Farm boy Became 'Champagne Music' King

Springer, Patrick. "Farm boy Became 'Champagne Music' King." Forum, 19 May 1992, sec. A1.

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," she said.

Welk bought his first accordion for $15 with money he earned selling gopher tails harvested on his parents' farm in Emmons County, N.D.

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 orchestra.

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 and piano.

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 until 1930.

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 and polkas.

"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 with us."

"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 in 1970.

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 politics.

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 79.

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.

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