Bandleader Lawrence Welk is a Dakota man who Made Good

Jones, Will. "Bandleader Lawrence Welk is a Dakota man who Made Good." Minneapolis Tribune, 20 May 1956.

A National magazine called Lawrence Welk a South Dakota boy. This didn’t set too well with North Dakota, the state where Welk was born (on a farm near Strasburg).

Welk, who wouldn’t make an enemy for anything, is content to be from whichever Dakota claims him at any given moment. When it comes time for the home-state picnics that are always being held in California, Welk lugs his accordion to both the North Dakota and South Dakota picnics.

Now that Welk’s TV show has become a national Saturday night fixture-it started last July as a summer replacement and soon moved to a spot among the top-rated shows, where it stayed-Welk might also be claimed as a former Minnesota piano tuner.

Featured accordionist Myron Floren (left) of Webster, S.D., joins accordionist Lawrence Welk in a duet. During telecasts, the cameras frequently “pick up” Floren’s nible fingers flying over the keyboard. Floren worked his way through Augustana college, Sioux Falls, S.D., teaching the accordion. At 19, he began to play professionally on station KSOO, Sioux Falls
Working out a number with Welk is pianist Tiny Little, Jr., of Worthington, Minn., son of a prominent Midwest bandleader of an earlier era. At right is Buddy Merrill, the band’s 19-year-old guitarist from Gardena, Calif.

Back In the 20s, when Welk was graduating from playing at weddings for tips (sometimes $150 for a 72-hour workout) to touring the dance halls for definite money, he found that dance-hall pianos were invariably out of tune. In the small towns (“I wasn’t good enough to play in the big towns”) there was seldom a piano tuner. Without an in-tune piano he couldn’t tune the accordion which his German father had taught him to play.

With characteristic thoroughness, Welk came to Minneapolis, enrolled in a piano-tuning course at MacPhail School of Music, learned to tune pianos. Then he went back to the dance-hall circuit.

By 1927 his six-piece orchestra was known as “The Biggest Little Band in America.” “I don’t think there’s a small town in the territory that we missed,” said Welk. The band was also known to radio listeners. Welk played for the inaugural broadcast of WNAX, Yankton, S.D., and was heard regularly on the station after that. “From 1927 to 1937, we played nothing but one-nighters,” said Welk. “I think we set a record-played more one-nighters than any other band in the country. We never had a location job.”

His Territory grew. Then came hotel jobs. A bigger band, longer runs at ballrooms, theater dates. Welk stuck to the simple beat, the easy melody of the dance halls, and a single-minded musical philosophy: “Personally, I like violins.” He plodded Lawrence Welk and “champagne music” right into the name-band class.

Five years ago, Welk reported to the Aragon ballroom in Ocean Park, Calif., for what was to be a four-week engagement. The customers liked him, and Welk liked the location. He’s still there, playing five nights a week.

Three years ago the Dodge dealers of southern California hired him to do a TV show from the ballroom. For TV, Welk did exactly what he did every night in the Aragon-played the same music, offered feature soloists from within the band. And he got off the bandstand to dance, as he had been doing since the days when he played for weddings. He was a west coast TV favorite for two years-until Dodge’s home office in Detroit moved in and hired him for a national TV show.

Popular “Champagne Lady” of Welk’s band is vocalist Alice Lon from Kilgore, Texas. When she isn’t singing, versatile Alice often dances a polka or waltz with Welk during programs. She’s married and has three children. Welk is married to the former Fern Renner of Yankton, S.D. They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in March. They are shown at home (in suburban Los Angeles) with two of their children, Lawrence Jr., 16, and Donna, 20. Another daughter Shirley, 24, is married.

Going Network meant conferences with ABC-TV and agency people. Of course, the show would have to be jazzed up. A line of girls. A comedian. What else? Welk listened politely to all this and said no. For the network, the show stayed exactly as it had been. “We had to stick to our guns,” said Welk. “We believe in simplicity-not too much of an over-production show. I think we have the nicest, easiest-going show of any on the air.”

“Since we went on the network, only one suggestion has been made by the sponsor. One Saturday night I got a call from Detroit-‘More Hit Parade songs.’ Sunday they called again-and asked me to ignore the Saturday call. We have complete freedom.”

The only thing Welk has against Hit Parade songs is that sometimes the words aren’t understandable, or sometimes they aren’t to his taste, or sometimes the numbers aren’t danceable. He’ll play anything that qualifies as champagne music, hit or no. As for champagne, although it’s served at the Aragon, a delicate stomach and an aversion to liquor keep him from drinking it. “We’re not against drinking people,” he explains carefully. “It’s just that liquor has been my major trouble-maker in the band-and also in some of the places I’ve played. It does things to people, and when they’re like that I play it safe and go in the back row and direct the drummer.”

Except On such occasions, Welk is perhaps the most available celebrity on TV. He’ll get off the bandstand at the Aragon any night to dance with a lady of any age. A well-wisher who wants a handshake or an autograph usually walks away with some printed Welk souvenir as well.

When Welk does decide to do something pretentious, he seems to pick his spots well. He wanted to add extra strings to his orchestra for a recording session. Coral record executives said no. So Welk paid for the record session himself. The result was “Sparkling Strings,” an album that’s now among the top 10 best sellers.

Welk, now 53, is pretty firmly transplanted to California. He spends his little spare time pruning fruit trees, and putting together hi-fi sets and record cabinets in a comfortable house in Brentwood. He and his wife, Fern, a former Yankton, S.D., nurse, celebrated their silver wedding anniversary last month. Two of their children, Donna, 20, and Lawrence, Jr., live at home. Another daughter, Shirley, 24, is married to a doctor.

Every day Welk gets five to 10 calls from people who want him and his band back on the road. He plans a short west coast tour in June, and another quickie tour next fall that may bring him back to home territory.

Many band members doubled as singers. Left to right are Rocky Rockwell, from St. Joseph, Mo., comedy vocalist, trumpet player and trombonist; Curt Ramsey, from Grand Meadow, Minn., arranger, trumpet player and singer; Dick Dale, from Algona, Iowa, baritone and saxophonist, and Larry Hooper, from Lebanon, Mo., pianist with an incredibly deep bass voice.

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