Lawrence Welk, the Champagne Music King
From the Palm Springs Life Archive
Reprinted from the January 1979 issue of Palm Springs Life magazine
It's 10:30 Tuesday morning in Studio 31 at CBS, and they're well into rehearsal for the umpteen-hundreth taping of the Most Unlikely Success Story on Television.
In a medium where slickness is next to godliness, where songs turn over faster than Disneyland turnstiles, and where disposability has become a way of life, "The Lawrence Welk Show," now in its 23rd television season, has to be the anomaly of anomalies.
To begin with, look at the star, the musical don, Numero Uno, Lawrence Welk. By any showbiz standards, this very nice seventy-five-year-old man who believes in the family, God's Laws, the old-time values, who abhors sex and violence on the screen, and who (by his own admission) doesn't "know how" to smoke or drink, wouldn't exactly prompt a starmaker to drool with anticipation.
When ABC first launched the Lawrence Welk Show in 1955, howls of disbelief rose from the critics and one noted orchestra leader snorted, "He stumbles all over the stage and his band plays corny arrangements that we threw away 15 years ago. Who is this SQUARE?"
Twenty-three years later, the "square" is number one in the hearts of millions and the hotshot bandleader has long since been discarded on some musical ash heap. In fact, at the networks Lawrence once earned the moniker "The Meatgrinder" because of the way he eliminated competitors who were thrown into timeslots against the show. The casualties — Jimmy Durante, Herb Shriner, Janis Paige, Robert Montgomery and Sid Caesar, to name a few — form a veritable "Who's Who" of showbiz.
One almost biblical rule of thumb with the variety folks is to hire big name stars as feature guests. On the Lawrence Welk Show, there are no guest stars, only the regulars, the Lawrence Welk "family."
"For me," Welk says, "there is no greater joy than taking someone everybody says doesn't stand a chance and making a winner out of him. We don't hire stars. We create them."
Relentless critics say he simply rolls out Barbie Doll androids that look and sound alike — cookie cutter Lennon Sisters in an endless procession of Welk-en-kinder. But in the cold, cruel and competitive entertainment world, he stands almost alone as a person who bolsters, supports, finances, coaches, encourages and, generally, lends an avuncular ear to hopeful young talent.
Throughout his career, he's almost made an industry of giving "the big break" to any talented young person who shows he or she knows what he wants and is willing to work (hard!) for it.
The Welk training program consists of an intense one-year trial period during which the young talent works with regular members of the show and puts in occasional guest appearances. There are no signed contracts, no promises, no guarantees — but if, at the end of the year, the young performer shows he has learned enough self-discipline, has developed musically, and has the drive to score favorably when assessed on some metaphorical Welk Performance Chart, he'll be absorbed into the show when there's an opening. Two of the newest aspirants are Teresa Dorman and Dennis Smith.
On this particular Tuesday, Teresa, 22, a blonde knockout in black chiffon, has come up from Escondido and sits beside Uncle Lawrence in the dressing room. Even though she's heard it many times before, she listens in rapt attention, her eyes never leaving his face, while Lawrence explains how Teresa had a problem with her pronunciation.
Her therapy was to play, over and over again, Rosemary Clooney records that Lawrence sent down to Escondido. Teresa, while training, lives in the Escondido mobile home community owned by the Welk corporation and works as a singing hostess in the community's restaurant.
Would I like to hear Teresa sing? Lawrence sets the tempo with a little baton and she happily warbles a few lines of a song. Lawrence beams his approval.
Dennis Smith joins the group. Dennis, 17, connected with the show when it was visiting his home town in Louisiana. He'd taken two elderly aunts to see Lawrence and at the end of the evening, when the audience was invited up on stage to dance, Dennis asked if he could sing instead, since he didn't dance too well. After he had finished his number, someone shouted, "Why don't you hire him?" and Lawrence replied, "We will."
Would I also like to hear Dennis sing? Dennis smiles an aw-shucks grin and sets into "Love Me Tender" a cappella. Lawrence again turns, beams his approval, and suggests Dennis try it once again, "but clean it up a little."
Without a pause, Dennis tears into a cleaner version of the song. Good, good, but Lawrence suggests it one more time, half a tone higher. Without a flicker of protest, his grin suitably fastened, Dennis is again out-Presleying Presley.
Others drift in and out, paying obeisance, asking advice, joking, and you begin to sense what it is about the Musical Family that has made it so appealing to so many people for so many years. To begin with, there's a magnetic solidarity among these people, a feeling of a different, less pressured time. A time when relationships were more simple, more direct, more trusting — maybe more naive, but certainly infinitely more secure.
And the people are all, well, "nice." There's Tom Netherton, who's been with the show five years — tall, good-looking in a John Davidson way, so wholesome and clean-cut he squeaks. There's Kathy Sullivan, warm, friendly, funny, the latest in a long line of Champagne Ladies who won her way into the show with an emotion-charged rendition of "He's Just My Bill."
And they're loyal. Lawrence has not discarded his friends on the various rungs up the ladder of success. There's Myron, who has been with Lawrence right from the beginning; and Barney Liddell.
"People come up to me on the street and say, 'Hi, Jim,' " reports Jim Roberts, a feature singer who has been on the show for 23 years and considers himself part of the extended Welk family, “Some of them have been watching the show for as long as it's been on and they feel we represent a 'family' to them. They get to know us and look forward to seeing us each week. To them, I'm just plain Jim."
Everyone on the show is introduced on a first name basis. After all, you don't (for heaven's sake) call the people in your family by their surname.
There's Guy and Ralna and Mary Lou and Anacanni and Arthur (who has been tap-dancing on the show for 13 years). Above all, the family members are dedicated to Lawrence.
Ralna English has been with the show for ten years — ever since the night she arranged for her grandmother to meet Lawrence and got an audition instead.
"He's a very intelligent man who is always on top of everything — and he has an incredible understanding of human nature," Ralna says. "More so than anyone I know. Does he have a sense of humor? Of course! He's one of the world's great teasers."
Lawrence, on first introduction in his massive office complex on Santa Monica Boulevard, seems more serious, smaller and less glittery than he does on his weekly show. You wonder how many times in his 50 years of entertaining he has gone through the exercise of detailing his life and beliefs for reporters and what a bore it must be for him.
"Zukowski? Zukowski? But then you must love to polka! I've always wanted to put a dance floor in my office. Can you imagine what Laurie, my secretary, would think if she came in and caught us polkaing around the office?"
He is a direct man, funny, generous and, above all, kind. And he has retained that enviable childish fascination with life that many claim to have and few do.
What, he wants to know, do I think of his quite remarkable Bicentennial Clock, a timepiece of his own styling, all red, white and blue, that features the Lawrence Welk chorus singing, patriotically, "This Land." Or how about his "toys" — gifts from admirers — a smug-looking little rubber monkey, for instance, which he winds up and then chuckles over as it beats on a tom-tom and whoops like an Apache.
Before I leave, I'm loaded up with a Welk souvenir key chain, a pocket calendar dedicated to champagne music, and an autographed album of his favorite tunes.
You sense a certain bedrock quality that gives the man the self-confidence to enjoy everything in life without embarrassment. There's something diamond-hard about his principles and the way he has recognized value in his lifetime and wisely chosen to hang on to that rather than dumping it in a frenzy to be modern.
To enjoy his music, scoffers say, you have to be prehistoric, a charter member of the hoi polloi, a sentimental musical moron.
Ask one of the young stage hands what he thinks of Lawrence Welk's music:
"A lot of us come here from other shows to just sit and listen during our coffee break. The music is, y'know, soothing? Everyone wants to work on this show. It's organized and disciplined and very, very popular."
Or one of the older stagehands who has been around for years and who has seen them come and seen them go:
"Lawrence's music reminds us of a time when there was less competition and people trusted each other more. The music didn't go on and on about social problems but it was exciting and it was fun. The music then was about a simple, stable, well-ordered world and I miss it."
Reflect on the music that hits you nostalgically as you step into Studio 31. It's really (holy Harry James!) the genuine article. Memories flash of Jimmy and Tommy Dor-sey, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw. The Andrew Sisters and Jack Teagarden blowing the greatest jazz trombone heard by man. Paul Whiteman's band and the fat, schmaltzy trumpet sound of Ziggy Elman.
More than any other bandleader, Lawrence Welk has parlayed the sounds of the big bands into an eternal success and kept alive the music of the Thirties and Forties.
In front of the band, Guy (nice-looking) and Ralna (pretty) sit side by side on a love-seat crooning "Two Sleepy People," a 1938 vintage ditty from Bob Hope's "Thanks for the Memory." Hundreds of pseudo stars on a deep blue sky twinkle merrily behind them, washing the mood with sweetness and light. Even the lyrics are purified, cleansed. (The original line with smoking references, "Here we are, out of cigarettes . . ." has been purged.)
Hey, didn't they tell you that success means reverb chambers, electronic gadgets and amplified guitars? How about a voluptuous breathy-voiced starlet o' two? Some rapid fire one-liners maybe? Where the obligatory sexiness? The blood, guts and violence?
Obviously this raging success story steps to a different drummer.
Lawrence admits that most of his fans are the "mothers and fathers," the people who danced to his music back in the olden days. They were loyal to him then, and they're fiercely loyal to him now.
There's a familiar story about a Michigan couple who bought a Dodge car in the days Welk was sponsored by Dodge even though neither of them could drive. They just wanted to help the boy out. And there's the man from Vancouver, Canada, who came to his dressing room and presented golfer Welk with a jade putter.
While most of his fans come from middle America, there are also quite a few heavyweights around. "One morning," Welk remembers, "I received a call from Palm Springs saying that President Eisenhower would like to play golf with me. Was it possible that I could come over?
"I managed to rearrange my appointments and the next morning drove up to Palm Springs. During the drive, I found myself reminiscing about my early life and poverty, thinking about how wonderful it was that I could work myself up to the place where the President of the United States would call and ask me to play golf."
Not bad for a former North Dakota farm-boy who rode to glory on a rhinestone accordion — a living, breathing enactment of The American Dream. The poor kid with no advantages who made it to the top. Now, he has fame, fortune and the admiration of millions. It could only happen in America.
Lawrence was born March 11, 1903, in a sod house in Strasburg, North Dakota, the second youngest of eight children. His parents were German, gentle, religious and frugal people who had fled from Alsace-Lorraine to Southern Russia and finally to America to escape religious persecution. They brought $15 in their pockets and the family accordion.
Life on the farm was austere and the children were raised strictly in keeping with old-fashioned virtues. Only German was spoken at home, and for many years after he left Strasburg, Lawrence continued to struggle with English.
As a child, Lawrence was so shy and sickly he began school much later than the others. When he was in the fourth grade, he developed appendicitis.
As he recalls it: "I didn't want to tell my parents I was sick again until I got yellow. By the time they got me to the hospital (it was 75 miles to Bismarck, the nearest town), my appendix had ruptured."
Lawrence survived but was in the hospital for seven weeks and at home for three months. Rather than go back to school with children so much younger than himself, he begged to leave school and work on the farm.
The work was hard but there was always music in the Welk home. Brother John played the accordion, the violin and the clarinet and even as a child "little Lawrence" was considered to be quite a musician. But nothing like his father — it was well known in the community that Ludwig Welk had "perfect time." This sense of rhythm, says Lawrence, was his most treasured legacy from his father.
Money was hard to come by. In order to buy himself an accordion, Lawrence and his brother trapped gophers and squirrels that were destroying crops and sold them to the government for two cents a tail. The accordion was from a mail order house — a worldly rhinestone-studded beauty that Lawrence proudly carted to weddings, barn dances and church socials.
He remained on the farm until he was 21, pitching hay, cleaning barns, feeding hogs — and all the time dreaming of becoming a musician. On his 21st birthday, against his father's wishes, he packed up his accordion and left to seek his fortune.
On the train to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he hoped to join up with a band, one of his fellow passengers asked Lawrence to play a little tune. He was so overjoyed to be asked to entertain that he played and played until literally ordered to cease and desist.
One of the first men to exert a strong influence on his life was a colorful vaudevillian named George T. Kelly. Kelly heard Welk play at a county fair and invited him to join his troupe billed immodestly as "The World's Greatest Accordion Player."
More memories: "We would hire a hall which was just four walls and then go to the local lumberyard and get pop cases and big planks to make seats. We had our own curtain which we would string up across to make a stage and then we would do a little show for an hour and a half.
"After that, George T. Kelly would take off his makeup (he was Ole the Swede) and I would change my clothes and go down and sweep the floor and move the seats to the side. Then we would have a dance which lasted until one o'clock. The men would pay $1.00 and the ladies would get in free."
One of the things that always fascinated Lawrence about George T. Kelly was a diamond ring he wore.
"He told me I should get one as soon as I could because it would shine brilliantly as I played my accordion, and that would indicate a certain amount of success. As the next two years passed, it became an obsession with me to acquire such a ring, and as soon as I saved enough money, I bought this one. I've had it ever since, except on two occasions; I lost it once while swimming, and once I had to pawn it for a week or so, so we could eat."
In those early years, Welk couldn't read music, he played badly, and he was fired so often he began to think about going back to trapping squirrels.
"The trouble was, the accordion was not too popular with other musicians. I couldn't hold a job. In one band, they said, 'It's either him or us.'
"I could see the guys pulling their hair when I hit a wrong chord; some of them lost a lot of hair. But I would walk around the floor and serenade the couples, and the favorable comments would be about the accordion player. It's human nature to want to be played up to."
In 1926, Welk took what money he had saved, bought a used car and formed his own group called Lawrence Welk's Novelty Orchestra.
"Maybe I couldn't play with anyone else, but with my own group, everyone else had to play with me. And I couldn't be fired. We didn't play good, but we played loud."
The Welk Orchestra soon settled on a style that the public seemed to like and it was now dubbed Lawrence Welk and His Hotsy Totsy Orchestra. The Hotsy Totsies were also known as America's Biggest Little Band, primarily because the six musicians in the group played 33 different instruments between them.
"The Music Corporation of America in Chicago hung the Hotsy Totsy title on me and it took me years to live that one down."
Since sponsorship was a big thing in these years, Lawrence decided that he'd have a sponsor, too. When one wasn't forthcoming, he decided it had to be himself. He bought chewing gum from a factory, had it packaged and hustled it. In its honor, he renamed the band Lawrence Welk's Honululu Fruit Chewing Gum Band.
"We were picking Miss South Dakota, Miss North Dakota, Miss Nebraska, Miss Iowa and other states surrounding that could hear us on the station. The girl that got the most wrappers would get a radio."
In the winter of 1927, Lawrence and his men were stranded by a blizzard in Yank-ton, South Dakota, unable to get through to the next town where they had a booking. The next morning, Lawrence learned that a new station, WNAX, was about to begin broadcasting that very day.
In a flash, Welk was auditioning with his accordion. The station owner was so impressed he invited the orchestra to play for the first day of programming. They were paid $15 for the week. This booking lasted three years and was the Welk band's first venture into the media.
Through the years that followed, the bookings improved and so did the band. They played all the East Coast ballrooms providing big band music for a dance-crazy nation. They played the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, the famed Roosevelt Hotel in New York, and finally the beautiful Aragon and Trianon twin ballrooms in Chicago.
The term "Champagne Music" was born in the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. The orchestra was broadcasting three times a day, coast to coast, on Station WCAE.
"The nation heard about us for the first time and a lot of letters would come in. One fan wrote in saying that the music was different from any he had heard and it reminded him of champagne, it had such a bubbly effect."
When Welk adopted the "Champagne Music" slogan, he also took a song he had written, turned the whole notes into eighth notes and it became his theme, "Bubbles in Wine." In 1939, the famous machine that still floats bubbles across the stage made its debut in the Chicago Theatre.
The leap into television came in 1950 while the Champagne Music Makers were still playing the Aragon Ballroom in Pacific Ocean Park. KTLA, a local television station, had a continuing telecasting contract with the ballroom and Lawrence "inherited" a Saturday evening TV program telecast from the Aragon. Within weeks, KTLA's ratings leaped beyond any yet scored and for several years, few, if any, TV advertisers would buy time against Lawrence's six to seven Saturday time slot.
In 1953, the Lawrence Welk show was signed for a 13-week summer replacement by the Dodge Dealers of Southern California. Within weeks, he was signed for a year, and by July, 1955, the Lawrence Welk Show was being broadcast nationally via ABC.
There's a story circulating that when Lawrence Welk is heard to purr his familiar "wunnerful! wunnerful!" and "ah-one, ah-two, ah-three . . ." he's actually just counting his millions. The boy-and-his-accordion has become an enormous musical corporation that owns real estate, enterprises and 58 music publishing houses with copyrights to thousands of songs such as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and all the works of Jerome Kern.
Intrinsic to this corporation is a system whereby members of the musical family share the profits of all the financial ventures.
"I have a great belief that you treat people as if they belong to a family. Ours is a family type organization. A musical family. I am the father and they are my children. I take care of them financially."
Back in his hometown of Strasburg, they still love him. They've named a dam after him, a swimming pool and a park, and, reportedly, a photograph of Lawrence hangs in the Post Office along with the President's.
Welk now lives in Santa Monica with a holiday home in Palm Springs that he, his wife, Fern, their children and grandchildren and friends enjoy. Lawrence regrets that he can't spend more time in Palm Springs, basking in the sun and playing golf.
Golf is a Johnny-come-lately passion with him, but he plays the Bob Hope Desert Classic each year and he's dedicated one show this year to Bob Hope. Golf, perhaps, is also one of the reasons he maintains a remarkable vitality and enormous drive at a time in life when many people are grinding to an amble.
His daily schedule would stop someone many years younger. He wakes up at 4 or 4:30 and has a good workout in his heated swimming pool. After this, he knocks off a bucket of balls on the driving range and relaxes with a nourishing, healthful breakfast. He's into work at 7:30, usually before anyone else. His energy level is quite amazing.
Zukowski never got a chance to test this energy level with a hearty polka but when it came time to say "goodbye and thanks for the interview …" someone on the set was crooning "Thanks for the Memory." The Champagne Dance King swept me around the dressing room floor like a veritable Strauss — and ladies, there is no question about it, the man dances … DIVINELY.