'Champagne' maestro Lawrence Welk dies Veteran TV star was 89 years old

May 19, 1992|By Peter B. Flint | Peter B. Flint,New York Times News Service

Lawrence Welk, the band leader whose folksy charm and bubbly brand of "Champagne music" shaped the longest-running show in television history, died Sunday evening at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 89.

Mr. Welk had been suffering from pneumonia in recent days, said Bernice McGeehan, a spokeswoman for the Welk Group.

With diligence, drive and a cheery "ah-one an' ah-two," the self-taught maestro became one of a handful of television entertainers who defined the viewing habits of a generation.

He rose from an immigrant farm family in a German-speaking hamlet in North Dakota to become one of the nation's favorite showmen.

The buoyant Mr. Welk presided over "The Lawrence Welk Show" ABC on Saturday evenings from 1955 to 1971, when the show was dropped because sponsors said its audience was too old, too rural and too sedate.

Undaunted, Mr. Welk signed up more than 250 independent television stations in the United States and Canada and kept the show on television for 11 more years. Repackaged as "Memories With Lawrence Welk," the show has been appearing on public television on Sunday afternoons since 1987.

Mr. Welk was a strict taskmaster, demanding from his performers hard work, thrift and self-discipline. He kept his musical family -- stalwarts like the "Champagne Lady," Norma Zimmer, and the Lennon Sisters -- basically intact, at times even by arbitrating marital disputes. These are some of the professional precepts on which he insisted:

* "You have to play what the people understand."

* "Keep it simple so the audience can feel like they can do it, too."

* "Champagne music puts the girl back in the boy's arms -- where she belongs."

Over the decades, Mr. Welk became, after Bob Hope, the second-wealthiest performer in show business, and his band and production company became the second-biggest tourist draw of Los Angeles, right behind Disneyland.

The Welk dance band offered an easy mix of pop, swing, Dixieland, country, Latin, polkas and inspirational music. Detractors called it tinkly Mickey Mouse music dispensed to geriatric audiences.

On March 31, 1963, Mr. Welk, his orchestra and performers including Ms. Zimmer and the Lennons played the new Baltimore Civic Center. 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.

Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in a sod farmhouse in the prairie village of Strasburg, N.D., one of eight children of the former Christine Schwab and Ludwig Welk, immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, a region of France that was once part of Germany.

At night, his father taught him to play an inexpensive accordion, and from the age of 13 he earned money playing at social gatherings. At 17, he played in local bands and formed a group, the three-piece Biggest Little Band in America, to help inaugurate radio station WNAX in Yankton, S.D.

At 24, he put together a six-piece band called the Hotsy-Totsy rTC Boys. He also bought and operated a series of small businesses, one of which featured an accordion-shaped grill that served a product called squeezeburgers.

These projects failed, but his fortunes improved as he led bigger bands in bigger towns and on radio, mostly in the Midwest.

He then moved to Los Angeles, where his show was first telecast. In 1955, when he was 52, his coast-to-coast television program began its record run.

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