had the pleasure of singing my favorite song, ‘I Love Girls,’ on the first show and it kind of became my signature number. Later that summer, when we would go out on tour and be riding in a parade in a Dodge convertible, office girls would lean out of their windows and shout our names. They’d say, ‘Hey Rocky, do you like girls!’ I just loved it.

“It was a real beautiful time! Here I am, 82 years old, and people still recognize this silly face of mine.”

Bill Page

Bill Page, who played with the band from 1951 to 1965, was featured in Song #17, “Unchained Melody.” The bandstands were painted with the Dodge winged insignia used on the front of the cars, with the initials “LW” in the center. There were only four commercials in the one hour time period.

“Being on television in the early days was really something. Even when we were just on local TV, we had fan clubs. There was the big Lawrence Welk fan club run by Mary Lee Schaefer and mine was called ‘The Goldenbergs’ because it was founded by Eileen Goldenberg. It really got large after we went on ABC.

“We were pretty excited during that first show on a major network. We felt like it was our Big Break and we would do anything to help it go. I remember we went down to Texas to try to improve our ratings. Dodge had some big event at the Cotton Bowl and we all went out there and each one of us picked up a brand new white convertible with our name printed on a big sings hanging on each side. We drove downtown in a big parade and we felt like a million bucks in those Dodges. We had to give them back, of course, but it was fun while it lasted. Later on, we each got a new car every year and that was the best!

“My specialty was playing multiple instruments in a single song, sometimes as many as 10 or 12. My favorite memory is playing two clarinets at the same time, while water skiing down in Florida, with Myron Floren driving the boat!

“After I left the Welk Show in 1965, I got a lot of great jobs because Lawrence introduced me to everybody. I worked for Judy Garland, Barry Manilow for 5 years, Frank Gorshin, Ted Mack, Name That Tune, and appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show a lot. I’ve worked all these years and I’m just now thinking about retiring. Just thinking...”

Dick Dale

“You are asking me to remember the first show? I can barely remember last week, but I’ll do my best!”

“There was a lot of excitement to say the least! To do a show from a real studio, after doing them from the stage of the Aragon Ballroom really seemed like a movie into ‘The Big Time.’

“All of the spouses were invited to make sure we had a good audience”

“We thought that it was great to be going coast to coast and everyone called all of their relatives to make sure, if they didn’t have a TV set of their own, to get to someone’s house that had one.”

“Tension was pretty high with all the band and especially with Lawrence. As great as he was with a live audience, I don’t think he ever relaxed on that show. Some of his tempos were a little faster than usual.

Dick Dale took off his jacket and put a leather bag on his shoulder to portray a mailman in his wartime-era duet with Alice Lon, “No Letter Today.” song #12. He was also part of the male octet that sang “The Whiffenpoof Song,” #20. Dick played on all the musical numbers and stayed with the Welk Band from 1951 to 1982.

“Who would have thought that the thirteen week summer replacement show would still be going 50 years later. We just got off a month-long tour and the reception we got in every city was just tremendous. Standing ovations at every show and everyone saying, ‘I grew up watching you’ or ‘My folks or grandparents made me watch the show every Saturday night.’

“Even I get a kick out of watching those old shows on public television. Every once in a while I say, ‘I don’t remember doing that song,’ but after that many years and that many songs I guess I’m entitled to a few senior moments.

“I have never gotten over the excitement of doing a show, from the first TV show in local station, KTLA, live from the Aragon ballroom, to the last show that we did at the Sundome in Pheonix on March 26th, this year. I have to thank Lawrence Welk for so many great years and I thank God that I’m still able to get out there on stage and do it.”

Woody Guidry

“I was almost the last section man hired before we went on national television. Buddy Hayes replaced Bob Pilot in the rhythm section after I came on and then young Buddy Merrill joined the band.

“We were doing shows for KTLA, the local television station, and then we got the news that the Dodge Motor Company wants us to be a summer replacement show for 13 weeks. Man, everyone involved was really excited about the contract! Then we got the word that Klaus Landsburg, the manager of KTLA, wouldn’t release us from our local contract. Lawrence and the rest of the guys really had to do some fast-talking to get us on the air.

“It was just a very short time that we had to do two TV shows a week, one local and one national. In the end, our KTLA contract was easily broken, and we could settle down at ABC for a good long run.”

Buddy Merrill

“I was just 18 years old when I joined the Welk Band. I had won the All America Music Competition and Lawrence called me after that and said, ‘I’m kinda looking for a guitar player.’ He had his eye on Spade Cooley, he said, and I’m sure happy he chose me instead. One of the songs I played for that competition was ‘Mr. Sandman’ and I played it on our first national broadcast.

Buddy Merrill was just 18 years old in 1955 but was already a featured player in the Welk Band, with his virtuosity on the electric guitar. He accompanied Alice Lon on “Love Me or Leave Me,” song #2, and his own solo was “Mr. Sandman,” song #10. Buddy played with the Welk Band from 1955 to 1974.

“I remember that the lights were very hot and I had trouble keeping my guitar in tune. But Lawrence was very cool during the show. He had all the notes for his introductions on numbered 3 x 5 cards and he would pull them out of his pocket, study one, and then go out and say it. He used cue cards later but for the first few years, he had his file cards.

“We rehearsed really long hours before our first ABC show, maybe 9 in the morning until 9 at night. I think the unions got involved eventually but we wanted to do what needed to be done.

“When it was almost time to start, I remember it got very quiet and that was pretty unusual for us. Jack Minor and Ed Sobel were as nervous as we were but Mr. Welk was never nervous. He just did what he always did and we sailed through the show.

“Looking back, I remember thinking that the band sounded really good that night. I was proud to be in it. Those years were just great and I was with the Welk Band for the biggest part of my life.”

Larry Welk

“I don’t have a real clear memory of the first national show but I know I was there. My sisters weren’t there. Shirley, who had just been married, was in Washington, D.C. and Donna, who had just graduated from high school, was in our home-town of Chicago, visiting friends. I was 15 years old and in high school. I sort of looked at working with the band as my ‘summer job’ and those nights were all the same to me.

“I was the ‘Band Boy’ and that meant that I would go and get the guys coffee, sweet rolls and sandwiches or do whatever errands they gave me. I would keep track of the break time and try to get them all back on the set before Dad started looking around. It was great being with the band because they were all pretty funny guys and I learned a lot about the ‘world of musicians’ which has served me well in my career in the recording industry.

“They used to call me ‘Cookie the Bookie’ because I was in charge of all the sports’ pools, baseball was the big one. I hate to admit it but I also kept track of the card games in the dressing room, making sure the table stayed ‘as is’ until the next break. If the game was really intense, it was hard getting the guys back to work!

“I think after the show on July 2nd, Dad probably hung around a little bit longer than usual but on other show nights, he and his secretary, Lois Lamont, would be out of the studio in 15 minutes. They would drive to the Ontra Cafeteria on Wilshire Boulevard on the Miracle Mile and have a quick bite of supper. Dad was a very light eater – rice pudding was a favorite dish. He’d drop her off at home and drive over to the Aragon Ballroom to start the live show at 8:00 PM. His band would play until 11:00 and then he’d drive home to be with my Mom, who was usually just getting ready for bed.

“I’m so proud of my Dad and what he accomplished. He created a television series that has lasted 50 years on national television, from the ABC network, to syndication, to almost 240 public television stations. His audience has been faithful to him and to his family of stars for over five decades and I have been privileged to be able to help in sustaining his work. There are new generations of viewers that love my Dad, too, and he is definitely one of the legendary pioneers of American television.”

“We always watched and danced to the Lawrence Welk local show on KTLA at our home in Venice, California. Janet and I, while listening to his program one night, showed mom and dad how we had ‘made up’ a dance. We went whirling around our tiny living room and were so proud of what we had taught each other. Then mom and dad said, ‘That’s the polka!’ We continued to dance and laugh and whirl, but we felt a little deflated.

“As a family, we all watched the show every week and would talk about it. Our Aunt Jeanette would tell our mom and dad, ‘Your girls are going to sing on that show one day, I just know it!’ Then DeeDee met Larry Welk at high school, and our aunt’s prophesy actually came true! We never would have guessed that by Christmas 1955, we would make our debut on the Welk Show and be a part of it for 13 years!

“We’re celebrating our 50th year of singing professionally this year, too. I can hardly believe how quickly those years have flown by. We’ll be at the Welk Resort this fall with the Gatlin Brothers, doing a special anniversary show that will take our audiences down ‘Memory Lane,’ from the Lawrence Welk Show in Hollywood to today in Branson, Missouri.”

Kathie Sullivan

“Discovered” by Larry Welk when he was in high school, The Lennon Sisters auditioned for Mr. Welk at his home and immediately won his heart. They appeared on the show in December, 1955, singing “He,” arranged by their father, Bill Lennon. This rehearsal picture was taken the first year they were on the show. (L to R) Mr. Welk, DeeDee, Janet, Kathy, and Peggy.

“I was only 3 years old in 1955, and I was not on the show, of course, but I do remember watching it every Saturday night. After our weekly bath in the basement tub, (can you believe not having a shower every day?) my mother would roll my hair in brown rubber curlers for church on Sunday as we watched the Lawrence Welk Show.

“I loved all the beautiful sets and costumes and imagined myself as one of the Lennon Sisters, especially Janet, who was just a few years older than me. I’ll never forget when I was in Junior High and had just taken up playing the cello. At the time, Charlotte Harris was the only woman in the band and my father said to me, ‘Now, Kathie, if you really practice hard, maybe someday you’ll be on the Lawrence Welk Show!’ I must have been 12 or 13 at the time and never dreamed his wish for me might come true!

“It almost did too! When Charlotte left the band in 1978, I was already working on the show and it was just before we were going to Lake Tahoe for our usual summer engagement at Harrah’s. Lawrence asked if I would fill in for Charlotte and I practiced up a Storm! Luckily, Ernie Erhardt came in for an audition in the nick of time and I was off the hook! But, guess what? My youngest Elizabeth, has taken up the cello and is far exceeding, in just one year, what I accomplished in many years. She is playing my cello beautifully, which is now her own.”

The Legend Continues

This year, there was a new fundraising special on public television, Lawrence Welk Precious Memories, the 13th brand new program since 1987. Each of the new specials has been extremely successful for the stations, and they count on the Welk fans to help them year after year. The weekly series continues on 240 stations, with newly produced host segments that keep fans up-to-date on their favorite Welk stars.

Lawrence Welk has been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and is considered one of the icons of the Golden Age of Television.

Song List – July 2, 1955

Say It With Music- Instrumental
Love Me or Leave Me- Alice Lon & Buddy Merrill
Tico Tico- Myron Floren
I- Jim Roberts
Ballin’ The Jack- Instrumental
Whatever Lola Wants- Instrumental
I Love Girls- Rocky Rockwell
Tres Jolie- Instrumental
Learnin’ The Blues
Mr. Sandman- Buddy Merrill
12th Street Rag- Myron & Lawrence
No Letter Today- Dick Dale & Alice Lon
Somebody Stole My Gal- Buddy Hayes
Silver Moon- Dick Kesner/Instrumental
Clarinet Polka- Instrumental
Alabamy Bound- Jack Martin
Unchained Melody- Instrumental/Jerry Burke
Oh Happy Day- Larry Hooper
Cielito Lindo- Aladdin (W/Jim & Bob)
Whiffenpoof Song- Jim & Octet
South Rampart St. Parade- Instrumental
Goodnight Ladies- Alice, Jim, Aladdin, Bob, Larry

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