(source: Walz Master File -
Gordon Walz < email@example.com > his ref. [1295301.ftw] )
Lawrence left home on his
birthday in 1924 to pursue his musical career. On July 2, 1955, he made his
debut on national television. The Lawrence Welk Show was produced for 26
years and today reruns of the popular program air weekly throughout the
United States and foreign countries.
Lawrence and his wife Fern
(Renner) have three children, Larry, Jr., Shirley, and Donna. Lawrence died
in 1992 and Fern lives in retirement in the Los Angeles, California
Lawrence Welk ----------------
03-11-1903 - 05-17-1992
Lawrence Welk's parents (Ludwig
and Christina Welk) left the Odessa region of Russia in 1892, and settled in
the Strasburg area of North Dakota, just after statehood had been achieved.
Their first house was made of sod. Four siblings were born in the sod house
- John (1893), Barbara, Ann Mary, and Louie. A second, more modern house was
built, and Agatha was the first sibling born in the second house. Lawrence
was born March 11, 1903, and Mike and Eva were born later.
In 1914, Lawrence suffered a
ruptured appendix. He was hospitalized for 7 weeks, and full recovery took
over a year. During his recovery, he played instruments while he was too
weak to work on the family farm. He eventually returned to farm chore duty,
and although he never liked any of the chores, at age 15 he set a
When his brother John got
married, Lawrence volunteered to stay home and do the necessary chores. He
did the chores as quickly as he could, then he spent the rest of his time
alone playing John's accordion. Shortly afterward, a visiting musician named
Tom Gutenberg entertained in the area, playing the new piano-type accordion.
Lawrence was entranced with both the music and the accordion. This finalized
Lawrence's desire to be a musician instead of a farmer. Just before his 16th
birthday, he finally worked up his courage and asked his father for $400 to
buy his own accordion. He promised to work on the family farm for 4 more
years, and to turn over all the money he made from playing the accordion.
His father thought about it for a week, then agreed. For the next five
years, Lawrence earned money playing for local weddings and parties. In
1923, he had his first self-promoted dance in Hague. He earned over $100
from that one dance.
On March 11, 1924 (his 21st
birthday), Lawrence left the family farm to seek his fortune. He moved to
Aberdeen ND and stayed with the Faith family, earning little more than his
room and board expenses. He went to Bismark (capital of ND) a few weeks
later, but had even less success there. He returned to Aberdeen, and teamed
up with Frank Schalk, who had a car and played drums.
In the fall of 1924, Lawrence &
Frank joined the Lincoln Boulds orchestra at Watertown, SD. Lawrence
improved his music reading ability, and he quickly learned how NOT to run a
band. Boulds frequently "forgot" to pay the band members, and Lawrence
finally left the band.
In the summer of 1925, Lawrence
took a vacation at Lake Okaboji, Iowa. There were pavilions for several
bands on the property, and Lawrence soon saw vivid proof that the popular
bands were the ones that played what the people liked. On his way back to
Aberdeen, Lawrence frequently played for his supper, and often played for
pay (whatever deal he could make with the owner) at theaters.
Back in Aberdeen, Lawrence and
Frank again formed their own band. They had fairly regular work, but
Lawrence's old car consumed most of the profits. Lawrence traded his old car
in on a new $700.00 Chevrolet for accelerated payments plus advertising. On
July 4, 1925, Lawrence rented a pavilion at Scatterwood Lake, 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 place to dry off as well as dance. Lawrence paid
the musicians, paid off his car, and had a respectable sum left over.
In September 1925, Lawrence met
George and Anna Kelly at a fair in Selby, South Dakota. George hired
Lawrence for his own group, the Peerless Entertainers. George was an
excellent mentor for Lawrence, both professionally and personally. The
Peerless Entertainers had an extensive, successful tour in their established
locations, but had more and more troubles as they tried to travel south to
New Orleans. George and Anna called an early end to the tour and returned to
their home in Poplar, Montana, until the next tour. During the hiatus of
summer 1926, Lawrence led a West Texas band. In the fall of 1926 he rejoined
the Peerless Entertainers. In the spring of 1927, the Peerless Entertainers
tour was again disrupted when George Kelly became too ill to perform.
Lawrence and two other Peerless
Entertainers, Johnny and Howard, wound up in Bismarck, North Dakota, where
they added Art Beal to their group. Deciding to travel south toward warmer
weather, they stopped at a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota. Lawrence went to
observe the WNAX radio studio there, and managed to get an audition for his
group, now called "Lawrence Welk and his Novelty Orchestra". The first few
weekly contracts soon grew to a long-term contract, and Lawrence was amazed
at how quickly the band became known from the radio publicity. The band
enjoyed prosperity there in 1928 and 1929.
While performing at WNAX,
Lawrence met Fern Renner, a student nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital, and the
most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Their first date was a double date at
Fern's insistence. After a long-distance romance, Lawrence and Fern became
engaged in Denver, Colorado, in 1931. They were married on April 19, 1931.
Lawrence and Fern moved to
Chicago, Illinois, and lived there for a while, but eventually moved back to
Yankton SD. Lured by an unscrupulous agent, the whole band walks out on
Lawrence. As perseverant as ever, he forms a new band and keeps on going.
Shortly afterward, Lawrence and his new band perform at Twin Lakes, where
they encounter some of the worst accommodations they have ever seen. Fern
cries over the disreputable condition of the Welk's room, and a few days
later tells Lawrence that she was so moody because she was pregnant with
their first child. The band goes to Phoenix, Arizona, only to find the El
Mirador Ballroom closed in bankruptcy. Lawrence gets the creditors to reopen
the ballroom by promising to cover any losses himself. The band enjoys a
3-month run there before moving on to the Broadmoor in Denver, Colorado.
While the band was in Denver, Shirley Welk was born April 28 or 29, 1932.
Afterwards, the band played in
Estes Park (near Denver) and went to Texas for a series of one-night stands.
In Dallas, Texas, Lawrence bought the Maine Peak hotel in an attempt to give
Fern and Shirley a stable location. He was unable to stay from his music for
long, and due to Fern's good work in managing the hotel; they sold it for a
The magnetic pull of station WNAX
once again returned Lawrence and the band to Yankton. Lawrence found a
better sideline business by selling Honolulu Fruit Gum. The band was renamed
Lawrence Welk and His Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, and they acquired a
sleeper bus for their tours. Local Miss Honolulu Fruit Gum contests enhanced
both the musical and sales income of the band.
A friend recommended that
Lawrence move to a bigger city, so he moved to Omaha, Nebraska. What the
friend had failed to tell him was that he had to have a union card to work
there, and that there was a six-month waiting period. Lawrence and Fern
raised chickens, and the band again resorted to one-night stands hither
thither and yon. When he applied for a union card, he was denied, because
the local musicians feared he would take away their own business. The best
event of the Omaha period was the birth of Donna Welk on February 13, 1937.
Later in 1937, Lawrence got the
band an engagement at the St. Paul hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota. They had a
radio broadcast from the hotel on station KTSP. They were still performing
there when Lawrence received word that his father had passed away.
The band subsequently moved to
the William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opening on New Year's
Eve 1938. They had a radio program there on station WCAE, with Phil David as
their announcer. Shortly after their opening, Phil noticed that some fan
letters described the band's music as sparkling, light, effervescent,
bubbly, gay, and happy. In a moment of inspiration, Phil told Lawrence that
the band played "Champagne Music", thereby providing the slogan that they
had been looking for. The next engagement was at the Normandy Ballroom in
Boston, Massachusetts, where Lois Best became the first Champagne Lady. Then
they returned to the William Penn hotel. This engagement was in the
Chatterbox Room, and they were even more successful than they had been in
the Italian Terrace Room.
The next engagement was the
Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. The Edgewater was one of the
nation's top hotels, and Lawrence was thrilled to be there. His fame soon
made him a target for song-pluggers, and he was too kind to turn them down.
His charity resulted in a decline in his popularity. He finally asked a
critic in one audience for advice, and discovered that he was failing to
follow a rule he already knew. He wasn't playing enough of what the audience
wanted to hear. He promptly began playing more popular tones, and invited
the critic to lead the band as a token of his gratitude. The critic went
away converted, and the band regained their success playing favorites. The
Edgewater engagement was followed by the Chicago Theater engagement.
The next engagement, the
Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was where Lawrence began to do
his own announcements consistently. He was fortunate to have the good
personal and professional advice of Eddie Weisfeldt, the theater manager,
who helped him improve both his speaking and his clothing. The band
continued to enjoy successful runs at many hotels around the country, and
while at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas, Lawrence became a father
again. Larry Welk was born on March 11, 1940, in the same hospital where
Shirley Welk had been born years earlier.
Following the birth of his son
Larry, Lawrence finally was able to settle down for an extended period. The
band played at the Trianon Ballroom and the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for
most of the 1940's. Jayne Walton was the Champagne Lady at that time.
On Friday, May 2, 1951, the band
made its local television debut on station KTLA in Los Angeles, California.
On July 2, 1955, the band made its national television debut on ABC. The
Lawrence Welk Show ran on ABC until 1971, when it changed to syndication.
The syndicated shows continued into the early 1980's. The Oklahoma Network
began repackaging episodes with various Welk stars as hosts in the late
1980's, and several 'new' PBS episodes continue to appear each year.
Lawrence Welk died of pneumonia
in the early 1990's. He was survived by his wife Fern, his son Larry, and
many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.