Lawrence Welk, a bandleader for millions, dies

May 19, 1992|By Tom Gorman | Tom Gorman,Los Angeles Times

Santa Monica, Calif. -- Lawrence Welk, a firm taskmaster and consummate businessman whose champagne music was welcomed into the living rooms of Middle America on Saturday nights for an unprecedented 27 years -- the longest prime-time musical program in television history -- has died, it was reported yesterday.

Bernice McGeehan, a spokeswoman for the Welk organization, said that he was 89 when he died at his Santa Monica home Sunday evening of pneumonia.

"He really died peacefully," with family members at his side, she said.

Mr. Welk was a reluctant farm boy who left his home near Strasburg, N.D., when he turned 21 for a career as an itinerant accordion-player.

Mr. Welk and his bubbling music-makers were a television staple for 36 years, making their debut in an era when Arthur Godfrey, Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners were at the top of the Nielsens. And they outlasted them all. As recently as 1988 Welk could be heard cueing his band with his "uh-one and uh-two" signature countdown on weekly rebroadcasts of his television shows on PBS outlets throughout the country. Never an innovator, Mr. Welk's criteria for success was to keep it sweet and simple: play the proven standards the people want to hear, in the simplest of arrangements, and in less than three minutes just in case someone did not like a particular song. It was safe-and-sane TV entertainment, painfully predictable and stable and wholesome.

For that, he went virtually without praise from within the TV industry itself. His reward came from his audiences, those who could not wait for their weekly taste of "uh-one and uh-two" accompanied by a succession of Champagne Ladies, accordionists and talented instrumentalists.

Mr. Welk, his orchestra and performers including Norma Zimmer and the Lennon Sisters played the new Baltimore Civic Center on March 31, 1963. Thousands of fans met him at Friendship Airport, and his performance was a sellout, grossing more than $50,000, which was reported as the largest gross in Mr. Welk's history of one-night stands.

Some performers ultimately grew frustrated by his methods, which included control over music and even costume selection. Many quit.

Alice Lon and the Lennon Sisters were two such cases in point.

Ms. Lon was Mr. Welk's "Champagne Lady," the showcased songstress symbolizing the essence of femininity. But she left the show in 1959, in a lingering feud over wanting more variety on her musical menu and -- more sensationally at the time -- in a dispute over the length of her hemlines, which were rising in concert with Welk's chagrin.

"There was a dress code that everyone had to live up to," said Sam Lutz, Welk's long-time manager . . . and that got to be a problem when he started working with a younger generation of people in the music business."

The singing Lennon Sisters -- Janet, Kathy, Peggy and Dianne -- felt working for Mr. Welk put them in a time warp.

"As we got older -- into our teen-age years and then into our 20s -- we wanted to do more sophisticated, more popular music," said Kathy Lennon, who was 12 when she and her sisters joined the show in 1955. "But Mr. Welk frowned on that. He wanted to give people music he thought they could understand, and he didn't think they could understand Beatles songs or Stevie Wonder songs.

"We'd be skipping around toadstools singing "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" while our friends at school were listening to the Beatles," Ms. Lennon said in a 1988 interview.

The Lennons left Mr. Welk in 1968, to the bandleader's dismay.

"He didn't want to let go of his little girls, but by then we all were married and between us had eight children of our own," Kathy Lennon said.

Still others left the show over money disputes with Mr. Welk, who paid the minimum union scale to his cast. "We worked at group scale, which was $110 a week, for 10 years," Kathy Lennon recalled. "After that he agreed to pay us solo scale, $210 a week. That's what we finished out at. When we told him we'd stay if he'd pay us double scale, he told us, 'No act is worth a penny over scale to me.' "

Mr. Welk did set up a generous profit-sharing plan for his performers while giving them freedom to appear on other television shows and to make outside personal appearances.

Not many, however, found extensive work outside of the Welk show. For one thing, they all had to be at the studio for the Saturday night show -- the biggest night of the week for personal appearances.

Mr. Welk was an unlikely candidate for national fame, but parlayed his German accent, charisma and a keen discernment of Middle America's musical taste into a business empire founded on television, records and music publishing. At first uneasy as a television personality, fearful that his fourth-grade education would betray him, he soon enough became smitten by zTC the love affair he developed with his audiences.

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