Lawrence Welk Left the Farm to Please People With Music
"Lawrence Welk Left the Farm to Please People With Music." Watertown Public Opinion, 1983.
The following was written by Mr. Welk especially for Public Opinion readers...
My life is music, and always has been. They tell me I tried to make a violin out of an old box and a few strands of horsehair when I was only about three years of age. That’s hazy in my memory but I vividly recall another time when I was very small and my father let me press the keys of his push-button accordion and squeeze out a few wavering notes! How I loved it! I think I knew right then that I wanted to make music my life.
I was born on March 11, 1903 on a farm near Strasburg, N.D., the sixth of eight children born to Ludwig and Christina Welk who had emigrated from Odessa, Russia at the turn of the century. They were real pioneers. Father built a sod house and homesteaded the land, and our parents taught all us children to love our country.
The biggest holiday of the year was always the Fourth of July when each of us would be given a dime as our yearly allowance. I used to spend hours trying to figure out ways to stretch that dime, and I might say that lesson really took! As I look back I realize that we lived a very difficult life in many ways, but it was also truly joyful, filled with love and warmth and family fun and always—music.
Father was a gifted accordionist—the neighbors used to say he had the best sense of rhythm in the family and he was always in great demand for barn dances and parties—and my mother had a true and lovely soprano voice. That may be why I have always loved a clear high voice such as Champagne Lady Norma Zimmer has. To me, it is the essence of femininity.
Strasburg was a German speaking community, and German was the language spoken in the Welk household, which accounts for the accent which some people still believe is an affectation. I was so self-conscious about my English that for the first fifteen years in the music business I refused to say a word in public.
When I finally got up enough nerve to open my mouth in front of an audience, my first words were, “a-one-and-a-two”....
I did my share of chores as I grew up (with time out for an illness which put me in bed for nearly a year and ended my formal education at the fourth grade), but I heartily disliked working on a farm. I lived for the time I could earn my living as a musician, and finally talked my father into buying me a $400 accordion so I could prepare for it.
I was seventeen at the time, and the deal was that I would stay on the farm till I was 21 and turn over all the money I earned playing for dances and parties to the family. Letting me leave the farm for the life of a musician was a difficult decision for my father—he was afraid I’d lose my Catholic faith in the world of show business—but he finally agreed.
He stuck to his side of the bargain, and I did too, turning over everything I earned until my 21st birthday. Then I took my prized accordion, a few clothes, and $3.49 in cash and set out to conquer the world!
Father had predicted I’d be back within six months looking for a good meal, and he was nearly correct. There were times in the next few months when I was painfully hungry, but I finally managed to get a little band together and play enough dates so that I could return to the farm in grand style two years later, driving a brand-new fully paid for car. It remains one of the high spots of my life!
In 1925 I joined a group called “George T. Kelly’s Peerless Entertainers” and was billed as the “World’s Greatest Accordionist”...rather extravagant billing, I must admit. By 1927 I had my own band, and our radio career started at Yankton at WNAX, owned and operated by Gurney Seed and Nursery Company (some of our detractors claim that some corn still remains in our music).
We played at the station during the day, and at ballrooms in neighboring states at night. To help maintain this strenuous schedule, we inaugurated the “sleeper bus,” later adopted by many name bands.
The twenties saw my little band growing and playing dance dates for miles around. And in 1931 I made the smartest move of my life. I talked a young student nurse named Fern Renner into marrying me. It has been solid marriage—we will celebrate our 52nd wedding anniversary on April 18th. Fern and I have been blessed with three children and 10 grandchildren and she has been the best wife anyone could have.
During the thirties my band—now grown to about 10 pieces—operated out of Omaha, Neb. And on New Year’s Eve in 1938 we finally played the engagement that catapulted us into the ranks of big time. We opened at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh and, to our great joy, discovered that both the critics and the dancers liked us.
We had a nightly radio broadcast from the hotel and soon letters began coming in commenting that our music was light, bright, frothy...like champagne. We took the cue and began calling ourselves, the “Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.”
Our girl singer, Lois Best, was the first Champagne Lady, and all the boys became Champagne Music Makers.
The forties saw us centered in Chicago where we played most of the year at the beautiful Trianon Ballroom, and Fern and the children and I settled down in nearby River Forest. It was a wonderful time for all of us—I could be home for dinner a good part of the time, and for a bandleader who had spent months on the road, that was a real luxury.
By the end of the forties, however, Big Bands were beginning to lose their appeal and ballrooms all over the country were closing. I took the boys and went back on the road again, trying to decide the best things to do. We played some engagements in Portland, Ore. And then in Claremont, Calif. and then a six-week engagement at the Aragon Ballroom on Lick Pier in Santa Monica.
Klaus Landsberg, manager of KTLA, a local television station, put us on the air opening night, after a late evening movie. As I recall, it was nothing really special. We played our usual arrangements for the dancers...I danced with some of the ladies, joked with the guest, did our usual show.
I really didn’t pay too much attention to that telecast. But the next morning I drove to San Fernando Valley for a golf game and as I was having a cup of coffee at the lunch counter, people began coming up to me to say they’d seen us on TV the night before and how much they enjoyed it. By the time the 20th person had grabbed my arm and said he was coming down to the ballroom because it looked as if we were having such a great time, a flash of insight, an absolutely firm feeling that the boys and I had ‘come home’ –that television was the thing we had been looking for all our lives.
I went home and said to Fern, “I think we’ve finally found our place in life.”
That was over 30 years ago. In the intervening years we have been on TV every week (four years locally, and then 27 years over ABC and later in syndication)...and we are still on the air every week with our new “Memories With Lawrence Welk” series.
I’m supposed to be retired, you know, but I guess I’ve been in business too long to give it up entirely! Taping a weekly show is a bit beyond our capabilities though, so now I choose one of my favorite shows from the past, and add my thoughts and comments to it, sometimes inviting one of our Musical Family to chat along with me.
We shoot most of these new additions at our Lawrence Welk Village near Escondido where we have a residential homes park, a theatre, a restaurant and a motel. Fern and I spend a great deal of time in our little Village which has absolutely the best climate in the world, and playing accordion for our visitors in the restaurant keeps me just busy enough to keep my hand in!
I’m still very close to my Musical Family and we share so many wonderful memories! Sometimes people ask me the reason for our unusual success—27 years on TV is something of a record, or so they tell me. Well, apart from the wonderful and talented people in our Musical Family, I think the basic reason is that I was always able to earn my living doing the thing I love most in the world.
From the beginning, as long as I could play my accordion and entertain people and they seemed to enjoy it—I was in heaven! I’m nearly 80 now, and I still feel the same way.
Then, too, I have always been grateful to my parents for the strong religious faith and moral grounding they gave me. I believe that it helped us on the straight, narrow path to lasting success instead of going for the quick buck and easy journey, and I’m grateful for that.
And I’m very very glad I grew up in the heart of America, the Dakotas! The loyalty and faith and friendship of the folks in that area gave our little band wonderful support, and is something I will always cherish. I’ve been a lucky man!