For the generation that grew up on the big bands of the ’30s and ’40s, The Lawrence Welk Show was a blessed island of calm in a world gone mad for rock and roll, and it aired like clockwork every Saturday night from 1955 to 1982. But for the children and grandchildren watching along with them, it seemed more like the “television show that time forgot.” The man at this generational flash point was an accordion-playing, Alsatian-accented bandleader who kicked off each number with “A vun and a two” and ended with a cheery “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Although he delighted the older crowd, youngsters were usually not so enamored. As polarizing in his own folksy way as Elvis Presley was in his, the inimitable Lawrence Welk—creator and King of “Champagne Music”—was born in rural North Dakota on March 11, 1903.
Welk’s parents were immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine who spoke only German to the nine children they raised on their farm outside Strasburg, North Dakota. In fact, Lawrence Welk did not learn English until his early 20s, which explains the accent that became his trademark. A dutiful son, Welk dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work full time on the family farm, but he decided early on that he wished to pursue a career in music. He learned to play the accordion from his father, who carried his own antique instrument with him when he immigrated to America. Lawrence wore out the inexpensive, mail-order accordion bought for him as a boy, so he made a deal with his parents: In exchange for a $400 loan to purchase a professional accordion, he would stay and work on the family farm through the age of 21. Playing small professional gigs in the surrounding area, Welk honed his musical skills and earned enough money to pay his parents back when he left home for good in 1924.
By the early 1930s, Lawrence Welk had earned a degree in music and made a name for himself as the leader of a traveling orchestra. He had also failed in a restaurant venture selling “squeezeburgers” cooked on an accordion-shaped grill, but he had succeeded in developing a unique brand as the proponent of a pleasing pop style dubbed “Champagne Music” for its light and bubbly quality. After two decades of success in the Midwest, Welk made his way to Los Angeles in 1951, taking up residence with his orchestra at the Aragon Ballroom in Pacific Ocean Park. He made his first appearance on local television the following year, and his show was picked up by ABC in 1955. When ABC dropped The Lawrence Welk Show in 1971, Welk independently arranged a syndication deal that kept him on the air for another 11 years and made him one of the richest entertainers in America.
Born on this day in 1903, Lawrence Welk died on May 17, 1992.