A pretty informative history of Lawrence Welk and his popular television show
The musical genius we all know as Lawrence Welk was born March 11, 1903 on a farm near Strasburg, North Dakota...the third youngest of eight children to German immigrants Christina and Ludwig Welk. Discovering at a young age that music was his career and not farming, he got his first accordian from his dad performing at church socials, weddings and a variety of local dances. At twenty-one he left home to make a name for himself in the world of showbiz, joining several bands throughout the midwest thanks to his magic fingers playing the accordian. However, after a while, he found that being a bandleader was more fun than being just a mere member, so with a lot of vigor, and hardly any word of English spoken, he formed his first band, Lawrence and His Hotsy Totsy Boys. That was later followed by Lawrence Welk and His Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra followed by a procession of other bands, which regularly performed one-nighters across the midwest, and at WNAX radio in Yankton, South Dakota.
It was around this time in 1931 he married the love of his life, Fern Renner...and she would bless him with two daughters...Donna and Shirley, and a son....Larry Jr. During the "Dirty Thirties," his band began to take shape, especially on one faithful night in 1938 when the band was performing at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, PA. When a dance patron commented that his music was "light and bubbly as champagne," he was from then on referred to as Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers. In 1939...he hired Lois Best as his first full time "Champagne Lady" and a year later began a nine-year affair performing regularly at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, IL. Throughout World War II and in postwar America, Lawrence added a stable of bright young music makers to his core such as trombonist Barney Liddell, Orie Amadeo on woodwinds, trumpet players Norman Bailey and Rocky Rockwell, Johnny Klein on drums, Jerry Burke at the keys, vocalist Dick Dale and accordianist and right hand man Myron Floren. In 1951, Lawrence and his band set out for an engagement in Southern California, and liked it so much he stayed...performing at the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica, where local TV station KTLA began broadcasting his performances.
Then in 1955...the ABC network came calling, and with the efforts of super agent Sam Lutz, producer Don Fedderson and sponsorship from Dodge, Lawrence Welk and His Musical Family of Champagne Music Makers made their national TV debut that summer. Regulars like guitarist Buddy Merrill, vocalists Jimmy Roberts and Larry Hooper along with Champagne Lady Alice Lon became household names as the show soared in the Neilson ratings. Lawrence in this period would later add marimba player Jack Imel, clarinist Pete Fountain, the adorable vocals of the Lennon Sisters, Irish tenor Joe Feeney and honky-tonk piano players Big Tiny Little and Jo Ann Castle to his ever growing Musical Family. He even convinced ABC to air a spin-off...Top Tunes and New Talent aired Mondays from 1956 to 1959.
By 1960, changes became evident on the program, Norma Zimmer replaced Alice Lon as Champagne Lady, and the JB Williams Company (which made Geritol) took over as the shows' sponsor. The Sixties became a fertile period for change and innovation on the Lawrence Welk Show, with Bobby Burgess and Barbara Boylan joining in 1961 as a dance team along with Arthur Duncan, who joined in 1964 as the show's very first African-American Musicial Family member with his skills as a tap dancer. The show also made the transistion from black & white to color as viewers got to see how colorful the show got, and it wasn't just the outfits! Cissy King came on as Bobby's new dancing partner in 1967 when Barbara left to get married and start a family....and Tanya Falan would join later that same year, eventually becoming Larry Jr's wife.
The Lennon Sisters left in 1968....but renforcements came with the duo of Sandi Griffiths and Sally Flynn and as the decade came to a close, talent such as Gail Farrell, Clay Hart, Richard Maloof, Johnny Zell, Ralna English and Guy Hovis would become part of television's most beloved musicial family.
In 1971, ABC dropped a bombshell when...in pursuit of younger demographics....cancelled the Lawrence Welk Show after sixteen years while it still was a network ratings winner. Angry fans flooded the network with phone calls and letters of protest, while Lawrence got letters of encouragement. That prompted him to syndicate his show coast-to-coast, and by that fall with more than 200 affilaties on board (larger than when they were with ABC) the Lawrence Welk Network presented the syndicated Lawrence Welk Show....and with talent such as Ken Delo and Mary Lou Metzger on board...became a super duper ratings smash! Throughout the Groovy 70's...talent such as Tom Netherton, Ava Barber, Kathie Sullivan, The Semonski Sisters, Sheila and Sherry Aldridge, Roger and David Otwell became familiar and friendly faces on Saturday nights. When Cissy King left in 1978, Bobby got a new dance partner in Elaine Balden, and Gail Farrell brought along Ron Anderson and Mike Redman as the popular singing trio of Gail, Ron and Mike. In April of 1982, the last regular show of the series was aired as Lawrence decided to hang up his baton for good.
But that wasn't the end of the Musicial Family, the show still ran reruns in syndication...and Lawrence and the gang would reunite for holiday specials. In 1987....when PBS aired an biopic called "Lawrence Welk, TV's Music Man"...the ratings were so huge that later in the fall...the show aired on public TV coast-to-coast with wraparounds hosted by Lawrence and his Musicial Family...and even though Lawrence sadly passed on in 1992, the show still continues to this day...more than 50 years running! Lawrence's legacy also lives on in his Musical Family, in which they regularly perform live to loyal and faithful fans.