by RANDAL HILL
To “hip” teenagers of the 1950s, his music was strictly Squaresville. But to the generations who grew up on big band music, he offered a musical oasis—a brief respite from that annoying “rock ‘n’ roll”—to millions of TV viewers every Saturday night.
The sixth of nine children, Lawrence Welk was born in 1903 to immigrant parents in German speaking Strasberg, North Dakota. He loved music and learned to play the
accordion from his father.
Welk left school after the fourth grade and promised to stay and work on the family farm until he turned 21—if his parents would buy him a new mailorder accordion. They agreed to his terms, and Lawrence rolled up his sleeves and set to work.
He played polkas and waltzes on weekends at local weddings and barn dances until 1924, when he went on the road and formed several dance bands, his last one being Lawrence
Welk and His Champagne Music Makers. Welk created the name after noticing a Miller High Life billboard that proclaimed the drink to be “the Champagne of Bottled Beers.”
He and his troupe moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and were soon performing on local television. Four years later, The Lawrence Welk Show debuted nationally on ABC-TV.
The stubborn-as-a-mule Welk insisted on controlling all aspects of his career. When sponsors suggested adding chorus girls or a racy comedian, he threatened to walk out. He was always tuned into his viewing audience and studied all his fan mail. When one
lady complained of being offended by the maestro’s knees—he had appeared in lederhosen on one show— Welk never again exposed his offending leg joints.
No position on his TV show was more exalted than that of the Champagne Lady, an attractive female sidekick who sang and danced onstage with Welk. Hired in 1955, Alice Lon reigned as the Champagne Lady until one fateful day in 1959 when she sat onstage, crossed her legs and revealed a bare knee to the camera. “Cheesecake does not fit our
show,” Welk grumbled afterwards as he unceremoniously showed her the door.
When ABC-TV dropped his weekly show in 1971, he arranged a syndication deal that kept him on the air until 1982. That, along with real estate and music-publishing investments, made Lawrence Welk one of the wealthiest entertainers in American history.
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at email@example.com.