2015 – Lawrence Welk
Lawrence Welk was born to Ludwig and Christiana Welk in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota, on March 11 of 1903. Lawrence was sixth of the Welk’s eight children and grew up helping on the family’s farm.
In addition to growing crops and raising chickens and cows, Lawrence’s father secured income by performing with his accordion at local barn dances. Stories suggest one of Lawrence’s first memories as a young child, is of his excitement at being allowed to press the keys of his father’s accordion.
Another well-noted story tells of a deal Lawrence struck with his father when he was 17 – Lawrence promised he would work on the family farm until he was 21-years-old if Ludwig would purchase him a $400 accordion.
After dutifully fulfilling this promise, Lawrence left home in 1924, at the age of 21, wearing a new jacket and carrying three dollars and his accordion.
Welk toured with a few bands, then formed his own band which was known first as the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra, and later as the Hotsy Totsy Boys and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.
In 1924, while attempting to move to New Orleans for the warmer weather, the band stopped over in Yankton, South Dakota, auditioned and was hired at WNAX to appear on the regular radio program and to perform for commercials.
It was also in Yankton that Welk met a local nurse, Fern Renner. Fern and Welk married in 1931 and together had three children – Shirley, Donna and Lawrence Jr.
Legend suggests it was during a 1938 performance at the Saint Paul Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Welk’s music was famously dubbed “Champagne Music” by a listener who claimed Welk’s sound was, “effervescent, like champagne.”
The band’s first televised performance was in 1951 and this appearance foreshadowed the success Welk would see beginning in 1962 with his signature program, The Lawrence Welk Show.
As host of The Lawrence Welk Show, Lawrence was known as a very rigid taskmaster and required of his “Musical Family,” constant rehearsal and strict adherence to patriotism and morality. So firm was this expectation by Welk, he generally declined sponsorship from alcohol and cigarette companies, and is said to have fired cast he felt did not portray a virtuous life.
The Lawrence Welk Show aired from 1951 to 1955 in Los Angeles, then on ABC nationally, from 1955 through 1971.
At this time, even after being canceled by ABC, The Lawrence Welk Show audience remained eager for the program’s content. Thus, Welk began his own production company and continued creating the show for syndication until 1982 when he was 79 years old.
The latter part of Lawrence and Fern’s lives were spent in Bonsall, California and in Santa Monica, California where, according to family, on March 17, 1992, Lawrence passed away peacefully due to complications with pneumonia.
Today, the farm on which Lawrence grew up is operated as a historic site and can be toured by visitors who travel to the northwest area of Strasburg, North Dakota.
Lawrence was admitted as a charter member of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award in 1961 and in 1994 he was welcomed into the International Polka Music Hall of Fame. A star celebrating Welk’s recording career is located on Hollywood Boulevard, and another can be found on Vine Street noting his success in television. In 2015 Lawrence Welk was honored as one of the first two inductees into the North Dakota Music Hall of Fame.