It's Wunnerful Down Here in Tex-is!
A plaque in the lobby of the Lawrence Welk Museum proclaims: “A total of 10,300,000,000 people! (That’s 10.3 BILLION!) have tuned in” to the TV show. Welk started his first TV show in 1951, at the age of 48. He had been performing since he was a teenager. Anyone interested in music has heard of the Dorsey Brothers, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Crosby Brothers, all these Big Band orchestra leaders who were contemporaries of Welk.
So where had Lawrence Welk been? Was he an overnight success? Hardly. And to fully justify the motto of Carl Finch of Brave Combo: “The weather is always the opening act,” let’s go back to the year 1903 B.C. (Before Champagne) and find out.
Lawrence Welk was born in 1903 to German parents who, along with other relatives and friends who happened to be the wrong ethnicity, had been expelled from Strasberg, Russia by the Russian government in 1892. A group of them settled in central North Dakota. For the first year or so the Welk family lived in a hole in the ground that was covered with an overturned wagon and slices of sod covering the structure while a woodframe house was built. Farming wheat by day, the long winter nights were passed with Lawrence’s family playing a concertina accordion and his mother singing along with relatives. As he grew older, Lawrence harbored thoughts of leaving the farm and being a musician to escape the drudgery and hard work.
Both before and after finishing his chores on their pre-mechanical wheat farm (he became a champion wheat thrasher, probably from accordion practice), he practiced.
Well, times on that flatland farm were tough, and in the fourth grade his appendix ruptured; tiny Strasburg was several miles away by wagon, where the only doctor said he needed immediate surgery. In 1914 there were only a few automobiles in Strasburg. One was commandeered to cover the 75 miles to a hospital over the primitive dirt roads. Lawrence was hospitalized for several weeks and homebound for seven months after being released. He used the time to learn and become proficient on the banjo and several other instruments.
Lawrence wanted his own accordion; not his father’s third generation button box that had traveled over Europe, the Atlantic, and had been passed down to his older brother. When a traveling musician gave a show with a new-fangled pianostyle accordion, Lawrence was entranced and knew he had to have one. Just before his 16th birthday, he finally worked up his courage and asked his father for $400 to buy his own accordion (1919 dollars!). His father thought about it for a week, then agreed. His father made him a deal, he would sell a cow and buy an accordion for him, but he must pay him back from any performances at church socials and dances, and through work on the farm. He must also remain on the farm until he was 21 as his older brother had married and moved.
Strasburg was a mostly German Catholic community and the only school was run by the nuns and the only language spoken in the community was German. Lawrence spoke with a heavy accent and stilted English, which he didn’t learn until he left home; but he would use to his advantage decades later. For the next five years, Lawrence earned money playing for local weddings and parties and learned that the real money was made by being in charge. In 1923 (age 20), he had his first self-promoted dance in nearby Hague. He earned over $100 from that one dance giving him a false sense of success. The story goes that he was inviting people from the audience to learn to dance, and he began the lesson with uh-one, and a uh-two.
SO LONG, FARM!
Keeping his agreement, Lawrence left the farm at the age of 21 with his four-yearold accordion, train fare, and three onedollar bills pinned to his jacket. He soon learned that there were other languages being spoken besides German and started learning English. Moving around North Dakota (by train and hitching rides), Lawrence played solo gigs for his room and board and with a children’s orchestra call the Jazzy Junior Five, he realized that method wasn’t getting him anywhere. He teamed up with a drummer, Frank Schalk, who had a car. This improved his status as they could ensure that they would probably arrive at a booking and it increased the range of dance performances.
In late 1924, Lawrence and Frank joined an orchestra, and began to learn how to read music. Not only did he learn the basics of music, but he learned how NOT to run an orchestra as his bandleader would frequently forget to pay the band. They quit. Lawrence and Frank took a summer working “vacation” and traveled around the Dakotas once again playing for room and board or before the silent movies at theaters to survive. Lawrence was beginning to show his business sense by making deals for their performances so they might make a small profit. They observed that the successful bands were playing popular music and not the old-time music that they played and began to alter their style. At one early dance in the Dakotas, a blizzard forbid anyone attending the dance, except of course, Lawrence. He realized that the weather had defeated him, other musicians would have demanded the agreed upon fee, but Lawrence just asked for gas money and got it.
Lawrence and Frank had realized that the real money was in having your own band. They were soon playing fairly regular, but their car maintenance was eating up their profits. Lawrence cut a deal with a Chevrolet dealership for a new $700 car and they agreed to advertise the dealership on the car and from the stage.
RAIN CAN BE NICE
On July 4, 1925, Lawrence rented a pavilion and hired several local musicians for the day. When his dance started, he was dismayed to learn that his small audience was due to competition from the county championship ball game. Fortunately for Lawrence, the game was soon rained out, and people came to his pavilion to dry off as well as dance. From the new crowd, Lawrence paid the musicians, paid off his car, and had a respectable sum left over. Most musicians dislike the rain and sports competition but imagine his and Frank’s joy over this particular rainstorm.
That fall, Lawrence joined the Peerless Entertainers, a successful semi-vaudeville touring group, (comics, jugglers, singers, and dance orchestra). Here Lawrence really learned the ropes on running an orchestra as they toured the Midwest. Lawrence learned you did what you had to do to survive doing what you love; Welk played the accordion, posted handbills, sold candy between acts, and was a Spanish corpse in a comedy murder sketch, among other chores.
When the troupe folded, Welk, along with a drummer, saxophonist, and pianist went to back to North Dakota and formed the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra. The winter weather intervened, and he and his orchestra headed towards New Orleans as they were playing Dixieland music looking for work. A blizzard stopped them at Yankton, South Dakota, where Welk visited the small radio station, WNAX. He signed a week-long contract to perform on the air as they were snowed in, which was extended multiple times due to public acclaim. Welk did what he had to do including reading (!) ads for “Master Liquid Hog Tonic.” The area's Germanic population probably didn’t notice his accent.
It was here that Welk played under two other interesting names, one was the 10-piece Hotsy-Totsy Boys (hotsy-totsy was slang for stable) and The Honolulu Fruit Gum Company. The Gum name came from a sponsorship by the Honolulu Fruit Gum chewing gum company. As they worked the area, under this name, Welk would crown various attractive girls “Miss Honolulu Fruit Gum” because the winners had collected the most Fruit Gum wrappers. The dance hall operators hated them as they had to clean the gum off the floor after shows. Welk learned the power of radio in securing dance engagements from the fan mail (what towns would bring the most dancers) and job offers from afar (the geographical flatness and signal strength) and negotiating contracts. It was a music business 101 class.
While in the area, Lawrence hooked up with a family who owned a series of ballrooms throughout the Dakotas. The Aragon Ballroom was his favorite, where he was heavily hyped as “The Accordion King and His Sensational Novelty Orchestra—Gennet Recording Orchestra—Radio Favorite—The Most Popular Dance Attraction in the Middle West—Breaking Attendance Records Everywhere.” That was pretty heady promotion, which was apparently accurate.
It was about this time that Lawrence spied a pretty lady by the name of Fern in a radio broadcast audience and made an awkward introduction. Fern Renner’s background was fairly identical to Lawrence, born the same year, 50 miles apart to immigrant parents on a hardscrabble farm; her father died at 41 from a ruptured appendix. She possessed a strong desire to better herself, she became a registered nurse with a slant toward laboratory research. Her friends warned her that all musicians were shady characters and were only interested in one thing. She kept Lawrence at a distance, including moving to work at a hospital in Dallas, Texas. Lawrence promptly bought a small hotel (the Texas Hotel) with a ballroom in Fort Worth so he could perform and be near her.
They dated several times, but the road called for Lawrence. The two kept in communication by mail but he was a musician and always had to go play. Finally, when he was playing in Colorado, he lured Fern out to Denver, where he proposed, and they were married. She left a stable career as a nurse and lab technician to go on the road with a bandleader. Her tough choice between a medical career or a wife and mother was alleviated by having eight of her immediate descendants in the medical field. Lawrence was later the national chairman of the American Cancer Society and heavily donated to medical causes. Life was full of bumps for the newlyweds. They moved the band to Chicago, but that didn’t work out, they moved back to Yankton where he had a fan base. An unscrupulous agent hired Lawrence’s entire band away from him. He managed to put together another. During one of their one-night shows in a small town the Welks' hotel room was so dilapidated that Fern began crying; several days later, she told him she was pregnant. They began playing as frequently as he could get a booking to accumulate money for a planned relocation for the winter.
Lawrence had made arrangements to play an extended time at a ballroom in Arizona to stabilize his expectant wife and escape the winter weather. Upon arrival, he learned that the ballroom had gone bankrupt. Lawrence went straight to the creditors holding the mortgage on the ballroom. He pledged to cover any losses, if they would let him run it for the winter of 1931. After a month of profits, the Welk organization started moving back eastward with a swing through Abilene, Texas where they played New Year’s Eve at the Abilene Country Club and several engagements at the Abilene Hilton for the Abilene Christian College and the Knights of Columbus (where old-time, modern, and Irish songs were performed).
The Hilton’s Coffee Shop provided another spot for Lawrence to pick up some extra tip money and to promote the evening’s dance as he played prior to the evening show and get special outside performances. The Hilton poured on the hype on Easter weekend of ’32, by staging a three-day music festival, of which Th e Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra was the only band and the advertisements referred to them as “Six Magicians Playing Thirty-Six Instruments.” The Hilton also advertised that “Wives” are let in free.
As the roads thawed they moved northward playing in Lubbock and then Amarillo, where they were reviewed as “the best dance orchestra ever in Amarillo” and “Welk and his five assistants surrounded by three dozen-odd musical instruments gave the impression of a big dance band. Harmonious voices and syncopating rhythm as the musicians doubled on other instruments….” The Novelty Orchestra reached the Broadmoor Hotel, in Denver, Colorado for a series of engagements, one of which was the birth of Lawrence and Fern’s daughter, Shirley.
After playing the resorts and hotels around Denver and a stint through the Dakotas, winter showed up and it was time for Lawrence to head to Texas. Texas had been good to the Welk Orchestra and Lawrence had hired a band manager to take care of the details of running a band on the road. The Hotel Wooten in Abilene was their base of operations in the winter of 1932.
WELK IN TEXAS, Y'ALL
For the next several winters, Lawrence went to work for various hotels in North Central Texas; the Hilton and the Baker Hotel chains, which all had ballrooms, playing in Mineral Wells, Temple, and Dallas among other prime Texas locations. He was also free to play single dances in Amarillo (where he was billed as having perfect rhythm), Stephenville’s Knights of Pythias Hall, and Lampasas Hancock Park. The 1933 Lampasas monthly dances were advertised as his Novelty Band being the “Biggest Little Dance Band” as the six musicians who could and would play over 30 instruments.
His group burned up the Texas highways playing in College Station for the Aggie Corp, the Taylor VFW and Legion Hall, and in the Baptist territory of Tyler in East Texas, among others. His radio show on Dallas’ WFAA radio helped promote his dances at the Top O’ Texas ballroom which was in the Texas Hotel. WFAA was a clear channel radio which blasted out over half of Texas spreading the name of Lawrence Welk. Th e Welk Orchestra was apparently fitting in well with Texas as they were booked for the prestigious Cattleman’s Ball at the stockyards of Fort Worth. The Christmas dance of 1933, was unique in that the first mention of Welk’s ethnicity was mentioned. At one minute after midnight on Christmas Morning, Welk performed a German Christmas dance show at the Abilene Hilton Hotel.
The last half of the 1930s saw his agent (Music Corporation of America) working hard as his recordings (he always had been making records to sell at the dances) and bookings moved to the East Coast in major population centers in New York City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh, in 1938, that a fan wrote in and called his style "Champagne Music," since it was as smooth as the champagne the dancers were drinking. The popular music of America was still jumping, jive, jazzy music and Lawrence was providing an alternative style, playing the current songs yet in a smoother, easier-to-danceto melody that the older generation enjoyed (the same can be said 50 years later).
The agency, MCA, scored a major marketing coup. All the previously named big-star bandleaders were featured in motion pictures, but they generally were on the big screen one movie at a time. MCA swung a deal with Paramount Studios where the Lawrence Welk Orchestra would come to Hollywood and shoot a series of song-length videos (50 years ahead of MTV). These shorts played along with a cartoon before a feature film.
So, in company with Porky Pig, Our Gang, and Popeye, Lawrence played his champagne music which preceded movies with Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, and Joan Crawford. When Lawrence first started (before talkies), Welk would play live before the film and sometimes supplemented the movie with music. That was only one film showing at a time in one theater; with the new system, the Welk Orchestra could be seen and heard at thousands of theaters each day across the nation; record sales were phenomenal, to say the least. In the Dakotas where Welk’s music was heard constantly on the radio, the hometown theaters actually put his name on the movie posters in larger letters than the lead actors.
The folks in Pennsylvania fell in love with Welk and his music and wrote enough fan mail to keep him steadily employed. In McKeesport, Pennsylvania (full disclosure: named after a distant relative of this writer), a large advertisement claimed that Welk was from Texas and was “second to none in the country for dance music.” Even with the steady night dances, Lawrence, in his drive to make more money to support a growing family and orchestra played lunch and evening shows at some of the hotel’s grills (which despite the name, were elegant). His agency made sure to keep his name in the social columns mentioning that he was breaking attendance records and also included one item where it was revealed at the end of a series of concerts that he was married and had a family, which was purposely kept from his admirers.
CHAMPAGNE MUSIC ON THE ROAD
Welk left the northeast in 1939 and began a Midwest tour. Winter travel road conditions, a camper/bus, and higher fees made it possible to stay in the northern states during the winter and Welk’s popularity enabled him to pick his destination. Welk’s music was beginning to be copied by others, even though one orchestra described their music as “jiggling”(?). Welk (South Dakota’s Own Name!) returned to his roots by playing the Arkota Ballroom, however Welk was not that sentimental, as the ticket prices were 55 cents for both men and women, normally ladies were free.
One offer to play at the premier hotel in the Midwest, the Beachwater Hotel in Chicago was particularly desirable. The Beachwater had a large outdoor “shell” for their musicians. This was going to be a really big break for Lawrence, a national radio broadcast, state government officials, and national entertainment moguls were going to be there.
The hotel manager, decided that it would be “wunnerful” if Welk had his orchestra perform without him for the opening ceremonies, and he would make a grand entrance just as the radio broadcast took to the airwaves. Welk hesitantly agreed, and waited offstage, and waited, and waited; he finally ran on to the stage when the radio went on the air, put his arms in the air with the bandleaders baton, the uh-one, and uh-two was said, his arms came down to kick it off, and the skies opened up in a massive downpour.
What to do? You’re on live radio, it’s your chance to really show the nation your champagne music, the audience had left, why, you keep playing of course. Things went ok, his new orchestra were reading and performing the music off the music stands, until the rain soaked the sheet music and the music couldn’t be read. Welk’s skills barely kept the music going as they literally waded through the show.
After the Arkota, he headed to Texas for an extended engagement at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. In early January 1940 his road warrior background returned; he left Dallas and played a succession of shows (almost nightly) in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, and Minnesota (a dual show with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra) and then turned around and headed the 1,200 miles to the Rice Hotel in Houston to start a several-months-long series of shows at the end of January.
During his off time, Welk took his band on the road in the Central Texas area returning to College Station to play for the Corp boys and made it to the Rio Grande valley for several engagements where he started to use the term "Champagne Music" in the advertisements. One enthusiastic promoter billed them as the best band from Louisiana. While in Houston, the then unknown trumpeter, Harry James, auditioned for Welk's band, Welk told him he played too loud and to go back to the circus. You see, James’ parents owned a circus, and he had learned to play in a circus orchestra, which involves a lot of volume.
In the warmer weather, Welk headed back to the Midwest, where he played a variety of venues, after several months of playing the opulent Rice Hotel in Houston, including a skating rink in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The life of a musician.
Returning to the Midwest, Welk’s driven personality to keep performing caught up with him. He collapsed on stage and was carried off on a window shutter where the hospital determined it was a gall bladder issue. He had been complaining about pains but, you know the show must go on.
During World War II, the Lawrence Welk Orchestra stayed put in Chicago. Welk actually bought a house, his and Fern’s first, in an attempt to provide a home life for him and the musicians' families, but you know, the road called. He was playing in New Orleans, when his wife, in Chicago, was in a severe accident; she gave orders not to let Lawrence know how bad it really was (both legs broken, dislocated pelvis, etc.). Lawrence kept performing but did sacrifice the girl singer in his orchestra by sending her to Chicago to babysit the three children. Of course, the girl was totally inexperienced in nursing or childcare.
In 1947, when Welk was a national radio and recording star, he didn’t forget Texas, as a songwriter, Jack Kenney, had written a song entitled T-E-X-A-S and Texas Governor Beaufort Jester wanted it used in his inaugural program, but hadn’t actually heard the song. Somehow Welk recorded the song and Kenny played the record for the governor to be.
This was the time when polka music was selling and Decca Records released a set of 78rpms entitled POLKA. If you lived in Waco you could visit the Disc Record Shop to pick up this “Heady and Exhilarating” album and hear the Champagne Polka, Barbara Polka, Beer Barrel Polka, Pennsylvania Polka, and others. Although Welk included polkas, waltzes, and schottisches in his set list, his advertisements never mentioned them.
Welk continued working out of Chicago until 1950, with forays into surrounding states during the week until they got tired of the unpredictable winters.
He decided to relocate to Southern California, where he was, of course, well known thanks to the movie videos, large album sales, and continual pre-recorded radio broadcasts. Television was in its infancy, just as radio once was, and in 1952, Welk seized the opportunity to broadcast live from the Aragon Ballroom in Los Angeles on a local television station. After the third year, ABC bought the show for nationwide broadcast, and the German-speaking, first-generation farm-boy from the wheat fields of North Dakota soon became a cultural icon with his fractured English catchphrases, excellent performers, and commitment to a music style, not to mention the richest man in Hollywood behind Bob Hope. Overnight success? Hardly. He just took a different route to the top and over 30 years to do so.
Next month, Welk facts, trivia, and debunking of his supposed squareness.