It was a 'Wunnerful' Life

"It was a 'Wunnerful' Life." Grand Forks Herald, 19 May 1992, sec. A1.

Lawrence Welk, the cheery Strasburg, N.D., farm boy who became America’s bubbly King of Champagne Music during 30 years as a television bandleader, died Sunday night in his Santa Monica, Calif., home. He was 89.

Welk, in declining health in recent years, was stricken with pneumonia Sunday, said Shirley Fredricks, Welk’s daughter.

“Our family, except for my sister, who lives out of state, were all with him,” she said. “He died very peacefully and very sweetly.”

“Ah-one, ah-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful” were Welk-isms that became part of America’s lexicon during his decades on television, beginning with a local program in Los Angeles in 1951. But success came to the self-taught maestro only after he spent 25 years touring with his band, mostly in the Midwest.

His successful ABC program began in 1955. It was cancelled in 1971 because sponsors thought the audience was too old, too rural and too sedate. But Welk parlayed his popularity to form an enormously popular syndicated program shown on nearly 250 stations in the United States and Canada.

Over the decades, Welk became, after Bob Hope, the second-wealthiest performer in show business, and his band and production company became the second-biggest tourist draw of Los Angeles, right behind Disneyland.

“The Lawrence Welk Show” ended on Feb. 25, 1982, after 1,542 performances.

Even after retirement, Welk never left TV. His smiling presence and brand of easy-listening, melodic dance tunes continued to entertain millions of fans—mostly those of mature years—through syndicated reruns and, since 1987, on public television.

“Lawrence Welk brought joy to millions and millions of people,” North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl said Monday night. “His wholesome music will continue to remind North Dakotans, former North Dakotans and people all over this country of the good old days. His music will live on for decades, and he will not soon be forgotten.”

Welk’s failing health kept him from returning to North Dakota in the past decade. But he once came regularly to the state and to Strasburg, about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck. He visited friends and family, play some golf and gave his time to various causes.

Welk made a number of visits to Grand Forks and UND over the years. In 1973, Welk served as a “visiting professor” and led the University band in a Chester Fritz Auditorium concert that packed the house.

Welk was the first recipient of North Dakota’s highest honor, the Roughrider Award, in 1961.

“We wanted to honor somebody who was nationally known to begin our award,” former Gov. William Guy recalled. “Lawrence Welk was the ideal person. He was on of the most kind and considerate people that I’ve ever known.”

Rep. Bryon Dorgan said he’d met Welk in the 1970s and considers him “one of the great North Dakotans....a small-town guy with very big ideas.”

His name was drawn into the national spotlight in 1990, but in controversial fashion. Congress considered granting $500,000 to Welk’s hometown to help build a Germans from Russia heritage museum and foster tourism. But the grant eventually was withdrawn when it was cited as a supreme example of pork-barrel politics.

A related project, the refurbishment of Welk’s birthplace, was accomplished with private funds.

Welk, who accompanied his musicians with his accordion and danced a graceful waltz with his Champagne Lady vocalist, never wavered from the easy-listening, melodic style he started playing in North Dakota.

Detractors called Welk’s music Mickey Mouse music dispensed to geriatric audiences. But when swing, rock ‘n’ roll, bebop, progressive and other pop genres came and went, Welk’s music always found an audience.

“We try to please our audience,” he told an interviewer in 1964. “We try to bring it some joy, happiness and relaxation and always to be in good taste—the kind of entertainment that should come into the home.”

Welk’s accent came from his parents, Ludwig and Christina Welk, who were born in Alsace-Lorraine, a region of present-day France that was once part of Germany, and moved to Russia in 1878 to escape religious persecution. In 1892, they emigrated to America and settled on a farm near Strasburg.

Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in his parents’ sod farmhouse. He was one of eight children. The boy dropped out of the fourth grade to farm full time.

Ludwig Welk was a stern father, but at night he sometimes entertained the children with an accordion that had been in the family for generations. As a youngster, Lawrence practiced on the accordion and yearned for his own. He bought a cheap one, but it soon fell apart. The boy then set his sights on a $400 model.
His father finally agreed—provided the boy would work on the farm for four years and turn over all his earnings at weddings and barn dances. At 21, Lawrence announced he was leaving the farm for life as a musician. “You’ll be back,” his father predicted. “You’ll be back just as soon as you get hungry.”

After a tedious grind of playing one-night stands with pickup bands, Welk formed a three-piece “Biggest Little Band in America” to help inaugurate radio station WNAX in Yankton, S.D.

Over the years, Welk developed the style that would make him famous: bouncing, effervescent, with a steady beat that invited dancing. He found the name for it—“champagne music”—while broadcasting from the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh in 1938.

The Welk band continued playing in some of the biggest hotels and ballrooms across the country before appearing on Los Angeles TV in 1951. High ratings led to a summer replacement show two years later on ABC.

He and his wife, Fern, whom he married in 1931, made their home in his Champagne Towers complex in Santa Monica.

In addition to his wife, Welk is survived by a son, Lawrence Jr.; two daughters, Shirley Fredricks and Donna Mack; 10 grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; and two sisters.

Reprinted with permission of Grand Forks Herald.

Lawrence Welk
‘Ah-one, ah-two’ By 1973, when this photograph was taken, Lawrence Welk was an established household name. However, he still found time to return to his home state. Above, he conducts the UND band.

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