Lawrence Welk, a bandleader for millions, dies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Santa Monica, Calif. -- Lawrence Welk, a firm taskmaster and consummate businessman whose champagne music was welcomed into the living rooms of Middle America on Saturday nights for an unprecedented 27 years -- the longest prime-time musical program in television history -- has died, it was reported yesterday.

Bernice McGeehan, a spokeswoman for the Welk organization, said that he was 89 when he died at his Santa Monica home Sunday evening of pneumonia.

"He really died peacefully," with family members at his side, she said.

Mr. Welk was a reluctant farm boy who left his home near Strasburg, N.D., when he turned 21 for a career as an itinerant accordion-player.

Mr. Welk and his bubbling music-makers were a television staple for 36 years, making their debut in an era when Arthur Godfrey, Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners were at the top of the Nielsens. And they outlasted them all. As recently as 1988 Welk could be heard cueing his band with his "uh-one and uh-two" signature countdown on weekly rebroadcasts of his television shows on PBS outlets throughout the country. Never an innovator, Mr. Welk's criteria for success was to keep it sweet and simple: play the proven standards the people want to hear, in the simplest of arrangements, and in less than three minutes just in case someone did not like a particular song. It was safe-and-sane TV entertainment, painfully predictable and stable and wholesome.

For that, he went virtually without praise from within the TV industry itself. His reward came from his audiences, those who could not wait for their weekly taste of "uh-one and uh-two" accompanied by a succession of Champagne Ladies, accordionists and talented instrumentalists.

Mr. Welk, his orchestra and performers including Norma Zimmer and the Lennon Sisters played the new Baltimore Civic Center on March 31, 1963. Thousands of fans met him at Friendship Airport, and his performance was a sellout, grossing more than $50,000, which was reported as the largest gross in Mr. Welk's history of one-night stands.

Some performers ultimately grew frustrated by his methods, which included control over music and even costume selection. Many quit.

Alice Lon and the Lennon Sisters were two such cases in point.

Ms. Lon was Mr. Welk's "Champagne Lady," the showcased songstress symbolizing the essence of femininity. But she left the show in 1959, in a lingering feud over wanting more variety on her musical menu and -- more sensationally at the time -- in a dispute over the length of her hemlines, which were rising in concert with Welk's chagrin.

"There was a dress code that everyone had to live up to," said Sam Lutz, Welk's long-time manager . . . and that got to be a problem when he started working with a younger generation of people in the music business."

The singing Lennon Sisters -- Janet, Kathy, Peggy and Dianne -- felt working for Mr. Welk put them in a time warp.

"As we got older -- into our teen-age years and then into our 20s -- we wanted to do more sophisticated, more popular music," said Kathy Lennon, who was 12 when she and her sisters joined the show in 1955. "But Mr. Welk frowned on that. He wanted to give people music he thought they could understand, and he didn't think they could understand Beatles songs or Stevie Wonder songs.

"We'd be skipping around toadstools singing "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" while our friends at school were listening to the Beatles," Ms. Lennon said in a 1988 interview.

The Lennons left Mr. Welk in 1968, to the bandleader's dismay.

"He didn't want to let go of his little girls, but by then we all were married and between us had eight children of our own," Kathy Lennon said.

Still others left the show over money disputes with Mr. Welk, who paid the minimum union scale to his cast. "We worked at group scale, which was $110 a week, for 10 years," Kathy Lennon recalled. "After that he agreed to pay us solo scale, $210 a week. That's what we finished out at. When we told him we'd stay if he'd pay us double scale, he told us, 'No act is worth a penny over scale to me.' "

Mr. Welk did set up a generous profit-sharing plan for his performers while giving them freedom to appear on other television shows and to make outside personal appearances.

Not many, however, found extensive work outside of the Welk show. For one thing, they all had to be at the studio for the Saturday night show -- the biggest night of the week for personal appearances.

Mr. Welk was an unlikely candidate for national fame, but parlayed his German accent, charisma and a keen discernment of Middle America's musical taste into a business empire founded on television, records and music publishing. At first uneasy as a television personality, fearful that his fourth-grade education would betray him, he soon enough became smitten by zTC the love affair he developed with his audiences.

Still, he was ever gracious to his fans and the proud patriarch of his so-called Musical Family of studio musicians, dancers, singers, entertainers and support crew members, serving as a gentle but firm disciplinarian and preacher of conservative values.

Long-time band member Barney Liddell, a Roman Catholic, recalled Mr. Welk's reaction when he divorced his wife and later remarried. Mr. Welk, himself a Catholic, fired Mr. Lidell from the band after he announced his intention to remarry.

"He said I'd be living in sin and that's not right. But then he talked to three guys in the band -- a Jew, a Methodist and a Presbyterian -- and they said, 'Why don't you let him run his life and you just run his trombone.' So he called me back on my wedding day and said I had my job back."

Norma Zimmer, who became his last Champagne Lady in 1960, said that Mr. Welk would seldom lose his temper. "He was always in control. You knew he was upset [only] because he'd just beat his leg with his baton. That was his sign that things weren't right."

The sixth of eight children of German immigrants, Mr. Welk was born in his parents' sod house on the family's homestead in North Dakota. His first musical instrument was a violin he fashioned out of an old box and strands of horsehair when he was 3 years old. He graduated to his father's accordion, and in short order became obsessed with wanting to buy his own.

At age 17, he struck a deal with his father, Ludwig, by agreeing to work on the family farm until he was 21, and turning over all the money he made by performing at weddings and other social functions, playing his own prized $400 accordion.

On his 21st birthday, Mr. Welk left home and spent the next year or so living in motel rooms and in the back of touring cars as he and other itinerant musicians formed pickup groups to play in town squares and social halls.

In 1925, Mr. Welk joined a group called "George T. Kelly's Peerless Entertainers," and was billed as the "World's Greatest Accordionist." Two years later, he formed his own band and began playing on radio station WNAX in Yankton, S.D.

During the 1930s, Mr. Welk's band had grown to 10 pieces and was known for a time as the Hotsy Totsy Boys. They began settling into hotel ballroom work -- first, at the St. Paul Hotel in St. Paul, Minn., and starting on New Year's Eve in 1938, the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. It was there, with radio broadcasts of the show, that Mr. Welk's music was described as light, bright and frothy -- like champagne.

Mr. Welk didn't miss a beat, changing the name of his group to, "The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk." Singer Lois Best became his first Champagne Lady, and the musicians became champagne music-makers.

Mr. Welk's band made its headquarters in Chicago during the 1940s, but continued with road shows that ultimately took him in 1951 to the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica.

Los Angeles station KTLA telecast an early performance. "As I recall, the show was nothing really special," Mr. Welk recalled in an autobiography. "We played our usual arrangements for the dancers. I danced with some of the ladies and joked with the guests."

But Mr. Welk received immediate favorable response from the show from viewers. "I had a flash of insight, an absolutely firm feeling that the boys and I had 'come home,' and that television was the thing we had been looking for. I went home and said to Fern [his wife], 'I think we've finally found our place in life.' "

In 1956, ABC-TV broadcast Mr. Welk from coast to coast, and for the ensuing 16 years the Welk show missed only one week -- in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

ABC finally dropped the show in 1971, deciding that Mr. Welk's audience was too old to attract commercial sponsors looking for a more youthful and affluent market. His sponsors at the time reflected Mr. Welk's demographics: Geritol and Sominex.

Mr. Welk responded by syndicating his own show, which ultimately was picked up by more than 250 stations around the country -- more, even, than had aired his show on ABC.

The program did not miss a week of air time until weekly production ended in 1982.

Two years of reruns appeared in syndication, through 1984, along with two Christmas specials in 1984 and 1985.

Ultimately it proved to be the show that wouldn't go away; a PBS documentary in March 1987 on Mr. Welk's life -- hosted by Kathy Lennon -- received such viewer response -- and fund-raising pledges -- that two years' of reruns were syndicated and appear now on more than 140 public television stations across the country.

Ms. McGeehan, the Welk spokeswoman, said yesterday that the reruns would continue to run through 1994.

In recent years, Mr. Welk and his wife of 61 years spent their retirement primarily at their "Champagne Towers" in Santa Monica. The couple, however, frequently lived at their second home near Escondido, where he turned another small trailer park into a successful, upscale mobile home park and vacation resort.

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by two daughters, 10 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°