by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. It’s a Saturday night in 1955, and you’re looking for entertainment. You want it bright, cheerful, positive, and free; the kind of program that taxes you intellectually not at all… but makes you smile with feel-good music delivered by feel-good people. You spin the dial and find a guy called “Lawrence Welk” and his Champagne Music. You give a listen… you like what you hear and thence forward every Saturday night is dedicated to the ultimate feel-good- guy Lawrence Welk, so expert at creating just the soothing ambiance you need.
This is the man and his music we’re celebrating today. Go now to any search engine and find his signature tune “Bubbles in the Wine”. Lay back, enjoy, and leave the cares of the real world far, far away… Born March 11, 1903 in Strasburg, North Dakota…
Lawrence Welk is arguably the most celebrated individual ever from the rolling hills and punishing climates of North Dakota. And he hated every single aspect of the state that remembers him so fondly now.
He hated Strasburg, a German-speaking community in the middle of nowhere.
He hated his father Ludwig… he hated his mother Christina… emigrants who started life in Odessa, Ukraine, then a part of imperial Russia… arriving in America in 1892…
He hated the sod house in which he grew up.
He hated farming, its backbreaking, never-ending chores and obligations.
He hated the bleakness of it all… and so he bided his time, daydreaming about a place over the rainbow that was anywhere other than where he was. A place where there were happy people, people with a song in their heart and some insistent, cheerful melody on the brain. He knew such a place existed… and he was sure he would find it.
His ticket out was a mail-order accordion. It sold for $400, a fortune in those days. He borrowed it from his unrelentingly pragmatic father, who essentially indentured him to the farm he hated until his 21st birthday or until this headstrong son paid off this astronomical sum. Part of the deal was that Lawrence take on extra paying work on other farms, too, every penny to go to his father. He did, with vengeance in his heart…
Punctilious in his obligation, young Welk on the occasion of his 21st birthday left everything he knew and hated, turning his back resolutely on his detested past. He and his accordion never looked back; they couldn’t. They had burned every bridge and outraged every familial tie. Failure was not an option…
There was hardship ahead…. lots of scheming and hopeful connivances… even days of despair as he strove to find his way…. But every moment that was less than perfect became the fuel to create this always happy, always perfect place of his imagining.
Welk in those early days of the 1920s was a blur of activity. He performed with bands lead by Luke Witkowski, Lincoln Boulds, George T. Kelly… and led the big bands of the dancing Dakotas, the Hotsy Totsy Boys… and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. Then he did what he’d always been destined to do… he created his own band and started to craft the lighter-than-air sound that made him rich and famous worldwide. It was a style scoffed at by learned folks, discriminating folks, folks of hubris, condescension and arrogance… but a style embraced by the millions who knew a good thing when they heard it.
A ball of energy, always immaculately turned out, his dancing pumps oiled and shined, baton at the ready… and the celebrated smile about to be delivered with mega- watt brilliance, this was the Lawrence Welk of WNAX Radio, Yankton, South Dakota… and beyond… Always an optimist in hot pursuit of perfection and the better life he took time to study at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from which he graduated in 1927.
This was the height of America’s gift to the world, the Jazz Age when a gyrating generation showed their disapproving parents how a body in motion could move in hepped up ways, contorted, nimble, thrilling to watch, soaring to dance. You probably never knew, or even imagined, that the Lawrence Welk of your memory in November, 1928 cut a popular ragtime record with his Novelty Orchestra, for Indiana-based Gennett Records. It was called “Spiked Beer” and it moooooooooved!
But jazz was not his metier; dance tunes and “sweet” music was… and he became a recognized master of an undemanding, smoothie sound that attracted real people, too often burdened by their difficult realities, especially during the Great Depression Welk and his trademark sound helped an often desperate, despairing nation get through… whistling and dancing, forced to move on, move out, move up… optimists all, down perhaps for a minute, but wisecracking as we got back on feet set in motion by the facile tunes of young Mr. Welk.
He kept Amerca dancing in the dark days America needed to dance more than ever… let’s hope that his parents (now a distant memory for Lawrence) came to recognize the swan they had brought forth amongst the chickens… maybe even on one-never-to- be-forgotten night dancing at the Farmstead to his lolly-pop confections, and smiling… If so, it was the only time champagne in any form entered what is now called the Ludwig and Christina Welk Farmplace, an attraction you can visit when next in Strasburg.
The Lawrence Welk Show.
In 1951, after cutting several records (including Spade Cooley’s popular “Shame on You” in 1945) and appearing in many motion pictures, where his increasingly inimitable sound became the perfect background for what were then called “Soundies”, Welk moved to Los Angeles, the most superficial metropolis on earth, where they welcomed him with open arms and where he launched The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA radio, where it was broadcast live from the Aragon Ballroom at Venice Beach. What a piquant image that is… the smoothly oiled muscular bodies on the beach…. the even smoother sound of Lawrence Welk emanating from on high like so much star dust.
The show was a great hit… and was the proximate cause the ABC network picked up Welk for national distribution in June, 1955. It was here the family of Walt and Victoria Lauing, my maternal grandparents, enter the scene. It is because of them and their obsession with Lawrence Welk and his sound that I wrote this article at all, for they and millions like them were the reason he succeeded.
Walt and Vic, young and attractive, were South Dakota people, who probably heard Welk in his early days. By the time I was 10 or so (1957) they had imbibed a lifetime of champagne music. Minutes before the program began, every child present was hushed and bribed to stay that way… and all was ready for the imperial entrance of Walt and his lady, recliners at the ready. No sound but the bubbles in the wine was even allowed or tolerated for the next 60 minutes. The congregation was ready… the Maestro could commence.
I laughed, of course, and derided, as youngsters of smart-aleck tendencies will do but amongst the cascading effervescence there was love, veneration and gratitude. He was their sound…
That was why my grandmother wrote away for tickets to the program when she and Walt flew to California to see my mother, their daughter, and family . You see she meant to dance with Welk on air. Every week she saw a myriad of other blue-haired ladies stand in line for the chance of whirling in her favorite’s arms on nationwide television. My grandmother wanted that, too…
And so one Saturday night we witnessed her televised struggle to get to the head of the queue, only to discover that the other ladies were as determined as she was… and despite our cheers, she failed.
She didn’t blame her idol, of course; it wasn’t his fault he was so popular and desired. But we all felt it keenly. It was probably the only time he ever let a fan down, until in 1982, when as the nation’s oldest television host, he at last retired, age 79. His legacy and bouncing music live on in the Lawrence Welk Museum, Escondido, California. I’m sure the spirits of Walt and Vic visit… for he made them so very happy for so very long.