Lawrence Welk, the North Dakota farm boy who became
the nation's affable king of "champagne music," died
Sunday at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 89.
Welk, who had been battling pneumonia in recent days, died
Sunday night with family members at his side, spokeswoman Bernice
McGeehan said Monday. "He really died peacefully,"
Welk bought his first accordion for $15 with money he earned
selling gopher tails harvested on his parents' farm in Emmons
Throughout his long career, the Maestro of Champagne Music
never forgot his North Dakota roots, and he made frequent return
trips after his departure.
Welk learned to play the accordion, which remained his instrument
of choice, at age 12. He played by ear, without benefit of lessons.
He was born March 11, 1903, on a wheat farm near Strasburg,
N.D., 60 miles southeast of Bismarck and cultural light years
from the palatial ballrooms that later would host his traveling
At age 17, he convinced his father to loan him $400 to buy
a fancy accordion, promising to remain on the farm until he
was 21, and pledging all his barn dance earnings from that period.
At age 21, he announced he was leaving the farm for the life
of a musician. "You'll be back," his father predicted.
"You'll be back just as soon as you get hungry."
He formed his first orchestra in 1920 in Aberdeen, S.D.: an
accordion and drums, which later grew to include a saxophone
His career owed one of its earliest breaks to a snowstorm.
Welk and his fellow band members found themselves snowbound
in Yankton, S.D., in 1922, and Welk used the opportunity to
obtain an engagement on radio station WNAX.
Dance offers began to come in within a week, and the orchestra
was hired as the station's studio band. Welk stayed with WNAX
His band played the dance hall circuit in the Dakotas and Minnesota
and was a hit at the Crystal and Avalon ballrooms in Fargo-Moorhead.
His first "big-time" engagement was in 1938, when
his band played at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh; he
had graduated from one-night stands in the hinterlands to long
engagements in theaters and hotels in big cities.
He played Chicago, rotating among several hotels and a ballroom
for nine years.
What was planned as a six-week stint at the aging Aragon Ballroom
in Santa Monica, Calif., evolved into a 10-year engagement.
Welk, whose band drew an average of more than 6,700 dancers
a week, saved the struggling Aragon from oblivion.
In 1953, Welk made his first television appearance on Los Angeles
station KTLA. Two years later he made his network debut on ABC.
With the launching of his television career, the vagabond bandleader
finally had settled down. He purchased a home, variously described
as a "mansion" and "comfortable," in fashionable
Brentwood, Calif., with his wife, the former Fern Renner of
St. Anthony, N.D., and three children.
Mass audiences, mostly of mature years, listened to the effervescent
sound that became known as Champagne Music: polished band music
with a bouncy beat that blended Dixieland, familiar songs from
operettas and musicals, folk songs, honky-tonk piano, waltzes
"We try to please our audience," Welk once told an
interviewer. "We try to bring it some joy, happiness, relaxation
and always to be in good taste - the kind of entertainment that
should come into the home."
Happiness. Good taste. The home. Welk never chafed at being
called a square or corny. He made no apologies for aiming his
appeal at the wholesome American family.
He disapproved of rock `n' roll, which he thought subversive
and permissive. He pushed patriotism. He didn't smoke or drink
- not even champagne.
"He was really on the pulse of his audience. We did three
tours a year to find out what the people wanted to hear."
said Bobby Burgess, a dancer on the Welk show from 1961 to 1982.
"They had to be able to feel that they could dance along
"The ladies are my No. 1 audience," Welk often said,
"and the gentlemen are my No. 2 audience. We also have
about 5 million young children in our audience. We are short
on the teen-agers, but they are a problem. And I just can't
afford to go after a teen-age audience and lose my regular one.
I don't try."
He was even more succinct about the secret of his success,
once saying, "I play dance music and I am nice to people."
His longtime manager, Sam Lutz, agreed: "Despite all his
success, he has never changed." Lutz said at the height
of Welk's popularity. "He is still the North Dakota farm
boy - perfectly natural. The television audience senses this.
He likes people and they like him."
If he never shed his common North Dakota touch, he also never
lost his thick German accent, acquired from his parents, who
immigrated from the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany in 1878.
Welk was sensitive about his accent, though it became a mainstay
of his image, and he learned to joke about it. Phrases like
"Ah-one, ah-two" and Wunnerful, wunnerful" were
synonymous with his name and became titles of two of his books.
In 1965 he was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree by
North Dakota State University. September 9, 1965, was proclaimed
Lawrence Welk Day in Bismarck. He was made an adoptive member
of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as "Chief Good Voice."
And he was hailed as North Dakota's "ambassador at large."
He made his 500th television appearance that year. His ABC
show was grossing $4 million a year; 12 years earlier, his manager
had to pay KTLA $200 to broadcast his first show.
In 1967 Welk was one of 10 recipients of the Horatio Alger
Award. His portrait was hung that year in the state Capitol's
North Dakota Hall of Fame.
Welk fans, many of them with gray hair and traveling in chartered
buses, flocked to Hollywood to see his orchestra perform in
the ballroom of the Hollywood Palladium. He reportedly was one
of Tinseltown's biggest draws in the 1960s.
He had become an American icon, emerging weekly from a shower
of bubbles, popping his mouth like a bottle becoming uncorked,
and waving his baton and bestowing his trademark "Thank
you, thank you, thank you" at the end of a number.
All of that popularity translated into profitability. Welk
proved an adept businessman, with many of his investments related
to musical and real estate interests. The Wall Street Journal
estimated Welk's fortune at between $10 million and $25 million
The money from his financial empire flowed through Teleklew
Inc., his personal mini-conglomerate. His offices were in the
Lawrence Welk Union Bank Building in Santa Monica.
A notorious penny-pincher in the eyes of some, Welk never forgot
his humble beginnings. He paid his band musicians union scale,
no more, though he did give employees the option of belonging
to a profit-sharing plan. He once told an assistant to run any
necessary errands in a complimentary car supplied by Dodge,
a longtime sponsor, before it was turned in for a new model.
His career was not without controversy. Champagne Lady Alice
Lon and the Lennon Sisters left the band amid reports of friction
with their boss.
Controversy of another sort erupted in 1990 when Congress considered
granting $500,000 to Welk's hometown of Strasburg to build a
museum of German-Russian heritage to foster tourism. The grant,
eventually withdrawn, was cited as a supreme example of pork-barrel
A related project, the refurbishment of Welk's birthplace,
was accomplished with private funds, and the Welk homestead
will be dedicated June 7.
An avid golfer, Welk used to carry golf spikes on the road
with him during his touring days. He also often golfed with
North Dakota officials on his visits to the state. It was on
a golf course - a course he owned - that Welk learned in 1971
that ABC was canceling his show after 16 years.
The network hadn't lost money on Welk, but it canceled him
because his aging audience was thought to be the wrong demographic
group, and because of a Federal Communications Commission directive
reducing prime time.
His show continued in syndication, however, and in 1979 his
weekly American audience, carried on 227 stations in the U.S.
alone, was estimated at 28.6 million.
His last show was taped in February 1982, after 27 years on
the airwaves. He was asked at the time if he would miss it.
"I'm afraid so," he replied. "There's no greater
joy than standing in front of a band and having it play to perfection."
His last performance was before an audience of 5,000 on June
13, 1982, at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, Calif. He was
Welk continued to make a few appearances on tours, but advancing
age ended his career in 1989. He and Fern made their home in
his Champagne Towers complex in Santa Monica.
And the venerable Maestro, who bought his first boyhood accordion
by selling gopher tails, lived to see some of his albums, including
"Polka Party," recorded on compact disc.
In addition to his wife, Welk is survived by a son, Lawrence
Jr.; two daughters, Shirley Fredricks and Donna Mack; 10 grandchildren;
and one great-granddaughter, McGeehan said.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete, McGeehan said.
Reprinted with permission of the Fargo Forum.