2 Entertainers... Each a Phenomenon

Welch, Susan. "2 Entertainers...Each a Phenomenon." Minneapolis Tribune, 7 November 1971, sec. 10D.

For much of contemporary America, Lawrence Welk doesn’t even exist. One is hard put to find mention of him in standard biographical reference works, and in most discussions of current music, Welk’s band is unlikely to come up, except as a joke. A review of the Champagne Music Makers at the 1970 Minnesota State Fair said that “Welk’s music, emotionally, lies in a murky zone between Muzak and chicken rock,” and others have said that Welk’s is the “squarest music this side of Euclid.”

Welk, who is said to be worth more than $25 million, must indeed be crying all the way to the Lawrence Welk Band Building in Santa Monica. Champagne Music has never been “in,” never been fashionable, but it has outlasted all the bands of the big band era, and is bubbling away to this day. Whether one considers Welk a monument to American hard work and initiative, or to America’s undying bad taste, he has to be granted his status as a phenomenon-the most popular band leader in history.

“Wunnerful, Wunnerful,” the title of Welk’s autobiography, was the refrain of a gag record of the ‘50s which parodied the man and his style. The “Bubble Machine”, the source of bubbles that float around the stage when Welk performs, runs amok, and Welk’s impersonator babbles like Bela Lugosi with a cleft palate, demanding that somebody turn off the machine. The show’s format has changed so little in 15 years that it could be easily spoofed in the same way today.

At 21, Welk had never left the North Dakota farm where he lived with three brothers, four sisters and parents who were recent immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine and the Ukraine. He knew no English, couldn’t read music, and had had only four years of formal education. His father taught him to play the accordion, but discouraged his musical ambitions as too risky. Lawrence prevailed through his sheer will. At 17, he persuaded his father to lend him money for a $400 accordion, in return for which he bonded himself to his father and the farm for four years, also giving his father all that he earned as a performer at weddings, birthdays, and other festivities.

When the four years ran out, Lawrence left the homestead, traveling around North Dakota looking for musical work. Despite his early sheltered life-he was shocked to find, his first year on the road, that there was such a thing as divorce-he showed an uncanny talent for business and maintained a sufficiently flexible self image to allow him to learn from experience.

Some of the funniest episodes in the book concern Welk’s mistakes while learning English. He one told a girl whom he found appealing that she “appalled” him. One more than one occasion, he invited a baffled singer to come up to the “microscope,” and introduced his orchestra as the Shampoo Music Makers. On his way to the top, Welk had times of great despair. At one point, his whole band walked out, telling him “you’ll never get out of these sticks.” But he always recovered from these setbacks, and learned to trust no one but himself.

In 1934, Welk bought up wholesale lots of chewing gum which he sold, along with his music, on the road-calling his group, to their extreme discomfiture, “Lawrence Welk and his Honolulu Fruit Orchestra.” He recalls, with some amazement, that a band member wanted to quit rather than be called on of the Honolulu Fruit boys. This flourishing operation folded when the ballroom management began complaining that they couldn’t get the gum off the floors and walls after each dance. Even when the going got sticky, Welk kept his wits about him.

The route from chewing gum to champagne was punctured by periods when Welk’s band was called the Novelty Orchestra, the Hotsy Totsy Boys, and the Biggest Little Band in America.

The big break came in 1937 at the St. Paul Hotel, when an engagement led to nightly broadcasts over KSTP.

It should be pointed out that the book, itself, is extremely well-written, due in large part to the efforts of Bernice McGeehan who had 50 or 60 sittings with Welk, after which she wrote up the episodes and submitted them to Welk for his approval. Whether one is a Welk fan or not, this book is an absorbing reading experience.

Susan Welch is a member of the Research Department of the Minneapolis Tribune.

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