Coakley^ Mary Lems/190?-
Mister Music Ma^er, Lawrence
Welk. With a foreword by
a foreword by
kansas city public library
Books will be issued only
on presentation of library card.
Please report lost cards and
change of residence promptly.
Card holders are responsible for
all books, records, films, pictures
or other library materials
checked out or " "' '~
,_.^, ( ,,.o
DEC 12 I960,;. --"/''
Mister Music Maker,
by Mary Lewis Coakley
MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
OUR CHILDGOD'S CHILD
FITTING GOD INTO THE PICTURE
MARY LEWIS COAKLEY
With a Foreword by Lawrence Welk
DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY, INC.
Garden City, New 'York
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 58-6634
Copyright 1958 by Mary Lewis Coakky
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
It's a pleasant fact in life that, should a man be so
blessed as to receive a more than ordinary measure of pub
lic acclaim, a lot of good people want to learn about his
early struggles to achieve it. Several booklets and articles
have been published on our accomplishments, and now
the distinguished author, Mrs. Mary Lewis Coakley, has
written this detailed and all-inclusive story of my life.
Before doing so, Mrs. Coakley spent weeks at our home,
getting to know my wife and family, then attended a
good many of our musical rehearsals and professional en
gagements, becoming closely acquainted with my other
family the Champagne Music Makers. Her book, which
follows, shows warm perception into what makes us tick
and I am honored to be the subject of it. Our genuine
thanks to Mrs. Coakley and to you, the public, whose grat
ifying interest in our work has justified her efforts.
Chapter i "Strike Up the Band" 15
Chapter 2 "On with the Show'* 2,0
Chapter 3 "The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round" 26
Chapter 4 "Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho, It's OS to Work We Go" 31
Chapter 5 "Down on the Farm" 36
Chapter 6 "School Days, School Days" 47
Chapter 7 "True Love" 53
Chapter 8 "Don't Fence Me In" 63
Chapter g "A Wandering Minstrel I" 70
Chapter w "America's Greatest Accordionist" 77
Chapter 11 "America's Biggest Little Band" 86
Chapter 12 "Getting to Know You" 97
Chapter 13 "We'll Stroll the Lanes Together" 107
Chapter 14 "There's a Long, Long Trail" 114
Chapter 15 "Rock-a-bye Baby"
Chapter 16 "Deep in the Heart of Texas"
Chapter 17 "Boys and Girls Together" 133
Chapter 18 "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" 140
Chapter 19 "I Get Ideas" 149
Chapter 20 "What'U I Do?" 154
Chapter 21 "See-Saw" 164
Chapter 22 "Three Little Words'* 173
Chapter 23 "Smilin Through" 178
Chapter 24 "My Blue Heaven" 186
Chapter 25 "Keep the Home Fires Burning" 195
Chapter 26 "East Side, West Side" 202
Chapter 27 "More and More" 212
Chapter 28 "California, Here I Come" 219
Chapter 29 "All or Nothing at AIT 228
Chapter 30 "0 Happy Day" 236
Chapter 31 "Merrily We Roll Along" 242
Chapter 32 "Dear Hearts and Gentle People" 249
Chapter 33 "Home, Sweet Home" 261
Chapter 34 Tm Forever Blowing Bubbles" 274
List of Illustrations
Following Page 96
Mr. and Mrs, Ludwig Welk and family
Lawrence Welk and his orchestra
The car Lawrence Welk used in the late 1920'$
Fern Renner Welk
Lawrence Welk with his daughter, Donna
The Welk family making music at home
The Champagne Music Makers today
Following Page 192
A teen-age dance in the Aragon Ballroom
Alice Lon and Lawrence Welk
Lawrence Welk leading his orchestra at Blimp Hangar,
A Fan Club picnic
Lawrence Welk with the Lennon Sisters
Lawrence Welk, 1957
Mister Music Maker,
"Strike Up the Band 73
"Uh-one, and uh-two, and . . ." Lawrence Welk's hands
go up, his hands go down. He has popped a cork, and
Champagne Music fizzes gaily through the glittering ball
room of Washington's Mayflower Hotel.
A cameraman on the right of the bandstand maneuvers
his ungainly instrument. His helper swings the giant spot
light. Now swish gowns, and jewels almost as valuable as
an item in the national budget, come into focus.
Here is a night for Lawrence to cherish! It is January 21
of the year 1957, and this is an Inaugural Ball.
A penny for your thoughts, onetime farm boy, as you
stand up there on the stage and survey the room. You can
see the President in his box; you can see the diplomats,
the senators, the political party leaders, and other promi
nent citizensall swirling about to your bright tunes.
Actually Lawrence Welk will not speak his thoughts Just
now, so 111 play at mind reading.
I'm watching his face. He flashes that trademark smile
of his, back and forth between his musicians and the mill
ing people. Fifteen hundred watts bright tonight, it spells
out as clearly as a neon sign: I'M HAPPY. Even in the
very act of autographing programs for the crowd which
l6 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
masses around the base of the bandstand, he fairly bounces
up and down to the beat of the music, allegro vivo. When
have I seen such tremendous relish in the living moment?
And such joy of fulfillment? He must have dreamed about
this night, and waited for it a long time.
Now a dancing couple jostles by me on the crowded
floor, cutting off my view of Lawrence. "There have always
been Inaugural Balls, since the beginning . . . This is the
biggest thing in the country ..." I overhear snatches of
their conversation as they edge close to me, and my im
agination veers to do a quick flash-back.
It shows Martha Washington herself sitting on a raised
dais, while courtly eighteenth-century couples bow grace
fully before her; it presents a close-up of Dolly Madison,
elegant in velvet, as she tosses a provocative smile at the
gentlemen, begging "the please of a dance, ma'am"; it pic
tures slim, spirited, "Princess Alice" Roosevelt, organizing
a grand march which includes all her little brothers. Just
before a fade-out, there's another scene a glimpse of one
of Lawrence's predecessors, Victor Herbert, playing for
the McKinley Inauguration.
No doubt about it, this is, and has always been (of its
kind), "the biggest thing in the country." I can understand
why Lawrence has that exultant feeling. Could any band
leader ask for more than he has tonight?
But what's happening? I don't want to miss what's go
ing on with my sentimentalizing and theorizing.
There's a stir, and necks are craning, but I can't make
out what all the fuss is about. Now the crowd is parting a
little. I crane my own neck. Why, I hadn't expected that!
Somebody is escorting Lawrence Welk to the box of honor
"Strike Up the Ban<T 17
and there is the President extending his hand to clasp that
of the bandleader.
Cameras are grinding away.
"That was a great moment!" Lawrence told me after
ward in the gee-whiz tone of a little boy. "When I was
back on the farm, I never thought I'd shake hands with a
president of the United States."
"You've come a long way." I murmured the cliche, as I
measured the full distance myself for the first time. This
was indeed a far cry from the Dakota wheatlands. It was
on those wide acres, stretching to the rim of a lonely world,
that Lawrence was born and reared and in a sod house
which boasted no electricity, no phone, no plumbing, none
of the conveniences labeled necessities by most Americans.
Would any seer or prophet have been bold enough to
foretell that the road he took from the Dakotas would lead
to an Inaugural Ball, and to the TV studios of Hollywood?
If there had been even one, which is doubtful, he would
scarcely have figured that Lawrence's gross earnings* in
1956 would hover around the three-million mark. There is
a sum that most industrialists, or bank presidents or for
that matter the nation's President, who greeted Lawrence
Welk at the Hotel Mayflowercan never hope to write on
their income-tax reports.
For such success I can use Hollywood's pet word, colos
sal, and not even exaggerate. But how did Lawrence Welk
attain such success? What is his secret?
Without formal education, without "knowing the right
* Before payroll and other extensive expenses.
l8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
people," without a background of money or prestige, he
managed to pull off the stunt. How?
There is one rather obvious answer, and it is the right
answer up to a point. Lawrence Welk won success largely
the way other rugged Americans before him have done it,
by working hard and seizing opportunity. He personifies
the pristine American dream. His story is an American
But, true as this is, it falls far short of the whole answer.
The thing that makes Lawrence Welk special is not that
he began his career with few material advantages and
"made good." Other capable men before him have done
that. It isn't that he has attained nationwide popularity
through the highly competitive entertainment medium.
Other gifted men have done that too. Rather, it is that he
has won his bright laurels in the Hollywood arena without
the support of the tried and tested props, without the gags,
the gimmicks, or the glamour of the slick performers, the
blase wisecrackers, the glib comedians, and the publicity
boys. To most of them he appears as a rustic personality
who plays "corny" music.
Yet that personality must have some winning secret, and
that music some charms which fascinate as surely as did
the Pied Piper's melodies.
Whatever Lawrence Welk and his music have today he
and his music have always had. His friends and fans in
sist: "Lawrence hasn't changed. He's just the same now as
when I first knew him and the band back in Yankton,
South Dakota . . . back in Pittsburgh . . . back at the
Trianon in Chicago . . ."
The Hollywood experts are still baffled. Lawrence Welk
is an inexplicable wonder in their gaudy and giddy world.
"Strike Up the Band" 19
Indeed, he is almost unbelievable. After all this time they
keep asking: "What's he got? How did he of all people get
to the top of the heap? What makes the guy tick?"
I think I know the answers, and I hope that I can make
them clear, though it may take a whole book to do it.
"On with the Show"
Writing about Lawrence Welk's career is rather like writ
ing a mystery story or a mystery stage play. I saw him be
striding the heights of the entertainment world and then
I had to undertake the long search backward through time
and space from 1958 to 1903, from Hollywood to the
Dakotas, looking for clues to his success. Only by this pro
cedure could I unravel knotty circumstance and find out
precisely how he "arrived/*
Also writing of the very man himself, his character and
personality, had about it an element of mystery in fact
the more intriguing mystery. At first glance Lawrence
Welk seemed to fit neatly, with no loose ends dangling,
into the pigeonhole marked Naive Country Boy. But as
time went on, and I grew to know him better, and as I
talked to numbers of his friends and confreres, I kept dis
covering new quirks in his personality, and these I could
not so easily slip into a rigid category. Lawrence Welk, in
genuous though he is, is a much more complex being than
I had had the gumption to realize from the start. It struck
me that writing of Lawrence Welk, the man, is rather like
working a jigsaw puzzle: I would find how one piece fitted
with another and then with another until finally all the
"On with the Show" 21
pieces fitted together, to form a whole rounded picture
from which the man emerged.
The process began in the summer of 1956, six months
before the Inauguration, and I intend to give a blow-by-
blow account, taken from my notebook jottings. As the
King directed Alice in Wonderlands white rabbit, I'll "be
gin at the beginning, go on till ... the end, and then stop."
My transcontinental plane has landed. Here I am in Los
Angeles, all set to beard the lion in his den or Lawrence
Welk in his home. I have been invited to stay there. I start
walking toward the airport terminal, and I see a man
doffing his hat to me. Ed Spaulding, Lawrence Welk's per
sonal friend and confidant,* introduces himself, and makes
a little welcoming speech: "The Welks are so happy to
have you. If it's all right, we'll drive by the house to drop
your bags, then we'll go on to the studio. Lawrence wants
you there before the show goes on."
I like the man's gentle mannerliness. There is an old-
fashioned courtesy about it. But I'm impressed with some
thing else, too: this plan is precision-timed by Lawrence
Welk, so to dillydally is clearly out of order.
Could be that "Uh-one, and uh-two, and . . ." is not ac
cidental formula, but rather a symbol. Could be that
Lawrence Welk's mind always plans with metronomic ac
curacy, so that he can move ahead from task to task with
minimum waste of time and energy.
I begin to ply Mr. Spaulding with questions, but before
* Mr. Spaulding is also Lawrence WeUc's business administrator, and
(since the bandleader has incorporated his business) the vice-
president and comptroller of Teleklew Productions, Inc.
22 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
I gather nearly enough answers, he surprises me by an
nouncing: "Here we are."
Is this really it? Is this the Welk home?
Subconsciously, I suppose, I must have been envisioning
the kind of backdrop that the papers feature as typical
Hollywood stuffa "house of the future," sprawled with
a certain casual opulence on a convenient mountainside
ledge, and flanked with swimming pool or expansive ter
race, with lush patio or high wall over which would tum
ble a profusion of scarlet bougainvillaea, or ... or ...
Anyway here we are, all right, and I'm looking straight
at a decidedly unspectacular house, like that of any com
fortably fixed John Doe. It is Mediterranean in style, and
medium to smallish in proportions. There is a pretty yard
yes, the folksy noun suits fronting it.
Whatever he is, Lawrence Welk isn't pretentious. Show
for show's sake must not interest him.
But no more time for impressions of this kind. Mr.
Spaulding has already deposited my bags in the house, and
we are on our way again studio bound.
"Those are the fans," Mr. Spaulding explains to me as
we drive up to the place and I ask him about the long
queue of people leading up to one of the doors. "They're
waiting to get in and see the show. They've been there a
couple of hours."
He's indicating another door, toward which I am sup
posed to go. We enter, and he pilots me to an auditorium
seat facing the stage.
"Would you mind waiting here a moment?" he asks, and
Oh, there's Lawrence Welk. He's coming my way with
Mr. Spaulding. He's taller than I thought he was proba-
"On with the Show" 23
bly close to six feet. He doesn't look that tall on television.
Maybe it's that impressive breadth of shoulders which
makes him seem stockier on the screen but then I should
have remembered that TV always does make people look
heavier than they actually are.
Now we're being introduced, and Lawrence is greeting
me with: "It is so nice to have you with us."
There's a rather stiff bow, and a slight accent to go with
the words, which together with the plural "us" seem to me
a trifle stilted and formal. What was that comment of a
friend of mine back home? "He's like a German drill-
But no on the heels of that thought comes another
pushing itself forward as an absolutely certain insight he's
Our encounter is brief. There are technicians, stage
hands, and all sorts of people milling about, and one of
them is trying to attract Lawrence's attention. He excuses
himself and moves away.
There's a sudden noise. I turn in my seat. The crowd I
had noticed at the entrance is being admitted. They pile
in eagerly, their faces rapt with expectation. They have a
good look the look of plain, honest, conservative folk. But
I watch them only a few minutes before I turn back to the
stage. I don't want to miss any eleventh-hour preparation
that might be going on there.
Strangely, it is quiet. In fact there seems to be an un
natural hush. What's this? Suddenly I am conscious of ten
sion crackling in the air like electricity. As the minutes tick
away, it grows in intensity, almost, it seems, to the break
ing point. The musicians, their nerves tauter than the
24 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
strings of their instruments, are waiting for the show to
But there's a rustle. "That's the public relations man
ager," explains Mr. Spaulding, who has come back and
taken a seat beside me.
This man, Ralph Portner, is greeting the audience with
a little speech, and instructing them about the dancing on
the show and about applause.
He steps aside as Lawrence appears, and a wave of fer
vid clapping sweeps through the house. The bandleader
waits for it to pass. But now he is talking, welcoming his
fans personally. Behind him and to the left stands Myron
Floren. Lawrence beckons to him, asks him to play the ac
cordion, and says to the crowd: "Would any lady here like
to polka with me?"
Would anyonel At his word a number of women crowd
toward the stage. Some bashful and wistful, others urgent
and pushing. Lawrence is taking them as they come. Ap
parently he intends to give as many as possible a whirl.
"The gals sure love that!" I hear a man behind me com
And it's a good idea, too, because it has eased the ten
sion. There's that Welk smile that I've remarked on tele
vision. This is the first time I've seen it real life.
But the music stops, and the dancing ends. As though
a switch had been thrown, the smile goes off; Lawrence
could not be concentrating more seriously as he turns back
to his orchestra. The tension which had been momentarily
slackened is now drawn tighter than ever. Why, I'm even
conscious of my own breathing, and my racing pulse.
The public relations man is stepping forward again. He
holds out his arm. What's he doing? I see: he's marking off
"On with the Show' 25
the passage of the remaining seconds before the show, It's
like the ritual of a weird, archaic cult, and it seems intermi
nable. I can't breathe, and I'm getting goose bumps.
Oh, at last! The outstretched arm and pointed finger of
the high priest is giving the signal: "We're on the air."
Was it I sighing audibly with relief?
"The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round"
The show over at seven o'clock, California time, we are on
our way again. We go to the Ontra cafeteria for a quick
bite of dinner, and then hurry on to the Aragon Ballroom
in Ocean Park. Across the marquee of this building, col
ored lights spell out: "LAWRENCE WELK AND HIS
On the bandstand here Lawrence Welk seems a subtly
different person from the one he had been in the studio.
Now beyond the camera's rude stare, he is at ease and can
give himself wholeheartedly to the music. Even when he
isn't dancing, his feet move in rhythm to the beat. Indeed,
his whole body seems sensitively vibrant, as though every
tone passes through it, turned antenna. But inwardly, too,
he is responding to the sound waves. The vivid Welkese
smile lights his face with a brightness which seems to rise
not only from the patent "having a good time," but also
from a deeper source, an inner bubbling spring of sheer
joy in melodic sound.
Somehow in the jumble of first impressions this is con
nected in my mind with the term "Champagne Music." It
is apt in more ways than one. It suits the music, yes, but
it also suits Mr. Music Maker himself. He has an efferves-
"The Music Goes "Round and 'Round' 27
cent joy and energy as burbling as the festive wine and
just about as exhilarating to all who come within his range.
While I'm watching him, it dawns on me that I am in
the midst of a small crowd. Mr. Spaulding, faithfully at
my side, assures me: "That's nothing unusual, There's al
ways a bunch of people around the bandstand. They just
stay here, looking up at Lawrence and the band."
A girl waves a paper at him; "Please, Mr. Welk, I'd love
your autograph. I'm all the way from Baltimore."
As he takes the paper from her, he says a few words to
her and then to many other people who press toward him.
His manner is casual and friendly, but at the same time
What is he saying? There's a certain phrase he keeps
repeating. I edge a few feet closer. There, I've caught it.
He's saying what he said to me earlier: "It's so nice to have
you with us/*
By now the "us" doesn't seem formal. I'm beginning to
understand that Lawrence Welk does not think of himself
apart from his associates, and the pronoun, as he uses it,
refers to "the boys," and to himself only as one of them.
He takes no credit for his orchestra being good; it is "the
boys" who "play real wonderful."
And Mr. Spaulding is telling me that Lawrence recog
nizes talent anywhere any time. Here at the ballroom he
often allows music-minded customers to the stand to di
rect for a while, or he will put the microphone at the dis
posal of an aspiring singer who may hope that Welk
recognition will lead to a better job.
"He hired Jim Roberts, the tenor, that way," my mentor
continues. "One night Jim showed up here at the Aragon,
hoping to arrange for an audition. Lawrence said: 'How
28 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
about right now?' A letter of introduction or pull doesn't
mean much to Lawrence. He just looks to performance,
and anybody he can help along he does. He particularly
likes to give the young ones a boost."
And Lawrence's unorthodoxy goes further. I notice he
stirs up interest from time to time by dancing with a cus
tomer, and he also invites ladies in the crowd to the band
stand to choose one of the boys for a partner. If the entire
orchestra is thus simultaneously whisked away to the floor,
Lawrence picks up his accordion or turns to the organ and
plays a solo.
Any wall between patrons and performers has long since
crumbled, and the affair has taken on the air of an informal,
private party where everybody knows everybody.
Now the music comes to an end for a short intermission,
but Lawrence has no chance to leave the bandstand. Auto
graph seekers besiege him.
"The way he's smiling you'd think he was enjoying him
self," I comment.
"And this goes on from 8:30 to 2 A.M.," Mr. Spaulding
"How do you stand it?" I ask Lawrence as soon as I can
work my way toward him.
"Oh, the folks are real nice," he beams.
"But doesn't this ever get you down?" I gesture toward
the crowd still clamoring for autographs.
Before he can answer, some girl grabs his arm and tries
to pull him from the bandstand. I overhear what she's say
ing: "You're old enough to be my grandfather, but I want
to dance with you anyhow, so I can tell the folks back home
Apparently Lawrence is amused by her remark, tactless
"The Music Goes 'Round and *Round" 29
and indeed untrue. Grinning broadly, he promises her a
"Saturday night is more hectic than other nights," Mr.
Spaulding tells me. "That's when the crowd is largest."
"It looks like it's made up of a pretty good class of peo
ple, though/' I comment. "Better than usually frequent a
public ballroom, isn't it?"
"I should say it is," Mr. Spaulding affirms. "And on the
nights that Lawrence holds his weekly dance contests, it's
even more impressive."
But here's Lawrence again, and I have a question to ask
him. "With two shows a week, will you be able to continue
indefinitely playing here at the Aragon?"
His answer proves that he would like to. "Only when
we're close to folks like here at the ballroom can we know
what they want, and that's the most important thing to
us. It helps the TV show and it's worth the extra time, ef
fort, and work."
Work I want to know about that, too. "Now that you've
attained the heights in your profession, can you ease off
at all?" I inquire.
Lawrence smiles as he replies: "I never worked harder
in my life. Each step upward seems to bring more responsi
bility and more work. Even back on the farm, I didn't put
in more hours, and "
We are interrupted. The "music goes 'round and
'round." I won't have another chance to speak with Law
rence tonight. I mention to Mr. Spaulding that I am tired,
and he offers to take me "home," to the Welk house.
I move back toward the bandstand, hoping at least to
say a brief "Good night," and that's about all I can squeeze
30 MISTER MUSIC MAKEB, LAWBENCE WELK
Ah-now for bed.
The time is around midnight. What a day! I'm going to
get beneath those covers in a jiffy for sure. But Lawrence
Welkhe's still out there; he will still be making music till
the wee hours, and hadn't he said in parting: "See you for
ten-o'clock church in the morning 7 ?
"Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho, It's Off to Work We Go'
It is early morning and the beginning of a proper work
week. Notebook in hand, I'm ready to interview any man,
woman, or child who can tell me about Lawrence Welk.
But I would prefer to start with the subject himself.
There he is in the breakfast room. He's wearing a tan,
open-necked, short-sleeved shirt, which is actually only a
few shades darker than his tanned skin. Despite those long
hours on the bandstand he must find time for the outdoors.
Maybe he will choose the grounds in the rear of the
house for our literary get-together. But no, he's leading the
way into the smaU room to the left of the living room. It's
the sort of cozy nook, usually called a den, but one which
the Welks might just as aptly call a music room or library.
In one corner stands an artist concert organ, and along
one wall, bookshelves. The chairs are upholstered with
leather, and they indicate by a sturdy masculine-type com
fort that here is Lawrence's special domain.
I remark this casually to Lawrence, and I am rather sur
prised at the response I evoke. Immediately he launches
into an earnest little speech, explaining that Mrs. Welk,
Fern, decorated the entire house, "which is right, because,"
32 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
he avers, "the woman has to make the home. She is the
home the center and heart of the family."
"And the man is head?" I ask.
He nods seriously. "The man has to take the responsi
bility for big decisions-and especially about business con
ditions. He has to do the planning and lead the whole
family. That's the way it's meant to be."
What sort of a character is this? Is he a rigid stickler for
... I dismiss the half-formed thought, as he gives me a
disarming little-boy smile and adds: "Fern is real wonder
ful. She's a real wonderful wife and mother. I only hope
I do my part right."
I murmur: "I see/' but about all that I do see clearly at
this point is that interviewing Lawrence Welk is not going
to be like interviewing more conventional mortals. I don't
know what to expect next.
And I thought that I had come to Hollywood prepared
But whatever I was prepared for, and regardless of the
kind of man I found Lawrence Welk to be, I had taken
for granted that we would begin our interviews by discuss
ing his career, and by my taking notes derived largely from
the questions I'd ask him. I came provided with the usual
stock in trade: To what do you attribute your success?
Have you always had a bent for music? Tell me about your
early life, and what determined you to take up this pro
fession? And so on.
Now, I'm not sure that 111 bother with the rigmarole. I
make a few tentative approaches of a different sort. No
matter what I say, Lawrence takes off from there on a
flight of his own, which may carry him into a little speech,
frequently with moral overtones, but always with a touch-
"Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho, It's Off to Work We Go" 33
ing earnestness, and with the (I must use the word) sweet,
Well, so much the better to have him talk in his own
way. Then not only will events come out one by one, but,
more important for my aim, the man himself will take form.
Meanwhile, my eyes are straying to the bookshelves to
scan the titles up there. I see few general topics repre
sented, little history, biography, or fiction. In fact two
types of reading matter comprise the whole lot: religious
books and what for lack of a better term could be called
success books, that is, essays on how to succeed in business.
Turning back to Lawrence, I find myself blurting out:
"I guess you're pleased that I'm writing this biography be
cause it might help you publicity-wise?"
It is an unusual opening for any line of questions, but
his reply, spoken with sincere concern, is much more un
usual. Leaning forward, and making a steeple of his strong,
capable-looking, tanned hands, he says solemnly: "I want
a book that will help folks. I've learned a great deal in show
business, and when you've had some share of success, peo
ple are likely to listen to you, and even imitate you. I wish
I could find a way to pass on what I might know about
avoiding certain troubles and dangers."
"What, for instance? What troubles and dangers?"
"Well, for one thing, when we have a little success, it's
so easy to be bossy with folks, and to think we're perfect.
That's very dangerous."
As he goes on talking, I realize that the man is a moralist,
and a rustic sage, but above all he is a missionary, naive,
perhaps, but sincere, bursting with a humble desire to
share with his fellow man precepts and ideas he has found
useful in his own life.
34 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
If his thoughts are not original in the sense that they
have never been expressed before, I'm sure that they are
original for Lawrence, in the sense that they were pro
duced by dint of his own hard pondering on life as he has
And since he has worked to dig out his truth, he sees it
as a priceless find, a shining nugget of wisdom, to be
grasped tightly. In his eyes it is not hand-me-down words,
covered with the dust of old expression, and stale with the
smell of musty books, to be taken for granted or disre
I find his enthusiasm catching, his earnestness impres
sive. For instance, when he confides to me as though it
were a priceless secret known only to the initiated: "I've
found a way to have a real smooth life. It isn't by doing
what we feel like, or what comes first. It's by doing what's
right," the concept strikes me with greater impact than
Dante's poetic expression of the same idea: "In His will is
Or when he explains gravely: "You can bring out the
best in other folks by a few nice words, better than all day
long ordering them around," it makes a deeper impression
than reading Francis de Sales's "More flies are caught by
a drop of honey than a barrel of vinegar."
Of course I can see even this early in the game that Law
rence Welk, with his rather cumbersome speechifying and
his twists of phrase, is no fashioner of pithy epigrams, nor
is he adroit at tossing off the witty bon mot. Indeed his
very vocabulary is limited, so that he must often repeat
words; already I am beginning to label them in my mind
with the quasi-trademark, Welk Words. Then like a school
boy, anxious to be letter perfect, and trying so hard that
"Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho, It's Off to Work We Go" 35
he becomes self-conscious, he stumbles occasionally and
makes mistakes. But these quirks not only personalize his
speech, they also enlist, I find, a sort of affectionate sym
After all, he was brought up in a German-speaking com
munity, where at church, at school, or on the street he
heard very little English. He was twenty-one and on his
way in the "music business" before he made any concerted
effort to learn English.
Incidentally, that fact answers the question many peo
ple ask: Why does Lawrence Welk have an accent? And
the answers to more important questions are piling up
around me. Let me get to them.
"Down on the Farm"
"How did a man comparatively unknown nationwide be
come overnight 'the hottest thing on TV?" I put that ques
tion to one of Lawrence's henchmen.
The answer cuts me down to size. Only people who don't
know the facts call Lawrence's success an overnight phe
nomenon. The name Lawrence Welk had been a byword
in the Midwest for years before the band went to Cali
fornia. Lawrence's popularity had grown at a sure, steady
pace until it reached the heights where network TV was
almost inevitable. If, to greenhorns like myself, Lawrence
Welk may seem to have emerged abruptly, that's only be
cause of the nature of the television medium. Through the
simultaneous flick of millions of dials it operates on a new
"For nearly thirty years, I've been working up real slow,"
Lawrence himself tells me. "It has to be that way. If you
build fast, you fall fast."
Td like to hear about those thirty years," I prod. "'They
say that you've had a regular Horatio Alger life, with
plenty of tough struggles, and harrowing disappointments
to overcome. How did you get to the top?"
"Down on the Farm" 37
"If a man works hard, and lives right, he can't hold him
self back not in this country," Lawrence assures me,
"That's a glowing testimonial for our economic system,
but/' I persist, "it doesn't explain why your band is way
out in front of the rest. Don't the others work hard?"
"Maybe. But hard work in the wrong direction gets us
nowhere. There are orchestra leaders who are mostly in
terested in a good word from the critics; they try to impress
a few fellow musicians, and are more anxious to put on a
show than to keep a steady beat all of that is wrong. The
audience should come first. We should try to please them."
"How about describing Champagne Music for me in
your own words?" I suggest.
"Well, our music is simple. I'm strong for simple arrange
ments. We try for a melody that everybody can pick out,
and we try to have an easy-to-follow rhythm. Of course
we want a nice pleasant harmony, and a volume that's not
too loud none of that earsplitting stuff."
"And the sparkling quality which makes its name so ap
propriate? How do you achieve that?"
"We try for a light bubbly feeling with our instrumenta
tion and arrangements, but here ... I have something that
George Thow wrote. George plays the trumpet in our band.
He tells how we get the effect we want."
Lawrence handed me a sheet of paper from which I
read: "Lawrence Welk relies on the delicate woodwinds
flutes and clarinets rather than on saxophones; on
muted brass as against the blaring 'open' sound; on muted
violins and a great deal of accordion and organ. The reeds
concentrate on a graceful style which consists largely of
triplets or dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. The brass
play staccato for the most part The violins play melody
38 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
or obbligato as the music calls for. The organ and ac
cordion supply variety and tonal color. Underlying these
several sections and furnishing a foundation and definite
beat is the rhythm section of drums, bass viol, guitar, and
"I don't know whether I understand it all," I comment,
returning the paper to Lawrence. "All I know is that youVe
hit on something that the public loves and should I add,
you've also hit the jackpot."
"We made money after a while. But that's a funny
thing: some fellows talk about that, saying we're 'com
mercial' as though it were wrong for us to make money
and pay our musicians regularly. What's wrong with mak
ing money if you do it fair and square? You supply jobs
for lots of folks, and you improve their situation as well
as your own. I wonder if a lot more bandleaders wouldn't
make big money if they were patient enough, instead of
trying for short cuts to success,"
"Few leaders have your ability to sense what the public
wants. I've been told that you have a sixth sense, which
amounts almost to clairvoyance. You always know just
what will go over."
"It's not a sixth sense. As I said, I just try to please our
audience . . . decent people, the kind of folks that have
been my friends and neighbors all my life."
"If you had to name a few people who helped you along
the rugged path to success, who would they be? Mrs.
"Fern understood what I was aiming at, and she knew
I couldn't be happy without music. Some wives can kick
up a lot of fuss about the music business. Mostly we mu
sicians have to be on the road a lot, so it's harder to have
"Down on the Farm" 39
a home. Always Fern kept a real home for me to come back
to. Then my children well you know Shirley, and Donna,
and Larry. It was easier for me to stay away from different
kinds of temptation because I wanted to be a proper fa
ther to such grand kids. Steering clear of a bad life, though
I didn't do it for that, of course, helped me pay attention
to the music business and get ahead in it."
"And your parents?" I inquired. "Did they encourage
your musical talent, and help you launch a career?"
Lawrence grinned. "Maybe they encouraged music, but
they didn't like my career not in the beginning. There was
a time when my father would have given a years wheat
crop to see me a farmer. He was scared I might go wrong
if I spent my life in and out of dance halls. But my parents
did help. They taught me important things. I believe in
those things. What a man believes in, and what he is, has
a lot to do with the kind of success he makes. Do you want
to hear about my life on the farm?"
"I want to hear about your whole life," I assure him.
Out where the prairie meets the sky in the broadest of
arcs, and the lazy clouds drift slowly over the fertile earth,
lie the billowing wheat fields and the sod house.
The place holds many clues to Lawrence Welk's char
acter and to his success. Actually, in order to understand
anything clearly about Lawrence Welk, the man, it is "ele
mentary" to go back to the site of his boyhood and play
The life there was "pretty hard," as Lawrence says, but
he adds quickly: "My parents didn't come to America to
find easy conditions. They came to find freedom. And they
were willing to work for it."
40 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Their native land was Alsace-Lorraine, that territory
tugged and torn at by German-French rivalry. In 1878,
after the Franco-Prussian War, they left the place behind
rather than bend their erect backbones beneath Prussian
militarism and regimentation.
"But they didn't come straight to America/' Lawrence
explained. "A whole group of Germans went to Odessa in
the southern Ukraine district of Russia. My father, Lud-
wig, was just a boy then. He went with his parents, like my
mother went with hers."
As soon as young Ludwig found out that they had not
bettered their lot by the move, and that a goose-stepping
soldier's life was also prescribed in the land of the czars, he
set his sights on the far horizon on America, "the land of
"Of course, it took a few years to find a way to get here,"
Lawrence pointed out. "Meanwhile, my father and mother
got to know and like each other real well, and they were
It was in the year 1892 when the two, Ludwig and Chris
tina (now with another group of emigrants, derived from
the original Alsatian group), set out for the New World.
When they reached this country, although Christina
was five months pregnant, they, along with their country
men, immediately pushed west. Out there homesteading
was still open to those stouthearted enough to tackle the
job of clearing the ground and building from scratch. At
length the little band of pioneers reached, and settled on,
a broad strip of fertile land in North Dakota, where they
built themselves sod shelters before the cold weather set
in. The little town which gradually grew up adjacent to
their farms was called Strasburg. Though the spelling was
"Down on the Farm' 41
different from that of the Alsatian Strasbourg or Strass-
burg, the old-world city was evidently in their minds.
But what did Ludwig and Christina have with them to
set up housekeeping? Did they bring any possessions?
The sole notable treasure that Papa and Mamma Welle
carried with them during the long, long trek from Southern
Russia, across Europe, over the wide seas, and throughout
the arduous wagon trail winding up mountains and down
plains, was . . . but let Lawrence tell it: "Along with the
family Bible, they had an accordion/' he says. "It was sup
posed to have been handed down from a blind ancestor,
who was a kind of strolling player."
Talk about clues!
If children of such parents weren't born with music bred
in their bones, it would be odd indeed. Providence waited,
however, for the sixth child before it produced the accor
dion lover and player who is Lawrence.
"I was only about three years old," he recalls, "when I
began trying to reach the keys and pump the bellows of
our old-fashioned pump organ."
He continued to reminisce about the long winter eve
nings. "When the chores were done, music was every
thing," he declared. "My older brother played, and I
wanted to do what he was doing. Papa used to help me
"play 5 too by guiding my stubby fingers on the buttons of
the old-fashioned accordion. At the same time, he'd be
pumping the bellows for me.
"Later when I was older, we'd have little concerts, While
Papa played the accordion, John, my oldest brother, would
play either the violin or the clarinet, and I would chord
along on the old-fashioned pump organ. That was good
42 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
training in rhythm for me. Maybe it helps me today. Any
way, we had real wonderful times."
Apparently the exquisite delight of those evenings and
other, similar ones lingers nostalgically in Lawrence
Welk's memory. He drew more word pictures.
There are the whole family, four boys, four girls, father
and mother, gathered around the potbellied kitchen stove,
which ruddies their faces in its warm glow. John picks up
the accordion and plays snatches of melody. Suddenly
Papa pulls Mamma to her feet, and whirls her about in a
waltz, Mamma laughing and protesting: "Ach, Ludwig,
you tease! I'm not a girl any more."
After a few minutes he gives her an affectionate squeeze
and releases her. Now, it is his turn to play the accordion.
He chooses first a hymn and then some folk songs from the
old country, while the children, their treble voices ringing
clear, sing on and on.
Let the blizzards sweep from the north, let the snow pile
up beyond the window sills to shut them away from all the
world, let the wind unleash its demoniacal fury in the
night, let the wolves howl eerily from the dark clump of
trees just over the swell of the fields still the cold, the iso
lation, and the weird sounds were forgotten.
"Our family had so much together," Lawrence declared.
Yet there must have been times, especially when the
older folk were away helping some neighbor, when those
wolves sounded ominously close, and Lawrence admitted:
"It did give us a creepy feeling to hear them. I never quite
got used to them."
Also Lawrence can practically relive other nights when
he snuggled down under the patchwork quilts to lie there
quaking with dread (somewhat deliciously heightened by
"Down on the Farm" 43
boyish imagination, no doubt) as he thought of the nearby
Indians on the reservation. Occasionally a few of them, off
on a drinking spree, would rove the farms, curious, per
haps, as had been their ancestors, about these strange pale-
After Lawrence recalled this memory, he paused a mo
ment, before he went on, to present arguments that he
probably used to bolster his morale in the long-ago. "But
our walls were safe and thick two or three feet thick. They
kept us real snug/'
He further explained that those thick walls kept the
warmth inside during the winter, and made it cool "like
air-conditioning" in summer. And the house was "pretty
good size with an upstairs and all.'* The walls were white
washed and spotless. "We kids loved it when we were
snowbound and couldn't get out, but," he added hastily,
"not because the place was nice and comfortable, but be
cause we could usually count on a blizzard lasting three
days, anyhow. Three days to make music before we could
go back to work!"
They timed their holiday as they did other periods, for
that matter by the sky visible through the upper part of
the window. When there was grayness outside, that meant
a sun behind the fuzzy whirl of snowflakes; when there was
blackness that meant night. They didn't have to consult
clocks to tell the hour or the passage of days.
This was an interval of strange, secret enchantment, be
yond time and outside the workaday world. No wonder
that winter, harsh though it was, quickens Lawrence's
heartbeat even as he tells about it now.
Moreover, though summer was easier, it had its capri-
44 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
cious moments. In fact Lawrence said: "All seasons have
their bad conditions/'
Sometimes there were sandstorms, prairie fires, plagues
of grasshoppers, or even more frequently hailstorms.
"I can still remember," Lawrence remarked, "the sick
feeling that used to come over us when we would have to
stand by helplessly and watch a hailstorm."
A few minutes of severe hail could tear a wheat crop to
shreds, and destroy the months of patient, backbreaking
toil which had gone into sowing and cultivating it.
"But it was all part of the life," Lawrence stated. "There
were good times and there were bad. We did the best we
Even when the wheat crop failed, they were not entirely
dismayed. "You learned to get along somehow," Lawrence
pointed out. "We had chickens and we sold eggs. We had
a cow, and there was milk. Then Papa, whose family in
the old country were all blacksmiths, earned a little money
Apparently the Welks never felt sorry for themselves, for
Lawrence explained: "Our parents taught us that life was
meant to have some hard conditions. How else could we
grow strong? How else could we learn faith in God? It was
all for a purpose."
Religion was as pervasive as the air they breathed,
though he declared: "We didn't think of ourselves as reli
gious. God was a fact like the sun. And like the sun shone
down on us, God up there was looking after us."
Prayer came almost spontaneously. "Worshiping the
good Lord, Who gave us everything we had, seemed natu
ral, like eating, or sleeping or working," Lawrence testified,
and he added: "Mamma told us that when we tilled the
"Down on the Farm" 45
earth, and did what we should, that was a kind of prayer
tooif we remembered we were working in His service/'
Not that they neglected formal prayer, either. There was
always a short grace before and after meals, as weE as fam
ily morning and night prayers.
And churchgoing, too, was part of the pattern. In Stras-
burg, about three miles from the farm, stood the church of
St. Peter and Paul's. Come Sunday, Papa donned his stiff
collar and tie, Mamma her beribboned bonnet, and the
whole family their resplendent "best" to drive to town for
church. The worst winter weather did not seem sufficient
excuse to stay home.
"Many a time, just to begin work on a weekday morning,
we had to shovel our way through real deep snow from the
house to the barn, so we would do as much to get to
church," Lawrence declared. "We often had temperatures
of thirty to forty degrees below zero in the winter. Icicles
would form on our nostrils, and even our eyelashes would
get ice on them, so that sometimes, just to keep our eyes
from freezing shut, we had to stop and warm them by
shielding them from the cold air with our gloves. Then our
fingers they would be so stiff that it was hard to move
them enough to hitch the horses to the buggy. It was awful
hard, too, to get through snowdrifts, or to see more than a
couple of feet ahead if snow was falling right then. But
we didn't miss church."
No wonder when in later years the wide wanderings of
his business made getting to church regularly on Sundays
all but impossible, Lawrence Welk still didn't miss. Speak
ing of the era during which he played a morning radio pro
gram in Yankton, South Dakota, and evening dance bids
throughout the surrounding country, he said: "Often we
46 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
went right far for a Saturday-night dance, and that meant
driving back to Yankton at dawn for our early broadcast.
Seems like we were always pressed for time. It was stop
either for church or breakfast not both. I'd go to church.
Maybe I didn't have any strict duty, traveling and all, but
the home training made me feel that I should start the
week out right by worshiping the good Lord. I'd get the
boys who went to some diner to bring me out a bite to eat
on the bus into town."
Perhaps that home training is responsible for a great deal
more. Perhaps it offers clues to all that follows.
"School Days, School Days"
The only schooling Lawrence Welk had was in the elemen
tary grades, where he learned the ground rules of "reading
and 'ritin', and 'rithmetic." That schooling was under the
auspices of the Ursulines. A few nuns of this order had
come to the Dakotas from Germany, to teach children "in
the mission fields/' that is, in the far-flung places where
religious education was not readily available. As a matter
of fact, theirs was the only school in the area.
During the severe winter months, in order to save a tiny
tyke the arduous going back and forth, Lawrence lived
with the nuns in their little house which served as both
school and convent.
"I was a kid with a lot of mothers," he describes it.
The curriculum was carried out largely in German.
Though some of the Sisters understood English, they could
not easily persuade the parents to have their children
change abruptly to the new tongue.
Says Lawrence: "Out there on the plains, we were really
apart from the rest of the world, so most everybody around
just spoke their native language. None of our parents knew
more than a few words of English. Anyway, the Sisters
48 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
taught us our prayers and told us stories from the Gospels
He further recalls that they spent long hours teaching
the children the alphabet, and showing them how to form
its letters on slate or paper, and he mentions that "back on
those days, writing was all fancy curlicues, but we had to
do it, and do it real neat. And we learned some figuring
and spelling with drills and spelling bees."
But Lawrence points out: "None of these things were as
important as what we learned from the Sisters 7 lives. Sisters
live not for themselves but for other people, and they offer
everything they do to God. I guess we kids didn't really
think that out at the time, but some of it rubbed off on us,
and it taught us a lot-about unselfishness, and unworldli-
ness, and all."
Having given this little dissertation Lawrence paused a
minute, and then added as an afterthought: "But if I
talked about schoolwork only, then I'd say that the most
important thing the Sisters taught us was to keep our minds
on a question real steady, till we figured it out. I remember
they'd tell us: 'You can play later. Now, get to work and
put your whole mind on studying.' That training has
helped me ever since."
So Lawrence was taught to concentrate! Obviously that
did help him through the years to pick up additional edu
cation where and when he could not from books alone,
but from practical experience. Despite his skimpy four
years of schooling he has indeed picked up so much edu
cation that certain institutions of learning would be more
than proud to count him as an alumnus. They have proved
it. The high school of Strasburg, North Dakota, recently
on the This Is 'Your Life program presented Lawrence with
"School Days, School Days'' 49
an honorary diploma, and the University of Portland, in
1956, conferred upon him an honorary degree of Doctor
of Fine Arts.
"A person who wants it will get some education, school
or not," Lawrence says, just as he tells his children, whom
he is sending to college: "A person who doesn't want it,
and won't work for it, doesn't get much education even if
he stays in school, graduates and all/ 1
Not that Lawrence is, or ever was, an Abe Lincoln, por
ing over countless books by the flickering light of the fire
place. Books play an important but necessarily limited
role. He explains: "Back on the farm, we were pretty tired
at night after working all day in the fields. What we did
read, though, we had time to think about and get the most
from. Then, too, I used to get a lot from the Sunday Gospel,
and the Sunday sermon. When you're outside all day look
ing up at the sky, it's easy to think of things like that. Have
you ever noticed that lots of texts have to do with the out
doors and farm life? You know, like "Consider the lilies of
the field,' which tells us to trust God, and 1 would have
gathered thy children as the hen doth gather her chickens
under her wings/ which teaches us about God's love and
care for His people . . . and there are lots more. I still try
to think extra hard about what I read, because even now
I don't have time to read as much as I'd like, and try to
read steadysome every single day. Before I turn off the
light and settle down to sleep at night, I get in a few min
utes with a book. I can say that books have influenced the
way I think more than my friends and business associates
ever have. That's why I want to choose only good-quality
He makes clear what he means by quality when he says:
50 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
"First things must come first. And there's nothing ahead of
religious books," but at the same time he points out that
he enjoys other reading too.
With all this, would Lawrence really have accelerated
his career, and reached his goal sooner, had his formal edu
cation been more extensive? A girl reporter, querying him
on the point, received only this answer: "I don't know.
Maybe I wouldn't have worked as hard, and gotten as far,
if I had begun in the music business after twelve years or
so of easy life in classrooms/*
Regarding strictly musical education, his attitude is
probably different. He doesn't say much about it. Though
he once took a correspondence course from the United
States School of Music, the only time he ever saw the inside
of a regular music school was when he enrolled for a course
in piano tuning at the MacPhail College of Music in Min
neapolis. (Incidentally he has yet to tune a piano.)
It might be interesting indoor sport to speculate as to
whether musical education would have diverted Law
rence's choice of fields. Recently, having hired a group of
eighty musicians for the job, he made a record album of
popular melodies taken from symphonies. "I like that kind
of rausic, too/ 7 he confesses.
Perhaps with training he might have become a Bach,
Beethoven, and Brahms enthusiast. Who knows? But if he
had, would he have attained a success comparable to what
he has attained in dance music? Or can the two fields be
Enough of this if-fy business! It's high time to find out
why Lawrence left school while he was still in knee
breeches. The reason hangs on an event which occurred in
"School Days, School Days" 51
his eleventh year, and which marked the end of his early
One sultry night of late summer, just at the beginning of
the threshing season, he woke up with queer pains. It was,
he thought, "a real bad stomach-ache." He lay awake, turn
ing and twisting in his narrow bed, and longing for morn
ing, when he was sure that the sharp torment, like a
nightmare, would fade away. Finally, he saw through the
window the faint gray of dawn, and then at last the sun,
a ball of fire, flaring in the east. But strangely, there was
no change. Lawrence couldn't understand it.
"It didn't seem real," he says. "In our family, folks mostly
didn't get sick aside from myself, that is. I was a kind of
puny kid. But even I had never had anything like this be
fore. I felt ashamed of my ill condition. It was threshing
time. My father was counting on me along with the rest,
for a share of the work. I hated to let him know how weak
and sick I felt. And I didn't want my big brothers to know
either. They kidded me enough as it was."
When he went down to breakfast that morning he
scarcely dared to speak to anybody, lest he give away his
secret. He need not have been so fearful. There were
chores to be doneand in a hurry, since outside hired help
would soon be arriving to lend a hand with the big thresh
ing job. Who could take the time to notice the pale, hollow-
eyed boy leaning up against the wall, trying to make
Happily breakfast was a swift affair, and then came the
signal for Lawrence to be on his way.
"My job, the one Papa told me to do, was to drive one of
the wagons, hauling wheat from the threshing machine to
the storage bins. I started work all right, but in the barn
52 MISTER MUSIC MAKEK, LAWBENCE WELK
some of the workers did mention that I had a green look,
and asked how I felt/ 7
Lawrence kept tight-lipped and shrugged off their ques
tions. But it wasn't long before excruciating pain doubled
him into paroxysms that could no longer be ignored.
In a daze he saw his father come toward him, then
Brother John was off to the house for Mamma, and an in
determinate time afterward his brothers laid a faded quilt
on the bare boards of one of the wagons and lifted him in
on top of it.
The ride that followed was to the doctor in Strasburg.
The wagon jolted along the rutted, dusty roads, and each
jolt brought a jab of hot, suffusing pain. The boy clenched
his teeth in an effort not to scream aloud; he balled his fists
and brushed away the tears that, no matter how hard he
tried to stop them, would squeeze beneath his eyelids.
Then he remembers his mother leaned over him and
wiped his forehead with a hand that shook. His last reserve
of stoicism crumbled and he clung to her as though his life
depended upon never letting her go. Then the pain in
black, sickening waves broke over him, time after time . . .
after time ...
Finally, there was one overwhelming wave, and he sank
beneath it, unconscious.
When they arrived in Strasburg that memorable day, the
doctor diagnosed a ruptured appendix, and ordered an im
mediate operation. The problem was to get young Law
rence to the hospital in Bismarck, seventy-five miles away.
The next few hours were crucial.
One of the rare cars in Strasburg was owned by a rela
tive, a John Klein (his son Johnnie is now Lawrence's
drummer), and it was a question of quickly arranging with
him to drive the ill boy those seventy-five miles. Had Mr.
Klein not been available, there surely would have been no
hope for Lawrence.
As it was, the following weeks were anxious ones for the
Welk family. The little boy lying there in the hospital cot,
staring at the ceiling with unseeing, glassy eyes, seemed
closer to death than to life, for peritonitis, with its devas
tating effects, had set in.
Lawrence, now in his fifties, does not recall much of this.
He has one shadowy recollection only. "I can barely re
member," he says, "getting out of bed somehow and trying,
half crazy like, to crawl up the wall. Then I found strong
arms around me, probably the nurse's, holding me back.
54 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
I guess that was the crisis of my illness. Afterwards I grad
ually got better/'
Seven weeks from the day of his admittance to the hos
pital he was allowed to return home with a drain in his
side, and it was some months before he was on his feet
again. Then for a full year weakness prevented him from
returning to school, and from performing even the simplest
of farm chores. The frail, lanky child would go behind the
barn with the accordion. Alone there, he would play the
instrument for hours at a time, though his sister Eva recalls
that he usually stopped abruptly when somebody came
"I was always a little shy/' Lawrence admits, "but I was
even shier after my illness."
And no wonder! The long convalescence enforced seclu
sion. Not only was he deprived of children's companion
ship during the school season, but the same was true
throughout vacation. His brothers and sisters were kept
busy with work he could not do, and other children, if they
had any scant leisure, lived much too far away for a fellow
with legs still wobbly to seek out.
Music became his all. If he had liked it before, he now
found that he loved it with a secret consuming passion. He
admits that his very games centered about it, when he re
counts: "I used to go up in the hayloft, and play-kind of
silly I guess-building a violin with bits of sticks, string,
and a box, I really worked hard at that contraption-
harder than lots of kids work on model airplanes-until the
day that one of my brothers came in without me expecting
him. I dropped the thing real quick. I didn't want him to
see what I was doing, and poke fun at it maybe."
This interval of sickness and solitude, since it trans-
"True Love' 9 55
formed music from a social pastime into a dominant force
and aim of Lawrence's life, was certainly not wasted. To
day, looking back from the vantage point of middle age,
he says : "I'm grateful for that year."
Did that year also mark the first glimmerings of a possi
ble career in music? Could be. Lawrence says: "I can't re
member a time when my music wasn't the same thing as
my happiness, but it was probably during that year that I
first began wanting to make other folks happy by playing
for them. And I dreamed of audiences at the pool hall in
Strasburg, and beyond . . ."
What quasi-detective ferreting out Lawrence Welk's
success secrets could overlook the years 1914-15?
It ended when Mamma and Papa Welk brought up the
subject of Lawrence returning to school.
"I can't go back," he told them. "The kids who used to
be in my class are now way ahead of me, and the Sisters
will expect me to sit with "babies' half a head shorter than
The other reason behind his reluctance to face school
he did not tell them. Like a lad in love, he could not discuss
it with his parents. It was that books seemed suddenly
deadly dull in comparison with music. He would rather
work on the farm where he would have at least an occa
sional chance to get off behind the barn and play the ac
"They were sure I'd be a fanner someday," Lawrence
explains, "and they didn't think I'd need much education
for that. Nobody objected real strong to my stopping."
So now the boy joined his elder brothers in the fields,
and tried to do just as they did even if he did grow weary
before they were ready to quit for the day. Like them, he
56 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWKENCE WELK
plowed and cultivated the land, pitched hay, and threshed
grain; like them, he hurried to plant the seed as soon as
frost left the hard ground in the spring, so that there would
be an early crop. Such physical labor developed his mus
cles and it slowly changed him from a gangling boy into
a husky, broad-shouldered youth. Came the day when it
was no longer difficult for him to keep up with his brothers
in the daily round. He too could follow his father's formula
for productive farming: plow deeper, sow earlier, and keep
the ground cleaner than is strictly necessary. Extra effort
But while his hands toiled and his sinews strained, where
were his thoughts?
He would look out over the flat land, wind-swept and
ice-sheathed in winter, dry and dusty in summer, and,
feeling its very austerity and strength seeping into him, he
would vow that, no matter what the cost in time, labor, or
heartbreak, he would become "a real musician/' he would
"make folks happy."
The resolve lay always in his mind, admittedly half dor
mant at times, but ready at a moment's notice to spring to
attention, so that many an apparently irrelevant thing re
minded him of music.
"When I discovered that a pitchfork, striking in a certain
way, could make a nice sound, I handled it with rhythm,"
he confides. "And when I discovered that beating on the
empty rain barrel made a real good accompaniment to my
singing, I'd be a regular 'drummer' with it."
Even a hoe or pitchfork could serve as a dancing partner
as he whirled around the barn floor in time to his own
"True Love" 57
"Naturally, I didn't do that kind of foolishness in front
of folks/' he points out.
But once he remembers looking up to see his mother at a
window watching him cavorting in the field with a pitch
fork partner. Her broad smile was like a warm sun, and
under it some of Lawrence's shyness melted away. Music
was a medium the family understood. In fact it was a
medium the whole rural community understood and en
"For a country church, our choir was real wonderful/'
Lawrence declares, and the note of pride is not dulled by
about forty years of memory. "Our leaderMax Fichtner
was his name had perfect pitch." ^
It was one of the joys of the Sunday holiday to listen to
the choir, just as it was a reward for a day's work on the
farm, to relax by the stove with the accordion.
Then somehow, in the next couple of years, John ac
quired a brand-new "store-bought" accordion of his own,
but Lawrence, the "kid brother," was scarcely allowed to
touch its shining splendor. In frustration he resolved to buy
his own instrument, no matter how long it might take to
save the purchase price.
"We didn't get allowances," Lawrence explains, "but
Papa always told us kids that if we expected to have any
special thing, or if we wanted to get ahead generally, it
was up to us. We must take advantage of opportunities to
earn what we could."
By hunting small game and selling the hides Lawrence
scraped together a few dollars. It would take fifteen dollars
to buy the accordion he wanted.
While still short of that amount, Brother John (mean
while engaged to be married) announced one evening at
58 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
supper that the wedding date had been set. A month from
that day he would go to the altar with his bride.
"Right off I got an idea," says Lawrence. "And a couple
of days before the wedding I told my folks that I wouldn't
be going to it. They were awful surprised, and kept asking
me why. I told them that somebody should stay home to
take care of the chores, and it might as well be me. I had
it all planned/'
The morning of the nuptials dawned bright and sunny.
Feeling a bit guilty, Lawrence watched the members of
his family, a little stiff in their unaccustomed finery, pile
into the buggy and go off to town. Then, as soon as the
dust had settled, he rushed back into the house, took John's
accordion from its nook, and began to play. The wedding
ceremony and the festivities following it the reception,
the dancing, the beer drinking, the singing would last all
day, so all that day Lawrence played and played to his
heart's content. The chores were forgotten, and only as
dusk fell did he remember them. Working like fury, he
managed to complete a few of the most urgent ones, before
he heard in the distance the creaking of the buggy wheels
indicating the family's return.
He had had his day!
"As I look back," says Lawrence, "that wonderful day
stands out. It's like the time I got my own fifteen-dollar
mail-order accordion. When it came my folks were kind of
upset because I wanted to go on practicing long beyond
the hour everybody else was in bed. Finally because Papa
laid down the law, and not because I wanted to rest my
aching arms, I did stop. But I was too excited to sleep."
Lying awake and looking through the window at die
stars, Lawrence let his happy thoughts skip ahead to the
"True Love' 59
far-off day when he would go into the big world beyond,
playing music to crowds of people. Then he remembers
squirming with an almost irresistible urge to get up again
and practice so that he could become this great musician
so much the sooner.
"It was all I could do to stay where I was," he confesses.
However, not long after that night, he received a rude
setback to his hopes and dreams. The fifteen-dollar accor
dion could not stand the punishment he gave it; the
strength he had acquired through farm labor was too much
for the small instrument. In no time the reeds and shoulder
straps gave way.
Back to the trap lines!
"It's a good thing I was older by thenI think about
fifteen. I could earn money playing for local dances. It
wasn't very long before I had saved enough to buy another
But "the course of true love never did run smooth," so
something dire was bound to be in the offing. One day,
while he was plowing with five horses, he noticed that one
balky fellow was not doing his share of the work, and he
asserts, "I got mad. I really saw some red. I can't under
stand the man or beast who doesn't want to do his share,
and who dawdles along, expecting the world, the govern
ment, his neighbor or his teammate to take up the slack.
Anyway, I stood up to lay my whip over the back of the
lazy horse, and at that moment he jerked forward sud
denly, the plow hit a rock, and I was thrown off balance
to pitch headlong onto the ground between the horses. I
landed on my left arm."
When Lawrence struggled to his feet, the arm hung
strangely limp. Realizing that it was broken, big, lumber-
6O MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
ing boy of fifteen that he was, he burst into an uncontrol
lable fit of weeping. No doubt the pain was sharp and
stinging, but those great tears that rolled down his cheeks,
and splashed onto his faded blue overalls, did not spring
from physical pain. They had their source in a chilling
thought: "I'll never be able to play the accordion again."
Fortunately that was not the case, as Lawrence soon
"While the arm was still no good for work, I figured out
a way to practice. I could use my slingor any towel sling-
tied and fasten one end around my left knee, and the
other to the base side of the accordion. In this way, I could
use my leg instead of my left arm for the push and pull,
and I played the keys with my right hand," he explains.
Talk about tenacity! There's a word to list under clues.
But the experience also highlights another trait, or, bet
ter said, it is responsible for his acquiring another trait.
Says Lawrence: "That was when I learned how bad it is
to be impatient, like I was with that horse, and ever since
I have tried to meet all conditions real calmly and use self-
Another success clue? Probably.
Then, under the heading of characters in the mystery
story, might well go the name of the man who soon ap
peared upon the scene. He came to Strasburg a year or so
after the accident.
This fellow, Tom Guttenburg, a traveling accordionist,
carried with him, not the push-button type instrument, but
a large piano-accordion.
"I didn't know that anything could be so wonderful as
that instrumentl" Lawrence declares. 'Whenever my par
ents would let me get away, I'd go to town to listen to this
"True Love" 61
Guttenburg. As much as I loved dancing, I wouldn't get
off my chair while he played. Yd just sit there watching
his every move."
Then Lawrence tells of the time that Tom Guttenburg
laid down his accordion, and during a short intermission
stepped from the stage: "I crept up and stroked the keys
kind of soft, until I heard a voice behind me."
The visiting accordionist's wife, Mrs. Guttenburg, made
Lawrence jump with her words: "Young man, what are
you doing? Take your hands off that accordion. It's not
"That hurt real bad," Lawrence admits today. "I felt
shamed to be called down like that, and besides I didn't
like being told that the fine accordion wasn't mine. I knew
that too well already, and to be told it was like rubbing
salt on wounds."
Yet from that day forward, when Lawrence thought of
the future and of his secret dreams of stirring great crowds
with music, he had visions of a like instrument in his own
But the dream soon became more than a dream, and the
vision more than a vision. There had to be a plan, some
ordered way to work toward the fine acquisition, which
Lawrence decided must be the first item, or the first step
in his career. He could not afford to spend time sighing
and hoping. He had to do something.
"Nothing is luck with me," Lawrence says. "Always I
have figured, and planned, and worked toward something,
always toward a definite next step."
But what could he do in this case? The piano-accordion
cost all of four hundred dollars. Though his parents had
some small savings, Lawrence could never ask for a stag-
62 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
gering sum like that. It was as much as, if not more than,
the family earned on the farm in a year.
As Lawrence mulled over his problem, he recalled cer
tain fears and preachments of his father's. He remembered
that whenever he broached the subject of leaving the farm
and making a career of music, he was told: "Music is fine
for enjoying yourself, or playing a waltz for your neigh
bors, but to make a living . . . ach, that's another kettle of
fish! Let's not have any more nonsense about it. Besides
you're too young to decide what you want to do the rest
of your life. A few more years here and you'll see that it's
best to settle down on the farm, and work the land like
other sober, decent folks."
In the light of words like these an audacious scheme
formed in Lawrence's mind. He could but try it. He went
to his father armed with a proposition: "I've been talking
about leaving the farm, to make my living in the music
business. But I will promise to stay on the farm, working
as hard as I can for the next four years until I'm twenty-
one years old. What's more, during that time, I'll turn over
to you every cent I make playing at parties, weddings, and
dances, if . . ." He paused as the awful gravity of his fa
ther's decision bore in upon him, but finally he added with
a rush: "If you'll buy me a four-hundred-dollar piano-
accordion right now."
Not speaking for several moments, the elder Welk looked
thoughtfully at his eager son, then, furrowing his brows,
he answered slowly: "I'll think it over."
"Don't Fence Me In"
"/a go ahead. Order the accordion you want." Ludwig
Welk, paterfamilias, had spoken. Lawrence was to have
The boy's mind did not and could not grasp anything
else, although his father went on talking: "I only hope that
with a few years on the farm, you'll come to your senses
and see that you belong here. When you're twenty-one,
you'll have 160 acres as your share of the land. And the
life of a traveling musician isn't for you. It would take you
into all sorts of shady places, and believe me, Son, it would
endanger your immortal soul/*
The homily and the offer of property were wasted.
"I made out the order for the accordion and sent it off,"
says Lawrence, "and the only thing that worried me was
the waiting. It took so long for the instrument to come."
While he waited, time stood still. It was as though those
days were lifted from life. Until the accordion arrived
at the freight station, nothing mattered. Lawrence went
about like a robot, making mechanical motions in the per
formance of routine tasks. Only late afternoon of each day
brought him respite; then he would return to the business
of living, long enough to hitch the wagon up, go into town,
64 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
and inquire if a package had arrived for Mr. Lawrence
Hope was deferred again and again. There were times
when, driving home with no accordion beside him, the
yearning and frustration within him were almost a physi
cal pain an aching lump rising in his throat to choke him.
When the instrument did come at last, his hands trem
bled so much he could scarcely unbox it.
"I really thought it was the most beautiful thing in the
whole world. It even had rhinestones in it!" That's about
all Lawrence can say to characterize it, and as for describ
ing his own elation well what words could the most elo
quent find for that!
However, it was clear that, although the fifteen-dollar
instrument had seemed splendid, this new paragon sur
passed it a thousand times over. It transported him into a
beatific bliss, not far from the portals of heaven.
"That evening I played straight through dinner, and on
until long after the rest of the family were in bed," he ad
mits. "Then the next morning, I crept from my room at
about four o'clock to go to the barn, where I'd be out of
earshot and not disturb anybody with some more playing/*
Three days later he was hired for a dance in Bichlers
Hall, the poolroom which (by the simple expedient of
pushing the pool tables aside to make dancing space)
doubled on Saturday nights for ballroom. That engage
ment was the beginning of a long series.
"There were weddings, barn dances, and name days to
play for," he says. "Name days are the days we celebrate
the feast of a person's patron saint. They meant big times
to the folks of our town,"
But often he went beyond that town. He went to other
"Don't Fence Me In" 65
towns at a distance where walking was out of the question.
"Then Papa let me take the buggy/' Lawrence explains.
"And each of us boys had either a horse or a pony to ride
and to care for. I had a pony, so transportation was no
problem. I even rigged up a contraption in the back of the
buggy to hold my accordion."
On these playing dates he sometimes teamed up with
the pianist and choir leader of the perfect pitch, Max
Fichtner, and sometimes he appeared alone with his ac
cordion. In either event there was seldom a set fee.
Pass-the-hat took care of the musicians, and pay ranged
from as little as $1.50 per night to as much as $100 to $150
for a three-day wedding.
Every cent went to Papa Welk.
It was a strenuous life. During the wedding festivities
there was practically no letup, from the opening strains of
the wedding march on the first morning to the last waltz,
schottish, or polka on the third night.
"Many a time, I'd finish with my left wrist bleeding from
the chafing of the accordion strap," he says. "The skin on
that wrist is just like leather now."
And even without weddings the life wasn't exactly easy,
with work in the fields by day and music by night when
ever possible. During harvest and threshing time, he often
had very few hours' sleep. He played until one o'clock for
a dance, and was up again around four.
In training for the future?
"I used to get awful tired," Lawrence admits in one of
his prize understatements. "Maybe even my health got a
little weak during that time."
And yet he didn't slow down. Apparently such an idea
never occurred to him. It was foreign to his way of think-
66 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
ing, though the spending money given him by Papa Welk
didn't rise with increased earnings.
The first invitation to play "far away" came from Ips
wich, a town one hundred miles distant. This expedition
meant the train, not the buggy. Also the new venture en
tailed one night away from home. "My parents didn't want
me to go at first," Lawrence recalls, "but they finally gave
in, because John and his wife lived in Ipswich, and I could
stay with them/'
The boy felt that he had turned the corner into man
hood when he set off on his own for that dance, and he
was in the best of spirits and playing fettle when the dance
was in progress. The guests seemed to share his good hu
mor, and nobody wanted to stop dancing at the magic
stroke of midnight, nor, for that matter, did they want to
stop at one o'clock or later.
The young musician could not have been more obliging.
He played on and on as long as his customers clamored
for encores, which was around 2 A.M.
Such an hour was unheard of in the town of Ipswich.
Festive occasions notwithstanding, "decent" folk there
went to bed at twelve or before.
"If I knew this, I didn't think about it while I was play
ing, and," he adds, "maybe I never would have thought
about it except for what happened the next morning."
The next morning Lawrence went to church, and there
was a long sermon, lasting "at least an hour," and every
word, he was sure, was meant just for him. (If his parents
heard about this, it would be the end of his musical ca
reer. ) The priest, looking straight at him, spoke of the devil
who came to town in sheep's clothing, and kept the people
dancing and prancing into Sunday morning.
"Don't Fence Me In" 67
Said "devil" took the next train available to go back
But this was not the worst of his experiences* Once he
was playing for a barn dance in Hague, another rural
North Dakota town, when he received more than verbal
A group of traveling construction workers, working in
the vicinity, decided to look in on a dance. Naturally the
local belles were only too pleased to have the stag line aug
mented, but the local swains were correspondingly dis
pleased. This led to a fracas between the home-town males
and the outsiders, and Lawrence soon found himself play
ing to an empty dance hall, while through the open win
dows could be heard the clash of battle going on outside.
Curiosity urged him to run downstairs from the hayloft
"ballroom" and step outdoors to see how things were going.
"Well, I stepped outdoors, all right," he recounts, "but
I didn't see how things were going. One of the fellows
I never knew who it was must have thought I was a rival.
Anyway, the minute I went through the doorway, I went
down. He had hit me over the head with something awful
heavy a brick maybe. It felt like it."
Today Lawrence still bears a scar.
Yet nothing whatever during those years dampened his
hopes of leaving the farm and becoming a full-time mu
sician. Every day the vision of life with music grew and
expanded; every day his excitement mounted. He would
often look out over the strange Midas-touched sea of bil
lowing wheat stretching to the edge of his known world,
and he would wonder with a skip of heartbeat what lay
ahead for him. "Out there" was another world, a different
world his for the conquering.
68 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Or he would lie awake in his bed and look through the
window at the mysterious stars in the black woolly sky and
tell himself: "Those same stars shine down on big cities
like Chicago, and New York. Someday . . . someday . . .
Ill play in places like that."
Then he would close his eyes while the blissful thought
inundated every corner of his brain with rapturous joy,
and the night sounds, the thousands and thousands of in
sects humming in the summer stillness, sounded to him
like an orchestra of the far future.
With such dreams to nourish his spirit the pleas and
sermonizing of his father did not shake his resolve. How
ever, he could no longer ignore them, and often he was
involved in argument trying to explain his position.
"It's the only kind of life I want/' he would say. Td
never be any good at farming/*
"Ach, nonsense!" Ludwig could not understand, "You
know how to work the land now. But what do you know
about that other kind of life? I tell you dance halls in big
cities are dens of sin."
"But I don't have to commit sin myself, because other
people do," Lawrence would answer.
"Even so, you shouldn't make it harder for yourself to
"I'm not honestly. The carryings-on, whatever they are,
won't bother me. I'm thinking about music that's all."
"Why music? What's wrong with farming?"
Arguing in circles, they ended up each time at the start
ing point with neither one convincing the other. The sub
ject wore a painful groove in both their minds.
And what about Lawrence's mother?
The boy had always felt close to her, and to hurt her
*Dorft Fence Me In" 69
would have been much more difficult for him than to cause
some disappointment to his father. She didn't say a word
during the father-son discussions, but the son sensed that
her sympathy, if it didn't lie entirely with him, was cer
tainly divided. However, she couldn't soften Ludwig's
attitude, and when Lawrence's twenty-first birthday did
come, there were last-ditch arguments and dire predic
tions from the father.
"You'll never make a living at it," he said in parting.
If there were one fillip needed to insure Lawrence's suc
cess, it was precisely that final dictum.
"Tell Lawrence he can't do something, and that's the
very thing he sets out to prove to you that he can do and
do superbly. I never saw a man who rises to a challenge
with more fight." So declares Lois Lamont, his secretary
on the present Hollywood scene.
At any rate, in that year 1924, his debt to his father fully
acquitted, he said "Auf Wiedersehen" to his suddenly
dearer-than-ever family-to his mother and father, to John,
Louis, Barbara, Eva, Agatha, Mike, and Anne Mary-and
set out from the warmly familiar sod house, to begin his
career in the world beyond.
It was springtime. Every tree was putting out spritely
green shoots. Violets and Johnny-jump-ups were bravely
breaking through the black earth. Birds, recent arrivals
from the south, chirped cheerily as they flitted about, gath
ering bits of straw for nest building. The world was coming
alive, and the road stretched ahead to. ... Lawrence
wasn't quite sure what.
It was a new actAct II of his life.
"A Wandering Minstrel I"
His career had begun!
As Lawrence took the road leading from the farm and
to Hollywood after twenty-five years of traveling he car
ried with him capital of a sort, to invest in his beloved
To be sure, that capital was not in the form of coin, and
nobody on earth would quip, as comedian Gil Lamb did
recently: "My greatest ambition is to land a job helping
to carry Welk's money." However, his intangible asset of
faith was enough for him.
His face was glowing, and his heart was beating fast as
he set out that morning.
Mamma Welk followed him with her eyes as long as she
could. His hair was neatly parted in the middle and slicked
down. He was wearing his Sunday suit, and his pointed,
polished shoes, ordered from a mail-order catalogue. To
her, at least, he looked like the conqueror of the world.
His immediate destination was Aberdeen, South Dakota,
the nearest "big town" where he might likely find a job.
Once there, he promptly discovered his handicap.
Though he had no trouble landing a job, he did have a
great deal of trouble retaining one.
"A Wandering Minstrel F 7*
Never in all his life had he had a music lesson, so he had
never learned to read notes: What he lacked in knowledge
he made up for in enthusiasm and volume. If he wasn't
good, he was loud. This didn't help.
It looked like his father's predictions were all too accu
rate. Properly speaking, the boy wasn't making a living.
"It was a lucky condition, for me, that there was a res
taurant in Aberdeen which sold meal tickets on credit, or
I wouldn't have eaten very regularly," he confesses.
Often he played for fifty cents a night, and sometimes
less if no crowd showed up. But he was glad to play for
anything. This not only kept his fingers nimble, but it kept
him, Lawrence Welk, in circulation. Besides it taught him
how to sense audience response.
Then one day he happened to run into a drummer he
had known slightly, some time before. The fellow sug
gested that they throw in their lot together and "hit the
road." Lawrence was easily persuaded. Surely greener pas
tures lay beyond, and, he added in relating the tale: "This
fellow had a car a runabout!"
On the back of the car they strapped the drum and ac
cordion and set forth. Arriving in the town of Oldham,
South Dakota, they saw posters proclaiming in big red
MIKE GIBBS AND HIS ORCHESTRA
They needed no further hints. Immediately they looked
up the bandleader and offered their services. To their de
light he agreed to give them a chance, come evening.
"And I thought the folks liked me," Lawrence reminisces
72- MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
with a rueful little smile, "but that night turned out to be
one of the lowest points of my life."
As he was putting away his accordion after the dance,
he heard the trumpet player say to another member of the
band: "Wow! If I had to play with that accordionist, I'd
quit the business."
Lawrence was stunned. Could he possibly be that bad?
Should he go back home and admit defeat? In the throes
of doubt no sleep blessed him that night. His private little
world lay shattered as if an A-bomb had made a direct hit.
He confides: "I couldn't bring myself to leave the music
business, but I felt terrible for a long time. And I think it
made me sort of afraid when I went to ask for jobs."
Out of work, the alliance with the drummer broke up,
and Lawrence was left alone to struggle as best he could.
If he never missed a meal in the period that followed, there
were times, as some wag put it, when he was about forty-
eight hours late for dinner. So when he had an opportunity
to go with a Chicago orchestra on tour, he didn't ask many
questions. "I was just happy that I had a job again," he
says. "And we traveled to places I'd never been. I figured
I'd be getting valuable experience."
Then he discovered that the leader had the bad habit
of failing to pay salaries. As a result, the members of the
band had a bad habit of their own: they'd quit without
Several times, when Lawrence was on the verge of walk
ing out, the leader, realizing that the accordion filled in
for missing instruments, would urge him, with the promise
of a raise, to stay on.
"I guess I let myself get talked into it, because I was
learning to read music," Lawrence explains.
"A Wandering Minstrel F 73
"But enough is bad enough/' Lawrence says. "There
came a time when I finally did quit. I just couldn't see a
However, the unsatisfactory boss had inadvertently
made up for his defects by giving Lawrence an idea.
Seeing what a poor manager his former employer was,
in contrast to his wise and frugal parents, proved to Law
rence that he had only to follow the prudent methods of
the latter, and avoid the improvident mistakes of the
former, and he would be better off by being his own boss
than working for others. In short, the thought came to him:
"Why not strike out on my own?"
Taking all his cash, he bought an old jalopy which would
serve to carry him to various spots where he might find
himself playing jobs. Then he set out alone, going in the
direction of his home.
His way was studded with obstacles.
Apart from the question of obtaining bids to perform
musically, there was a doubt of the old car's performing
mechanically. It didn't behave very well minus oil, yet if
Lawrence had to travel more than ten or twelve miles be
tween towns, the oil would not hold out. The car's appetite
was such that it had consumed every drop of the lubricant
before reaching a destination.
However, oil or not, Lawrence and the car managed to
limp from place to place, and in each one the young mu
sician offered to play a night's vaudeville stand at any
price. If the theater owner demurred, Lawrence had an al
ternate proposition ready: increase the ticket by five cents
and make the additional money the accordionist's share.
If that did not work, at passing restaurants, he offered to
play for the patrons in exchange for his dinner.
74 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Arriving at Aberdeen again, lie decided to stop there
and look up automobile dealers. He was fortunate enough
to find one who gave him sixty-five dollars for his jalopy
on a trade-in for a new car.
As he signed the contract to pay the balance of approxi
mately seven hundred dollars, in one year, his hand was
mighty shaky and his heart thumped. "At home, buying
on time was unheard of," he explains. "But I wasn't wor
ried so much that I might lose the car if I couldn't meet a
payment. What scared me was losing my reputation as a
good risk. And I guess, too, I thought it was sort of dis
graceful to try to live beyond your means."
With such an attitude, no wonder he worked so hard to
lift that debt. For the following month he slept sparsely.
Playing by night and drumming up engagements by day
left little time for the luxury of bed. Sometimes he would
land a spot playing with another orchestra for a night or
two, sometimes he did solos, and sometimes he hired men
himself to form an orchestra for an evening's engagement.
The last involved quick work indeed! When he found out
that an orchestra was wanted, he would offer to furnish
it, and forthwith rush out to hire the needed musicians,
be they one or ten, as circumstances demanded.
For Independence Day he hired an orchestra and rented
the pavilion in the nearby Scatterwood Lake area, where
an annual picnic was to be held. The pay was to be on a
percentage basis; he was to receive 60 per cent of the take.
The promoter failed to tell Lawrence in advance that there
was to be formidable competition, with a baseball game
scheduled for the same day. If the young bandleader had
known that, he would have figured out some other money-
"A Wandering Minstrel I" 75
However, it was just as well he didn't. An unpredictable
quirk turned his original plan into a veritable bonanza.
This quirk had to do with the weather.
In July the weather by rights should have been sunny
and warm, and a great many people, counting on that,
jammed the picnic grounds and the baseball park. How
ever, rain began to fall in the early afternoon, and per
sisted drearily throughout the day and evening.
At the first pelting drops the crowd made a dash for the
pavilion: "Step up, ladies and gentlemen! Ten cents a
The downpour made even the would-be competition of
the baseball game pay Lawrence an extra dividend, "How
do you like that?" Lawrence exclaims in telling about it.
"Those raindrops turned out to be 'pennies from heaven/ "
Because of the holiday he had hoped for a fairly good
crowd, but even so, since he was paying his musicians more
than the usual rate, he expected only modest profits.
"In those days," he explains, "musicians were paid about
ten dollars for a single date. Well, I figured the Fourth of
July was a chance to win a reputation and to prove my
band better than other local bands, so I hired the best men
I could find at thirty-five dollars a day. I decided that I'd
build for the future by letting a lot of folks know what I
could do, even if I didn't have much money left after set
tling up with my musicians."
But this was one time when it was actually possible to
have the cake and eat it too. Toward the "end of a perfect
day" Lawrence paid his men, and found $265 remained
"In all my life, I'd never made that much money at
76 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
once," he declares, and the very memory makes his eyes
glisten like those of a kid on Christmas morning.
What did he do with it all?
"I wanted lots of things," Lawrence admits, "but I
couldn't have felt right about buying them. I still owed on
He counted over his horde, the money he had made dur
ing the hard-working last month. That, together with the
picnic money, would do it! In only one month, then, al
though the contract terms allowed him one year, Lawrence
paid the entire price of his car.
"I knew Td feel more like a success with darns in my
socks and out of debt than I would with new socks and in
debt," he explains.
As what Horatio Alger wouldn't, he wanted to show off
his success to the home folks, so he headed for Strasburg
and the farm to enjoy a little visit with his family. Now
what would his father say when Lawrence Welk, band
leader, drove up his own car, bought and paid for?
The visit stretched into a month, and its chief recrea
tion, of which Lawrence never tired, was to drive up and
down Main Street to show off the shiny new car.
Good thing he enjoyed it so much! This vacation was
one of the very few holiday times of Lawrence's whole life.
And it was a quiet, restful interval before the next turn of
"America's Greatest Accordionist"
The leaves began to turn, and trees flamed gold, copper,
and red on the hillsides. Fall had arrived. With it came
a new briskness in the air, urging Lawrence to be on his
He returned to Aberdeen, where he found an acquaint
ance, Art Kelly, booking entertainment for a fair in Selby,
South Dakota. Ah, that spelled opportunity!
"I didn't let any grass grow underneath my footsteps/*
Lawrence says. "Right away, I went to see Art."
Shortly afterward came the hoped-for offer of employ
menta week's engagement at the fair. Quickly Lawrence
rounded up musicians and hired enough men for a small
Before the week had passed another Kelly, George T.,
appeared upon the scene. One night, as Lawrence was
leaving the bandstand, this Kelly tapped him on the shoul
der and suggested: "How about a cup of coffee?"
Over the little oilcloth-covered table he told Lawrence
about his work. Although at the moment he was with a
carnival playing the fair, through the winter months, he
had his own troupe, called The Peerless Entertainers. He
put on a vaudeville show, followed by a dance. Soon it
78 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
would be time to go on tour, to many towns including the
"inland towns," that is, places beyond the railroad's reach.
At this point he broke off and asked: "Would you like to
join us? You could play your accordion on the show, and
then after my comedy act is over, you could play for the
dance. I'd pay you forty dollars a week. How does that
It struck Lawrence as almost too good to be true. The
absolute assurance of a steady income through the winter
was enough to make his head spin with joy.
"But/' confesses Lawrence, "I was trying hard not to
act excited, and I was trying to turn the proposition over
in my mind before I said yes or no."
The Irishman sat there drumming his fingers on the
table a minute, then, figuring Lawrence's hesitancy as re
luctance, he made a surprise move: he raised the ante, say
ing: "Come, man, I'll split the profits with you fifty-fifty."
Without more ado Lawrence extended his hand for a
hearty clasp of acceptance. Still in his early twenties, he
felt that he had made a good bargain with the man in his
forties. And so he had!
"In the very first week, my share was all of eighty-six
dollars," Lawrence recalls. "We'd make the weekly split by
taking the money left after expenses, spreading it out on
a hotel bed, and counting it into two equal piles. It was
mostly in nickels, dimes, and quarters, because we charged
fifty cents for adults, and twenty-five cents for children.
But those coins mounted up, and soon I had a real com
fortable income. I bought a diamond ring to wear, just to
prove to myself how rich I was getting."
But as time went on, Lawrence found that he was receiv
ing more than money. Old George T. was a shrewd char-
"America's Greatest Accordionist" 79
acter, with a twinkle in his eye, and a bit of salty wit to
his tongue. He took the serious, intense young German un
der his wing, and showed him how to relax, how to have
self-confidence, how to be patient with himself, and above
all he taught Lawrence how to deal with the public.
He would say to the boy: "Look, kid, just you remember
those folks out front are doing you a favor, paying their
good money to see you, so it's up to you to give them your
very best and with a smile. Use that great big glad smile
Or he would remind young Lawrence: "Don't forget
there are a lot more farmers and plain folk like you and me
in the world than there are ritzy guys. Never try to be
something you aren't. If the day ever comes that you make
a little dough, don't go putting on airs-unless you want
your old public to drop you like a hot potato."
Or he would advise: "If you don't like something, don't
complain about it especially if you can't change it. You'll
get a load off your own chest by griping sure, but at the
same time you might rub the townspeople the wrong way.
They're your audience, so what's the good of that?"
Added to the spoken counsel, there were the very pres
ence and example of the older man. He was a naturally
genial and kindly soul, and with him Lawrence's diffi
Why the boy even lost his shyness with the girls 1 Back
on the farm he had ducked at the sight of a petticoat com
ing his way. Now he found he could smile at a girl, and
he discovered, moreover, that she was very likely to smile
back. Soon he even ventured to talk to girls in his guttural
accent to find further that they answered him and that
SO MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
they were not averse to dancing with him. And how he
loved to dance!
"He got to be a real killer with the ladies/' says Kelly.
But there were some things the older man did not teach
Lawrence. He didn't teach the boy to read music. On one
occasion, traveling from town to town, George T. dis
covered to his consternation that some of the sheet music
was missing. "We've left it behind at our last stop/ 7 he
moaned. "We'll have to go back and get it."
"Not for me you won't/' Lawrence said. "I can't read
all those notes fast enough to make any difference. I just
set the music up before me to make an impression. It looks
Kelly had a hearty laugh. All the time he hadn't known
"But if the kid couldn't read music, so what?" asks Kelly
today. "That didn't stop him from being a wonderful nat
ural musician. Just how many guys can do what he could
listen to a phonograph record and reproduce the ar
rangement? He was always great, I tell ya."
And it rather irks George, now seventy-six years old, to
read magazine write-ups which speak of Lawrence's dis
cords. "A lot of that is bunk/' he declares. "I guess Law
rence started those rumors himself. He's such a modest
guy he remembers his mistakes better'n anything/'
On the other hand, Kelly will admit readily that Law
rence played "good and loud." He recalls with a chuckle
one time when that voluminous sound precipitated a small
crisis. A key man in the group complained: "I just can't
take it any longer. My eardrums are about to burst. I'm
For that tight little group to lose one of its members was
"America's Greatest Accordionist" 81
close to tragedy. A quick solution to the difficulty had to
be found. It was none other than to have the man stuff
cotton in his ears.
And speaking of a tight little group it was that all
right. Everybody had two or more jobs. Mrs. Kelly, for in
stance, sold the tickets, took care of the props, and was
secretary-treasurer. George T. himself did a comedy rou
tine and played the drums; the leading lady also played
the piano; the leading man had to serve as straight man
for Kelly's comedy bits; the saxophonist took turns at play
ing the banjo, and so on.
*I had the nearest thing to a single job," Lawrence avers,
"and ever since those days, IVe always tried not to put all
the eggs in just one basket. I've wanted my boys to be able
to do a lot of things. It makes a better show."
It has been alleged that one reason why the Welk band
has gone over so well on TV is its variety. There is some
thing for everybody, whether he likes the violin rhapsodies
of Dick Kesner, the clowning of Rocky Rockwell, or the
sweet harmonies of the Lennon Sisters.
As Lawrence says: "George T. really taught me a lot."
Anybody compiling a list of key characters in the Law
rence Welk success story?
Nor should Alma Kelly, George's wife, be slighted. She
had an important supporting role in the Welk drama. She
helped Lawrence to learn English, though she says: "I
never gave him any real lessons. And I don't know why
Lawrence thinks I did so much. I just did what everybody
else was doing. Lawrence would ask questions about how
to talk, and we'd answer them, and try to help him."
Occasionally, though, some of the fellows would tease
Lawrence. They would purposely use an unusual word to
82 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
see what he would make of it. Some of the conversations
must have been amusing goobledegook. Out of the past
comes an echo. Somebody says: "I lost my bet five dol
lars. Was I chagrined!"
"She grinned?" Lawrence questioned in perplexity. "I
do not understand/'
"Cha-grined. It means I felt awful, just about sick."
"Oh, you were sick." Lawrence was all solicitude.
"Say, have you ever had acute indigestion?" comes a
"What's cute about indigestion?" asks Lawrence. "I
thought indigestion was a sickness you got from eating
greasy fried potatoes."
"Don't pay any attention, Lawrence," Alma puts in.
"They're kidding you again."
She didn't use such tactics. She patiently explained to
him why a girl gave him a black look when he compli
mented her with: "You appall to me."
Lawrence says of Alma: "She was always so kind/'
Mrs. Kelly hits upon that same word, "kind," when she
speaks of Lawrence. "He should be a big success," she
states. "He was always kind to everybody, so everybody
wanted to be kind to him, and give him a break. I remem
ber that he kept bringing me the nicest little presents. And
he was always there when anything heavy had to be
moved or lifted. He was the sweetest kid in the world."
Side by side with her opinion of Lawrence goes that of
her husband. George T. says of his protege: "He was the
most conscientious and naive kid I ever saw. When I
spread my bally about his being so great, and billed
him as AMERICA'S GREATEST ACCORDIONIST, he'd
open his eyes in wonder, but he'd never doubt that I meant
"America's Greatest Accordionist" 83
what I said. It never occurred to him that anybody would
tell anything more or less than the simple truth. He didn't
know about building things up for the public.**
For some acts Kelly dressed Lawrence as a Spanish mat
ador, and since on only rare occasions did the shy young
man of the German accent dare to open his mouth before
an audience, many of the people who came to see the show
believed that Lawrence was, in truth, a Spaniard.
But if German Welk could become Spanish, Irish Kelly
could become Swedish. The man did a routine called *Ole
the Swede.** *I was supposed to be the funny one," says
Mr. Kelly, and Lawrence was supposed to be the straight
man and feed me lines. But if he ever got nerve enough to
say something, you know what? It was that accent of his
not my jokesthat got the laughs.**
Be that as it may, Kelly's skit about the Swede was very
popular in the Dakota towns they traveled, so Lawrence,
envisioning further triumphs, urged his boss to give larger
towns the benefit of seeing it. He persuaded Mr. Kelly to
head south for Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
TDid I make a big mistake that timel* Lawrence ex
claims in telling about the tour. "There weren't many
Swedes in the new territory, so people didn't get the dia
lect, or think it was funny. Besides in the South, certain
religions didn't allow boys and girls to dance.**
Now if the Peerless troupers needed further evidence to
convince them that the tour was a failure, they received it
with a vengeance. One nigjit, opening in an Oklahoma
town, they rented a hall, passed out their handbills, and
had all things in readiness by the usual opening hour of
Then just before curtain raising somebody looked into
84 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
the hall. One woman and one woman only comprised
the waiting audience.
At two-minute intervals thereafter they would peek
around the still-closed curtain hopefully, to see if anybody
had joined her, but not another soul entered the place.
They consulted one another in consternation. By 9:15 no
more consultations were necessary for there was no choice;
the show would have to be canceled.
George T. stepped before the curtain and down into the
auditorium to explain this fact to the woman. She listened
but did not stir. She chose to sit there and argue. She had
come to the show and why shouldn't they put it on for her.
It wasn't her fault if other people did not appear. Poor
George explained that the troupe would not be able to do
its best without the stimulus of something approximating
a normal audience, and he ended with a promise: "Your
money will be refunded."
He was not prepared for the woman's reply. "But I didn't
pay any money. I have a yearly pass. I own this building."
Back to the Dakotas the troupe limped, their pockets not
exactly jangling with cash. The next season they stuck to
small towns and recouped their fortunes, until one of those
blanketing northland snowstorms overwhelmed and iso
lated them in Bismarck.
Released at last from that white bondage, they decided
to disband for the rest of the winter months while many of
the roads into the little towns were impassable anyway.
George T. and his wife Alma returned to their Poplar,
Montana, home, and four members of the troupe, includ
ing Lawrence, made up their minds that it might be pleas
ant to spend the winter in New Orleans. None of them had
ever been there, and they had dreamed of making this pil-
"America's Greatest Accordionist' 9 85
grimage to the Dixieland jazz capital. Moreover, they
figured, it should be as good a town as the next for a mu
sician "to pick up a few bucks."
Their plan was to stay through Mardi Gras.
"America's Biggest Little Band*
The year was 1927.
Lawrence Welk, accordion player, Art Beal, piano,
Johnny Higgins, drums, and Howard Kieser, sax, turned
southward and headed for New Orleans in Lawrence's car.
Progress was painfully slow. A good part of the trip they
had to drive along in the wake of a snowplow, but they
kept going all day and night until, about 4 A.M., they
reached the town of Yankton, South Dakota. Weary and
bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, they decided by quick-
voice vote to stop there for a few hours' rest before going
farther. They checked in at the Collins Hotel on the main
street and left a call at the desk for 7:30.
Nobody realized how soon that hour would come.
When the phone rang in their rooms, Lawrence was the
only one of the quartet who paid any heed. He jumped
up, dressed, and packed before he discovered that the
others had merely turned over in their beds and gone back
T was disturbed," he puts it, *so I went around to
the beds and woke the boys up. But/* he adds, *1
really shouldn't have blamed them for sleeping late that
"Americas Biggest Little Band? 87
Ordinarily Lawrence considers tardiness "real bad." He
himself is never late, and Lois Lamont, his secretary, says
she can make appointments for him in close succession be
cause she knows Lawrence will respect a schedule to the
minute. He expects the same of others, and today he will
admit readily: "If one of the boys is late a few times that
worries me, because it upsets the whole band. It irritates
the fellows and they get down on the late-comer. Besides,
I find that lateness is a sign that a person is getting proud.
He's thinking more about himself than the folks he keeps
And, further proving that he considers tardiness a char
acter defect, Lawrence goes on to say, often in the next
breath: "Good musicians alone don't make a good band.
You have to have good character. I'd rather have a man
with good character working for me, even if he isn't quite
as good a performer. You can build up a man's musician
ship if he will co-operate and work hard. It is quite often
harder to change his character if it is wrong somehow."
But back in Yankton the very excusable tardiness of the
boys may have been a blessing. It gave Lawrence a chance
for a little reconnoitering that paid off. He tells about it
this way: "I knew it would take the fellows around a half
hour to get dressed and down in the dining room, so I de
cided that meanwhile I'd run over and see the town's new
When Lawrence reached there, he asked to speak to the
"head man," and that was when he met Chandler Gurney.
And who was Chandler Gurney?
Though it was much later when this personage became
United States Senator from South Dakota, in Lawrence's
estimation he was from the first an important figure. He
88 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELZ
possessed two valuable traits: he liked the accordion, and
his family owned the radio station WNAX.
"I had a nice visit with Mr. Gurney," says Lawrence,
"and at the same time I was going into a pitch about the
fine troupe of musicians traveling with me."
What happened next?
It isn't hard to guess the answer. Mr. Gurney agreed to
give Lawrence and his group time on an initial program of
the stationbeginning within the next half hour.
Lawrence eased himself from the building with as much
dignity as he could, then he rounded the street corner and
broke into a run. He ran all the way back to the hotell
Bursting into the dining room without a slowdown, he
yanked his friends from their seats, yelling: "We're on the
Had he been yelling, "Fire!" the astonishment, and then
the meek submission to his herding, could not have been
more complete. The boys dropped forks full of scrambled
eggs and bacon back onto their plates and went along
"We gave our first thirty-minute broadcast entirely un-
rehearsedr he explains.
The station site was also the site of the Gurney Seed and
Nursery Company. As the show progressed, the employees
of the company drifted into the auditorium either one by
one or in small groups, until nearly all of them were on
hand to watch the orchestra that nobody had ever heard
When the broadcast was over, complimentary phone
calls began coining in to the station, and Mr. Gurney, tak
ing note of them, asked Lawrence to his office for a talk.
"Americas Biggest Little Band" 89
The upshot of that talk was an offer of a week's engage
ment for an early morning program.
Lawrence was flabbergasted but, needless to say, man
aged to stammer his acceptance.
During the week the band received several bids for
dance dates. These they vetoed, because with the plan to
go on to New Orleans they could not tie up the future by
engagements in the North. Their refusal had an effect they
did not calculate: requests for their services came in with
offers now of higher pay.
The rates for "name bands" of about ten pieces, at that
time, ran around sixty to sixty-five dollars per night, plus
a percentage of the gross receipts, so Lawrence explains:
"I figured that we, with our little four-piece orchestra,
would have no takers if we quoted our price at seventy-five
per night, plus a whopping 70 per cent of the gross. You
could have knocked us over with feathers when ballroom
operators accepted our terms. This condition put us in the
dance-band business in a big way."
Yes, they were in business, for with such affluence theirs
for the taking they could not continue to decline dates.
Furthermore, Mr. Gurney offered to extend their radio
As matters finally worked out, they stayed there in
Yankton for three years, and when they did go off to seek
new worlds, it was only to return to Yankton, after an in
terval, for another three years.
Says Lawrence rather woefully: "You know, I never did
get to see the Mardi Gras. I've never seen one yet, but
maybe someday . . /'
Too bad that the Yankton job had to come just then?
Well, not really. Lawrence recalls: "It was in Yankton
9O MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
that I met Fern/' and he adds: "Yankton was a good spot
Perhaps that last statement is also intended to cover the
business situation, too. It would seem so from other re
marks of his: "WNAX gave us plenty of radio experi
ence. That helped a lot when I went to see Fred Miller
some years later with an idea about a nationwide radio
WNAX Yankton likewise helped by carrying the Welk
name far beyond the town's limits. Almost everywhere
Lawrence went in those days, in his dance-date travels, he
found that people knew him. His reputation had preceded
him. Immensely gratified, he quite naturally jumped to the
conclusion that he and his band must be "real wonderful.'*
Perhaps he was "real wonderful" but he found it rather
deflating to learn a few months after he began his travels
that WNAX was the sole station in existence for a radius of
many, many miles, and that furthermore it was an extraor
dinarily powerful station. "Folks couldn't have tuned in
any other station, if they had wanted to," he admits
There could be no doubt, however, that he had improved
and that he had increased his popularity. For the first time
in his life he had that handy and accurate gauge of public
reaction, fan mail. It didn't run to anything like his present
four thousand or more letters per week, which require a
battery of secretaries to process. It was something he could
read personally, and he did just that, thoughtfully consid
ering every suggestion and request, and indeed often act
ing upon them. For instance, when he had a complaint
about his accordion playing, he took up the saxophone. It
was only when other and more numerous complaints fol-
"Americas Biggest Little Band" 91
lowed the change that he switched back to his first love.
However, this little excursion into a new field reinforced
the notion, picked up from Kelly, that versatility within
the group was highly desirable. Lawrence began urging
the other men in his band to master as many instruments
Today he also likes to have his boys try out their vocal
cords, and to that end he even "framed* 7 one of them, Larry
Hooper, who disclaimed "having a voice/' He explains how
he did it: "I just told the whole band to sing a number in
chorus. Larry didn't mind joining the gang that way. What
he didn't know was that I'd told the other boys to stop at
the eighth bar. All of a sudden he found himself singing
alone. That was what I wanted. And it sounded so good
that he's been singing ever since."
If Larry isn't grateful for that ruse of Lawrence's, he
should be. His very first record, "O Happy Day," has sold
half a million, and he has been a popular recording star
But back to Yankton. With Operation Versatility in full
swing Lawrence developed an unusual band. His men, now
six in number, could play thirty-two instruments among
them. They changed their name from the Lawrence Welk
Novelty Band to America's Biggest Little Band.
And they had big ideas!
Lawrence signed with a booking agency and the con
tract stipulated that it should terminate only when the
company's commission reached one million dollars.
Fabulous! But ... oh there was a big "but" all right
the agency didn't bother to find their client bookings. Law
rence, the canny businessman, soon sized up the little
g2 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
game, and pointed out to the company that their inactivity
had invalidated the contract.
Temporarily sans agent, Lawrence did passably well
with his band until a certain fateful evening. He tells the
story: "I was walking along the main street of a small South
Dakota town and I happened to see through a plate-glass
window that my boys were all in the poolroom. The funny
part was that they were not playing pool. Instead, they
were hunched over one of the green baize tables, their
heads together like they were talking secrets.
"As I got closer, one of them spotted me, and quick
whispered to the rest. Like a flash, they all straightened
up and grabbed billiard cues.
"I didn't get it. It looked pretty queer. But I didn't have
to puzzle my head too long; I soon found out what was
Yes, the very next day a spokesman for the group came
to Lawrence and told him. In that poolroom there had
been a discussion among the members of America's Biggest
Little Band, of Lawrence Welk, their leader, and they had
decided that he was holding them back in their profession.
His "impossible accent" and his "hick" ways were bad
enough, but his playing ... 1 Crude and unrestrained, it
was spoiling their chances of advancement. Why, even the
owner of the radio station had joshed about putting a cush
ion under Lawrence's tapping foot, claiming that such
exuberant timekeeping shook the whole studio. For the
good of their future his musicians, to a man, were quitting.
"I felt awful about it," Lawrence admits. "Two days I
was in a shock, and just about paralyzed."
But all sorts of thoughts entered his partially numbed
brain. Should he go away to a new territory where he was
"America's Biggest Little Band" 93
unknown? Should he give up his idea of leading an orches
tra, and join some other band?
Then through the fog of vague notions came a defi
nite proposition. Another bandleader phoned and said: "I
heard what happened, and I understand that you have
bookings ahead. For myself, I haven't had much luck lately
with bookings. How about your taking on my orchestra
. . . you can lead it, and I'll step down and play as one
of the musicians."
Ah, wasn't that a marriage made in heaven? Lawrence
had the bookings and no orchestra; this man had an or
chestra and no bookings.
But Lawrence didn't really want any part of it. Sud
denly he knew what he did want.
He knew that he would prefer to hire his own orchestra,
and not take on a ready-made one. Telling the other band
leader: "I'll let you know," he picked up the magazine
Billboard and turned to the employment ads. He found
that two musicians, the Reed brothers, were looking for a
job. He answered that ad and thus took his first step to
ward building up a new orchestra.
Actually the Reeds could not join him for another two
weeks; they had to give that much notice to their present
employer. But now, with the spell of indecision broken,
Lawrence could move ahead with his usual purposeful
Move fast he didon the double.
Promising a steady salary instead of a percentage of the
take, he hired for immediate work a drummer, a pianist,
and a trumpet player and, photo-finish style, made it to
his next date with a new, if incomplete, orchestra.
So it was: "Swing out, boys!"
94 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
The first notes reached his ears. Wow! Was that sup
posed to be music? The freshly employed trumpet player
had new dentures, acquired just the day before. The teeth
didn't fit, and they chattered, clack-click, clack-click,
against the mouthpiece of his instrument.
"I could only pray that the audience took it for a comedy
gag. The playing was something awful," Lawrence recalls.
"After the first couple of numbers, I had to ask the man
The experience was an ill wind that brought the good of
enlightenment. "I had a terrible band then," Lawrence
concedes, "but with my old band, I had built up some
thing. For the first time, I saw how very important a fol
lowing can be. People still listened to us, just because we
had a name."
Because they continued to listen, he continued to make
money. In fact he made more than formerly. The steady
salaries he offered may have sounded like a good proposi
tion to the men he hired, but as it turned out, it was a
better arrangement for Lawrence than his former one,
whereby he had split the take evenly, with the exception
of 15 per cent off the top for booking services, advertise
ment, transportation, and other expenses. The first week
under the new setup was particularly heartening. Since he
began with only an incomplete orchestra of four men, he
suggested to the ballroom operators that they reduce his
usual fee. However, they paid him in full. He made four
hundred dollars, which was the largest weekly amount he
had ever made in his lifetimeso far.
Obviously, though, people would not continue to listen
indefinitely and he would not continue to make money be
cause of a reputation gained in the past. He would have
"Americas Biggest Little Band? 95
to look to the future and improve his band. Nobody re
alized that fact more fully than Lawrence did. He set him
self to the task of procuring the finest musicians he could
afford, and to working with them to bring out the best
they were capable of.
"Lawrence has a marvelous knack/' says his present
Hollywood director, James Hobson. "He knows how to
bring out the best in his men/*
Call it Clue No. 13 or No. 33 if you will. At any rate,
Lawrence Welk spares no pains. "Whenever I can make
my band as little as i per cent better," he declares, "I never
mind how much effort it means to do it."
Of this period of his career, while he was doing his ut
most to build up the musicianship of his band, he says that
the going was far from easy, but he explains: "When
things are rough, that's the time when we have to work
twice as hard to get over the hump."
Since he was willing to do just that, he achieved results.
His engagement at the Yankton radio station was con
tinued. Moreover, offers of dance jobs poured in as usual.
Once he and the band left the station long enough to
accept a few weeks' engagement at Lake Placid, and that
particular little expedition stands out in his mind more
vividly than others. It was like a retreat to recoup his
strength after the whirlwind existence of some years; it was
like a quiet interlude graciously vouchsafed him to prepare
himself for the next phase of his life.
He played there at the Bear Cub Club, and he had his
days free to wander about through the shadowy stillness
of the wooded mountains.
"Most of the time I used to carry my gun," he said.
"Game had supplied a big part of our food back on the
96 MISTER MUSIC MABER, LAWRENCE WELK
farm, and IVe never forgotten how to hunt. But again there
were times when I went out with my prayer book. I'd read
a sentence or two from it, then I'd just think about God.
Sometimes vf,e have to be quiet to remember that God is
with us, and will help us if we are really willing to let Him
act in His own way. I think He helped me in those days.
I was tired in my mind, and I was tired in my body, too,
with the pace I'd been keeping. He showed me more
clearly than ever what I wanted from life. It wasn't just
money and success. It was something more important."
Lawrence Welk and his orchestra in the late 1920's, Yankton,
The car Lawrence Welk used in the late 1920's to transport
himself and his orchestra.
Fern Rermer Welk in the late
Lawrence Welk with his daughter, Donna, in 1937.
.;'.' ' *. h*.
The Welk family making music at home, 1950-Lawrence, Mrs. Welk,
daughters Donna and Shirley, and Lawrence, Jr.
Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers
'Getting to Know You"
Back to Yankton after the Lake Placid interlude, Lawrence
plunged once more into hard work, and into a maze of
plans for the future. The mecca of his desires was the East.
At that stage of his career, he reversed Horace Greeley's
advice: "Go west, young man/* believing that prestige
could best be won in the sophisticated East. His hope was
to procure a booking there.
But plans and hard work or no, Lawrence admits: "I
couldn't help noticing a bunch of good-looking student
nurses from Sacred Heart Hospital, who used to come to
the studio regularly."
He also mentions that he "kind of liked" the smiles and
arch glances that were aimed at him through the glass
partition. What's more, he didn't sprint in the opposite di
rection when he found that some of the girls waited for
him after each broadcast, to tell him with giggles and
gurgles that his playing was "perfectly marvelous," or
"simply divine." He only wished that he had more time for
Then on a certain memorable morning, just before go
ing on the air, he saw the girl. She had never been there
98 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WEJLK
As lie played, his eyes kept straying toward her and
"I'd turn back to my sheet music real fast and make out
like I was studying it/' he says, "but a minute later there
I'd be staring at her again. I couldn't help it. You know
the song 'A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody? Well, that girl
had a face like a melody."
But those quiet brown eyes of hers swept right past him
to gaze abstractedly off into space. Why, she didn't seem
interested even in the program!
"Soon I made no bones to it" Lawrence confesses. T
tried to get her attention by smiling at her and all. It didn't
do any good. She wouldn't look my way."
The broadcast over at long last, he was on the other side
of the partition in a matter of seconds. He whispered some
thing to one of the nurses he had met before, and she in
troduced him to Miss Fern Renner.
He may have stuttered, he may have twisted the Eng
lish words, he may have used his most guttural German
accents, but he did talk to her. He even dared to ask her
to dinner. He was afraid that, if he didn't make a date
immediately, she might vanish into a never-never land be
yond his future reach.
In response to his invitation she murmured something
about being "awfully busy/' so the Welk persistence came
into play. Lawrence urged Miss Renner to accept, if not
for tonight, then for tomorrow, and if not for tomorrow,
then for the day after, but the sooner the better.
Finally she agreed to go out with him on one condition:
he must include her roommate in the invitation.
"I had an answer for that," Lawrence gloats. "I told her
"Getting to Know You 39 99
that I had a friend who would be happy to take out any
friend of hers, and I'd arrange a foursome/*
From then on Lawrence suddenly had plenty of time for
dating. He would have had time whenever Fern Renner
said the right word. The only trouble was that she so sel
dom said it.
"She kept telling me that she was tied down at the hos
pital. I wasn't seeing nearly enough of her/* Lawrence has
regrets even now.
When he was away from her, she constantly hummed
in his mind like a snatch of remembered song, and as he
might improvise variations of its basic theme, so he com
posed patterns around Fern or, perhaps better said, little
operas or dramas, a la Walter Mitty. In the libretto he,
Lawrence Welk, was always the glorious hero, winning her
admiration, her tender sympathy, and of course her undy
But the fantasy wasn't getting him anywhere. If only he
could spend more time with her! Inevitably he ended on
What was the trouble? Was she interested in somebody
else? Or was she just being coy?
Finally he heard a rumor which really appalled him. He
was told that Fern always had her nose in a medical book,
and that she talked of studying medicine and becoming a
doctor. Such a girl wouldn't want to become involved with
a boy friend.
For days Lawrence stood dumfounded and miserable
before this unexpected obstacle. How surmount that kind
of thing! He could not do it by frontal attack. Perhaps
a strategic approach was required. He knew that Fern
worked under Dr. Abts at the hospital, and that moreover
1OO MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
the doctor and his wife were personal friends of Fern's.
She boarded in a private house next door to them and often
ran in to see them and to help with their baby. Lawrence
was casually acquainted with the family himself. He had
consulted the doctor about a throat condition and had
been told that, despite a tonsillectomy of childhood, some
day there must be further surgery to remove a piece of
skin which had grown back. Now Lawrence took to drop
ping in on the Abtses socially as well as professionally, and
he asked them to put in a good word for him with "the
girl next door."
"Love's Labour's Lost." Fern continued to refuse Law
Characteristically Lawrence did not admit defeat. He
shifted tactics. He wasn't quite sure what he could accom
plish in the long run, but at least for a time, if his new
scheme worked out, he might be able to bring himself
within the aura of Fern's presence.
First he made arrangements with Dr. Abts, second he
procured a short leave of absence from the studio, and
then he betook himself to the hospital. Marching up to the
attendant at the reception desk, he politely told her that
he was ready for a tonsillectomy.
The somewhat startled woman backed off from Law
rence dubiously, but when she checked with Dr. Abts, he
assured her that the young man in question was a bona
So far so goodl
"The next step, I figured, was to get the hospital people
to let me have Miss Renner for my nurse," Lawrence ex
plains. "But I didn't get anywhere with that idea."
Before he could half present his plea, he was hustled
"Getting to Know You" 101
away for the preoperative ritual by another starched and
efficient young lady.
Happily, however, she did serve as a willing grapevine
to carry word of Lawrence's presence to Fern, who (al
though she was supposedly engaged in applying antiseptic
bandages on another floor) managed to slip into her
suitor's room after the operation to see how he was doing.
To her surprise she found that he had hemorrhaged, so,
besides being feverish and half groggy from ether, he had
surgical clamps in his mouth. To her further surprise, de
spite these oral encumberments, he managed to tell her
somehow that she was "sweet." The very fact that a man
in his situation would essay painful speech just to utter
endearments put a slight crack in her defenses. From then
on Fern discovered that there were at least a few evenings
when she could leave the hospital for dates with Lawrence.
Also Fern says: "Mrs. Abts had talked to me about him.
I didn't know that Lawrence himself had asked her to.
Anyway, she said to me: 1 think you're being foolish not
to see more of him. You couldn't find a nicer young man/ "
Actually Lawrence and Fern were well suited to one an
other. Whether he had the objectivity to figure that out at
the time may be doubtful, but today he recognizes the fact,
and he says: "We have the same religious faith, and that's
real important, because it means that we think the same
about big things. Both Fern and I think that making
money, and all that, must not come before being good."
And besides basic belief Lawrence and Fern had other
things in common. They had had similar home back
grounds; they came from the same part of the country; and
(although Fern hailed from the English-speaking com
munity of St. Anthony, North Dakota, and could handle
102 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
that language with greater ease than Lawrence) they
both had a German heritage.
The romance gathered momentum for a short time, then
Lawrence's own profession inadvertently applied the
brakes. That Eastern tour, which he had laid the ground
work for in another existence back in the dark ages before
Fern appeared presented itself as a reality. He had no
choice but to leave Fern and Yankton, at least for a short
Need it be said: Easterners paid no attention to Law
rence Welk not in the year 1930? With a flat wallet he
and the band hurried back to Yankton in search of another
"I did not want to ask Fern to be my wife until my pros
pects looked a little better," he explains. "I didn't think I
Fortunately he soon landed a six months' booking. It
was at Eddie Otts' Broadmoor in Denver.
When he broke this glad news to Fern, she countered
with news of her own. She announced that, when she fin
ished her nurse's training that spring, she would be going
to work in St. Paul's Hospital in Dallas, Texas. His mind
did some rapid flip-flops. It was one thing for him to get
back to Yankton, another to find time to go as far as Dallas.
But this could not be the end of the road. He could, and
did, extract a promise from Fern to write to him.
Lawrence himself had never been much for writing, but
now he had an incentive. His letters must have been
enough to hold Fern's interest and maybe even to
heighten it. At any rate, a few months later, when she took
her vacation and went up to Yankton, she returned to Dal-
"Getting to Know You" 103
las by the somewhat roundabout way of Denver. As a rea
son she murmurs something about registering at a nurses'
agency in that city, but the fact remains that the first
phone call she made was not to the agency but to Law
When he heard her voice, he exclaimed: Til be right
over," and then in his excitement he hung up without so
much as a good-by.
That very evening he and Fern became engaged to be
married. "I didn't want to put off asking her, now that I
was doing well and saving money," he points out. "And I
had some dates ahead in a couple of Tom Archer's ball
What words he used when he proposed, or if he pro
posed formally, he himself doesn't tell now. He can be
voluble enough when he philosophizes in general about
life, love, and religion, but he is completely tongue-tied
about his personal romance.
No matter! He received the right answer from Fern.
But there are a few versions of the proposal built on
latter-day conjecture. One version ( daughter Donna's ) is
that Lawrence, having taken Fern up to nearby Lookout
Mountain to "pop the question,'* gave her no real choice.
"Answer *y^ s> or 'no/ he said, but just let her try 'no.' He
would have pushed her off the cliff."
Another version (son Larry's) is that the proposal was
a mere formality. Back in the hospital in Yankton, while
Lawrence lay helpless with postoperative weakness, Fern
had come at him with a hypo needle, making it quite clear
that "she meant business. He'd better not try to get away
from her, or else . . ?
However, there is Fern's version of it. She says; "Law-
1O4 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWEJENCE WELK
rence never did proposenot really. I was wearing a ring,
and he took one look at it and blurted out: 'Oh, where
did you get that? I was going to ask you myself I'
"When I explained that it didn't mean what he thought,
he asked if I smoked or drank. When I said no, he began
to talk about us getting married, as though it were all
But why had Fern been so cool to him in the beginning?
Had she really planned to be a doctor?
"It's true/' she says. "I was very serious about my work.
I stayed longer in operating-room assistance than other
nurses. I had a vague notion I'd like to be a surgeon.
Mostly, though, I was afraid of a musician. I figured that
musicians, like sailors, would have a girl in every port.
Then, too, I thought that a bandleader would have to be
She goes on to recall the girls in the hospital, who acted
"so silly." She didn't want to be just another of Lawrence's
F.F.F.s, his Fluttering Female Fans. In the end, however,
she couldn't resist him and words on Lookout Mountain
were superfluous. She had already capitulated.
But what made her capitulate? She gives her reasons:
"Well, you look at Lawrence, and see he washe is, a very
handsome man . . . that smile of his ... and . . . and
everything about him. And I could notice so many won
derful qualities in him. He talked so beautifully about his
mother, not only lovingly, but you might say respectfully
and even reverently. Then, much as he wanted success in
his career, he didn't talk like a man who would do any
thing low or mean to get it. He'd mention the law of God,
or the will of God. A man who tries to live by that can't
go very far wrong, can he?"
"Getting to Know You" 105
And, to prove that her evaluation of him was correct,
she cites an incident which occurred in their early married
life. Lawrence could see the possibility of a booking which
augured everything he was striving foradditional money,
prestige, and a boost upward toward the ultimate goal
He let it be known through his agents that he was available
for the opening, and the hint came back that the plum
would soon be his for the picking. He was so excited and
happy that he talked of nothing else for days.
Then suddenly he was silent* He seemed moody, out of
sorts, and quite unlike himself. Several times Fern woke
in the middle of the night to find him tossing sleepless at
her side. She couldn't imagine what had come over him,
and she was still trying to figure out some tactful way of
asking him when he confided in her.
He had refused the much-coveted booking, and now he
saw nothing in sight. His refusal to take the next giant
step upward, he said, had cut him off from the future
from a whole series of possible steps later. He felt as though
he was trapped in a dark blind alley.
But why had he refused the billet he wanted so dearly?
There was reason enough! The key person involved in the
booking had turned out to be a woman who had met Law
rence a few times and had apparently been attracted to
him. She had made it quite clear that for the "favor" of
hiring the band she expected in return a little amorous at
tention from Lawrence. Conscience dictated his course.
Fern has never regretted the evening on Lookout Moun
tain or her subsequent marriage to Lawrence. Far from itl
She is apparently so content with her lot that on one oc
casion a friend could not resist challenging: "You can't
really believe that Lawrence is perfect You must be like
106 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
the rest of uswe wives usually have a few stray com
plaints. Aren't there some things about him that get you
Fern thought a minute before she answered: "There's
one quirk of his. He will forget and wipe his razor on my
good towels. He knows I hate that, and like a little boy
who's been naughty, he will hang the towel backward so
that I don't see the spot that the razor's made."
If that's all a wife can dredge up by way of complaint,
it is a pretty good testimonial of a happy marriage.
But what about that marriage? And the wedding the
when, where, and how of it?
"We'll Stroll the Lanes Together '
It was settled. They were to be married. They had only
to name the date. But meantime Fern went back to Dallas
and her job there. Via the mails they made their plans.
Lawrence urged a mid-April wedding, as that would al
low them to go to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon, en route
to Albany, where a late-April engagement was booked for
him at the De Witt Clinton Hotel. April 18 (1931) was
the date finally agreed upon.
Neither of their families would be able to attend. Indeed
Lawrence figured that the only people likely to show up
would be Dr. and Mrs. Abts and the boys of the little band.
For that reason, as well as to hang onto the few dollars
they had saved, Lawrence and Fern decided to make the
wedding as quiet and simple as possible.
"Frills aren't important anyway,** avers Lawrence. Tern
and I just wanted to do it right in church with God's
On the date set Lawrence would be playing at Tom
Archer s Rigadoon ballrooms in Sioux City, so they chose
the Cathedral of the Epiphany of that town for the place
of the wedding. For the time they selected the unusual
hour of 5:30 A.M. but with reasons galore. It would mean
1O8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
only a brief interval between the time that Lawrence
would finish playing for a dance and the ceremony at day
break Mass; it was shortly after Fern's train from Dallas
would be arriving in town; and, lastly, it would allow them
to squeeze in a wedding breakfast for their friends and still
get an early start on a trip eastward, which they had to
begin by midmorning in order to make Lawrence's next
Now at any wedding a nervous groom is standard equip
ment, but at this wedding the priest who witnessed the
Sacrament, Father Leo McCoy, was also nervous. He was
a young fellow, fresh from the seminary, serving his initial
assignment as curate, and this was his first Nuptial Mass.
He went through it painstakingly, then, heaving a sigh of
relief, dismissed the couple. However, just as they were
leaving the church, he emitted a panicky little gasp and
called them back with the cryptic exclamation: "Some
Lawrence says: "I know my heart came to a full stop
before Father managed to get out the words explaining
what it was about. He had forgotten to bless the ring
and that's all"
More comic relief was in store for the young benedict.
Accompanied only by Dr. and Mrs. Abts (who appropri
ately enough "stood up" for the pair, whose romance they
had aided and abetted), he and Fern made a fresh try at
leaving the church. They did actually pass through the
doors this time but were immediately arrested by a strange
sight. There, sitting on the cathedral steps, was a huddled
mass, composed of the boys of the band, each clutching in
his fist a bag of rice to throw at the newlyweds, but each,
believe it or not, sound asleep.
"Well Stroll the Lanes Together' 109
Evidently 5:30 of a raw spring morning is too much for
even the best of friends!
Laughing foolishly and excitedly, they headed for the
Martin Hotel and breakfast. The group broke up in time,
but just barely, Lawrence calculated, to go by their respec
tive rooms, pick up their luggage, and get a reasonably
early start on the Eastern trip. Lawrence assembled his
own and Fern's bags, stowed them in the trunk compart
ment of the car, and went back to his room for his ac
cordion. All set?
Lawrence took a quick look around to see if he had for
gotten anything, and in that split second the phone rang.
"Hello," he said into the mouthpiece, then "What?" and
more sharply "What's that again?"
Fern, standing by his side, sensed trouble, and when
Lawrence gave her a weak little smile intended to be re
assuring, it only confirmed her suspicions of impending dif
Finally he hung up and, no other course being open,
broke the news: the Albany engagement had been can
celed. He and the band were without a job. What's more,
nothing was in sight but a few one-night stands in Wis
Lawrence thought of Tom Archer, for whom the band
had just played. Tom owned ballrooms in Sioux City,
Sioux Falls, Des Moines, and in St. Joseph, Missouri, and
Omaha, Nebraska. This man liked Lawrence's music, and,
says the bandleader: "Tom was a real friend. After every
job I did for him we'd sit down together and talk over
my playing, trying to figure out if we could make anything
better. He really wanted to do the best for the folks out
front, just like I did. I thought such a lot of his ideas that
110 MISTER MUSIC MAZER, LAWRENCE WELK
I once offered him a percentage of our take to give us ad
vice, but he said that he wasn't sure his ideas were that
good. He'd tell us anything he knew without money. He
was strong for earning every cent he got. I admired him
Despite this fine association, and despite the fact that
in later years Lawrence was to play the Archer circuit
again many times, in April 1931 Tom had to confess that
he had no openings at the moment. According to Law
rence's bookers, other ballroom operators had the same
Up till this point Lawrence had been doing well. "It took
marriage and me to have the Depression catch up with
him/* says Fern, who can afford to be facetious about it
It was the few one-nighters, and then a long blank
Arriving for the first date in La Crosse, Lawrence made
the sort of slip that people joke about but never believe
actually happens: he signed the hotel register Lawrence
Welk and Fern Renner. He was about to walk away se
renely unaware of his mistake when he caught the expres
sion on the clerk's face. He could only scratch out the
second name and preface his own with Mr. and Mrs.
Poor Fern! She saw it all, including the clerk's wink as
he handed Lawrence the key, and she comments: **I was
a complete hermit the twenty-four hours we were in that
hotel. I didn't dare stick my nose outside the door of my
room. I was too embarrassed."
After the few one-nighters were filled, the question of
lining up more jobs became urgent. To expedite matters,
Lawrence proposed that they go to Chicago, for he rea-
"We'll Stroll the Lanes Together" m
soned that a big bustling place would logically offer many
possibilities. So it was off to the windy city for the little
group. While there, they lived in an obscure hotel on Wa-
bash Avenue, with rates of a dollar to a dollar and a half
per room. From that anchorage Lawrence made daily ex
cursions to his booker's office with Mr. Micawber's hope
that something would "turn up."
"It was a funny honeymoon," by Lawrence's admission.
"I was in a kind of panic, wondering and worrying what
to do next. And every day our little roll of money got
smaller and smaller. But Fern and I did have real wonder
ful moments anyhow. We'd slip away from the boys, and
hand by hand we'd walk along the Lake Shore Drive to
watch the sun on the water. You know, it reminded us of
the smile of heaven beaming down on us, and we kept
telling each other that everything was going to be fine."
Once during the Chicago sojourn they made a day's trip
to Decatur, where Lawrence's old friend, Max Fichtner,
and his family then lived. The expedition was "real nice
in lots of ways," but Lawrence emphasizes: "They asked
us to dinner. We had sauerbraten and dumplings."
Evidently, to two hungry young people who had been
living on beans and coffee bought in a cheap diner, a
home-cooked meal was nothing short of nectar and am
But one good dinner didn't help them solve that nagging
question of how to find a job. Lawrence's money ap
proached the vanishing point. In the beginning he had
paid not only his own and Fern's expenses but those of
the boys as well. When the day came that that was no
longer possible, the boys attempted to fend for themselves.
Before Lawrence's eyes the band bit by bit disintegrated.
112 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
"It got so that I couldn't even buy food for Fern and
me/* he recalls.
"Before we were married, Fern told me that she couldn't
cook. I laughed that away, saying: 'Then we'll eat in res
taurants/ and I meant it. Now I couldn't buy restaurant
meals, or even food to cook. A little bread and cheese and
stuff like that kept us going, but most of the time we were
close to hungry. I tried not to let Fern see how awful
scared I got. I couldn't sleep at night worrying about what
to do. Finally, I figured that, whatever happened, we
couldn't stay where we were. There just had to be a job
somewhere, and if my bookers couldn't find it, then it was
up to me to go from place to place looking for one myself."
And he reasoned that the Dakotas, where he was known,
might after all prove the best hunting ground for jobs, and
for finding musicians to replace those who had left him.
It was time for him to remember his own favorite dictum
about "hard conditions" and making an extra effort "to get
over the hump."
Lawrence literally worked their way home, bartering
music-making for a night's lodging or a day's food. Once
there, with faith, courage, and hope to bolster them, they
managed to dig up enough jobs to scrimp along in the
manner they were accustomed, lo these many weeks.
While Lawrence was in that part of the country, he had
an opportunity to take Fern for a short visit to the farm
to meet Mamma and Papa. It was a warm and jolly re
union and certainly a contrast to the harried and hungry
existence the newlyweds had so far had together. Sisters
and brothers kept stopping in with new babies to show off
so that laughter, singing and backslapping made the old
Welk home echo and re-echo with sounds of merriment.
"Well Stroll the Lanes Together" 113
When Lawrence left with Fern, it was to accept a
summer-long Job at Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which his
hookers had landed for him. Things were looking up at
least to a degree. He had a semi-permanent job.
In those Depression years music jobs, permanent or
otherwise, were growing scarcer by the minute. On all
sides of him Lawrence could see his confreres abandoning
the profession, to seek work which might bring them a
For some months, anyhow, Lawrence's new job would
ensure meals for all of them and there would be a little
cash to boot. The compensation offered was room and
board for the band, plus $300 a month. If the booking
agent's fee took $60 and Union dues $20, $220 still was
left to split among the eight of them and, says Lawrence:
"It was something."
The troupe left the Dakotas for Wisconsin in good
spirits to see what lay ahead.
"There's a Long, Long Trail 3 '
On Inauguration Day, when some Washington hotels
were asking forty dollars per diem for a room ordinarily
billed at fifteen, Lawrence remarked: "Many a time I've
had a room for thirty-five or fifty cents a night. Some of
them weren't so fancy of course, but I guess the worst we
ever had was the room at Twin Lakes/'
The troupe arrived by car and the ballroom manager,
having introduced himself, took the travelers to their liv
ing quarters. He led them around to the rear of the dance
hall to what looked like a lean-to, adjacent to the large
structure. Here was the band's hide-outone small cubi
cle, its four walls each lined with beds.
"But I have a private room for you and the missus," the
manager informed Lawrence, and entered the ballroom.
Lawrence and Fern followed in his footsteps and gaped
over his shoulder as he threw open the door of an erstwhile
storage closet, "furnished." The furniture, wedged into the
cramped space, consisted of a sagging bed (on which
hung dejectedly a plaid blanket, heavy with the grime of
years) and a couple of tired, rickety chairs period. No
curtains graced the tiny window; instead it was criss
crossed with cobwebs. No paint covered the walls; they
"There's a Long, Long TraiF 115
were decorated only by a few rusty nails (intended to
hold clothes) protruding from the bare boards.
But the manager was talking. He was explaining
that there was indoor plumbing see the "MEN" and
"WOMEN" signs in the ballroom? As for bathing well of
course the lake would serve.
"I was used to roughing it," says Lawrence, "so I didn't
think much about this till I took a look at Fern's face. She
seemed awful sad. I reached out to pat her hand and tell
her it wouldn't be too bad, and right off she burst into
For three days those tears flowed. Such an abundance
of salt water should have washed the place out, but dirt
is stubborn stuff. It didn't budge until, on the fourth day,
Fern dried her eyes, rolled up her sleeves, and set to
scrubbing with all the vigor that hospital training had
"My wife is the cleanest person and the most particular
housekeeper in the world/' Lawrence asserts. "Now as I
look back, I don't see how I ever had the nerve to take her
into a place like that."
Nonetheless she grew to like it. She bought paint for the
walls, a ruffled organdy curtain for the window, a bright
flowered spread for the bed, and by sheer feminine magic
turned the drab "room" into a gay and cozy nook.
It is understandable why Shirley (now Mrs. Robert
Fredericks) says of her mother: "She's a genius with a
home. Now that I'm married, I'm always trying to do
things the way Mother did them. I can't understand some
of my friends the girls I graduated from college with:
they duck work around the home for an office job where
they must take somebody else's dictation and pound away
Il6 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
at a mechanical typewriter. But housework is so creative.
The less you have to go on financially, the more of a chal
lenge it is. Then it's so satisfying to make somebody as
contented and comfortable as Mother has always made
Daddy, despite some of their fly-by-night diggings/'
He was comfortable and contented there at Twin Lakes
and he was happy. The summer danced blithely along
and was crowned at the end with news of something Law
rence called "a blessed condition." Fern discovered that
she was going to have a baby.
Good news followed good news. Another booking was
ready for the Lawrence Welk band at the Mirador Ball
room in Phoenix, Arizona, at $425 a week.
With the few dollars saved from the pittance received
at Twin Lakes they could buy gas to get there and not
much more. But that was good enough. They set off.
"During the hot days of an October Indian summer/'
Lawrence recalls, "we headed southward across the des
ert in three old jalopies. The trip would not have been a
rose bed anyhow, but with Fern pregnant, and in a car
like ours that broke down ever so often, it was worse. Then,
of all things, Fern kept craving pickles."
Along the sparsely settled routes that they followed no
pickle vendors appeared. Finally, in a little town where
they stopped for gas, Lawrence spotted a grocery store.
He counted his small horde of money, took out a whole
dollar and slipped away, to return a few minutes later with
a huge two-quart jar in a brown paper bag. Bearing it
proudly to his ladylove, he asked in a voice that he tried
to keep casual: "How about a pickle?"
To his surprise and chagrin she answered just as casu
ally: "Oh, don't bother to buy any now. I did have the
"There s a Long, Long IraiT 117
worst hankering for them a while back, but now I don't
care if I ever see one. In fact they'd probably make me
sick the way I feel at this point."
When the exchequer is as low as Lawrence's was just
then, you don't throw away food for which you've paid
good money. You eat it. Lawrence subsisted on a pickle
diet for the rest of the trip. Need anybody ask why he
doesn't like pickles today?
Arriving in Phoenix, they followed written directions
about locating the Mirador.
"We found it, all right," Lawrence says, <f but what a
shock it gave us. The windows were shuttered, and the
doors boarded over. We didn't know what to make of it."
A few inquiries ferreted out the facts: the place had
been closed for lack of business. So-ol There they were
stranded in a place where they didn't know a soul, and
with no job or money in sight.
This was worse than Chicago! There wasn't enough
money between them for the cheapest of hotel accommo
dations or for enough food to carry them through the next
Lawrence took stock of the situation and went into
He had one possession worth a little cash. It was the
diamond ring he had bought at the first flush of prosperity
with Peerless Entertainers.
"I never thought I'd part with it deliberately," he said
in relating this incident, and then he told about the time
he had nearly lost it accidentally, While he was swimming
at Twin Lakes, the ring had slipped from his finger and,
declares Lawrence: "I figured that meant good-by. I felt
awful, but this is like a believe-it-or-not Ripley tale. When
Il8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
I was diving into the clear water, I actually found it. Of
all places it had dropped around a reed, growing on the
lake's mud bottom.
'Td worn it like a sign of my first success and it re
minded me to keep trying to go ahead. I went over all
that in my mind as I took the ring down to a pawnbroker
in Phoenix. He gave me seventy-five dollars for it."
Now they could eat! But Lawrence knew he would have
to take further steps if they wanted to go on eating for
long. Working with electric energy, he managed to round
up all of the twenty-two stockholders of the ballroom, and,
addressing them in his thick German accent, he pleaded
for a reopening of the place. Their set faces indicated that
his argument so far was not convincing them, so he played
his trump card: he promised that if the venture should be
a financial loss he would shoulder the debt.
That week the ballroom opened.
In the course of the following weeks Lawrence and the
boys drew good crowds night after night. "It seemed no
time at all/* Lawrence exulted, "before I had the money to
get back my ring."
Today TV audiences can see that ring on the fourth fin
ger of his left hand. If this talisman determines in any way
the kind of forging ahead Lawrence has done, then the
pawnbroker who allowed seventy-five dollars for it grossly
underrated its value.
Of course the Depression still dragged on for a few more
years, which meant that there were more bad stretches
ahead. "But," says Fern, "after Phoenix, I never worried.
When I saw how Lawrence managed there against those
odds, I just knew he'd always find a way to get along, no
"There's a Long, Long Trail* 119
Well, ups and downs are to be expected in show busi
ness. They are as much a part of it as the moves Lawrence
speaks of "from pillars to posts/' In the next months the
little orchestra traveled in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and
Kansas, Fern along with them. But in the spring she let
them go to a Denver engagement without her. She wanted
to stay in Dallas until the baby was born, so that she could
receive the care of Dr. McLeod, whom she had known,
worked with and admired at St. Paul's Hospital.
Lawrence parted with her reluctantly.
It was a girl!
On April 29, Shirley Jean arrived whole her father was
off to the North, in Denver.
**Way early in the morning, a nurse friend of Fern's put
in a call from Dallas with the news," Lawrence recounts,
"and my landlady, who answered the phone, has probably
been talking about it ever since."
Sleepily the good woman padded downstairs in slippers
and robe when the phone rang but, going up again to sum
mon her boarder, she was fully awake and curious. Not
many expensive long-distance calls came to her house of a
predawn. It must mean that Mr. Welk's wife had the baby.
She rapped on his door. To her surprise there was no
response. "He's sure a heavy sleeper/' she muttered.
But in a case like this, she decided, it was right and
proper for her just to "bust in** and wake the man up. She
tried the door. It wasn't locked. Opening it, she began:
"Mr. Welk . . ." and then broke off.
She saw that the bed had not been slept in! She glanced
around as though she half expected Lawrence might be
crouching behind the bureau, or in a closet, or on the little
porch which opened off his room.
"Rock-a-bye Baby" 121
''What'll I tell 'em? It don't look good at this hour, but
111 have to tell 'em, he ain't in," the woman murmured to
Afterward, when she had delivered her message and
received the news from the other end, she went back to
the scene of the mystery, to try to figure out Lawrence's
It didn't take long. Although the bed remained empty,
and the room unoccupied, she noticed something on the
porch which had escaped her attention before. It was a
dark object protruding from the snowdrift in the corner
under the eaves. It looked like a foot, clad in an Argyle
Sure enough, that's what it was! Mr. Welk must be un
der that snow.
By this time her bustling about had had an effect. The
snowdrift began to quiver, and a tousled head erupted at
the far end of it. A moment later, shaking himself like a
dog emerging from a bath, Lawrence stood up.
"What on earth?" exclaimed the woman. Maybe all mu
sicians were crazy, but she didn't figure that any were this
"I tried to explain to her that I had grown up on a farm.
I liked fresh air. I liked to sleep outdoors. And I told her
I hadn't any idea there'd be a snowstorm during the night.
After all it was April," Lawrence points out.
And then it was his turn to ask questions. The lady
wouldn't be waking him up at this hour unless * . .
She lost no time in confirming his surmise: he was a fa
therof a baby girl, weighing five pounds, twelve ounces.
Then without more ado she turned on her heel and left,
122 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
presumably to try for a few more winks before the alarm
clock proclaimed the start of another workday.
"I just stood there, staring after her for a couple of min
utes. Then I made a dash down the stairs to the phone in
the lower hall. I had to put in a call to Dallas."
Connected at last with the maternity floor of the hos
pital, Lawrence was answered by a crisp, impersonal voice.
Despite the lump in his throat he managed to ask quaver-
ingly for the nurse friend who had phoned him earlier.
When he had her on the line, he blurted out the dread
question, "What chance has she? Will the baby live?"
"Why, Lawrence," came the calm reply, "what's the
matter? Our bulletins show that both mother and baby are
doing nicely. And IVe talked to Fern myself, and "
"But she's so tiny!" stammered Lawrence.
"Babies usually come in wee sizes," his friend assured
"But . . . but only twelve ounces!"
"What did you say?" the nurse shot back.
"Twelve ounces," Lawrence repeated.
Over the wire came something suspiciously like a gig
gle, then the nurse explained to Lawrence that his baby
weighed five pounds, twelve ounces, and that he had noth
ing to fear about her size. It was quite normal.
He hung up the phone and stumbled upstairs, his face
bearing a dazed expression.
"Was I glad when Fern and Shirley got to Denver, and
I could see for myself that they were OK," he says. "Seeing
But he had to wait six weeks for that day. Meantime he
improved his shining hours by writing a song in honor of
"Rock-a-bye Baby" 123
his daughter which he entitled "You're My Home Sweet
He was not able to place it with any song editor, so he
decided to publish it privately. The venture cost him four
hundred dollars, and that was four hundred dollars too
much, for the song brought him no returns.
This is not a reflection on the little daughter, who Law
rence declares solemnly "was beautiful." He also declares
that she was frightening, and he recalls: "Fern laughed at
me because I was afraid to hold my own baby. And I was
afraid of her in other ways, too. I'd look at her, and all
of a sudden it would hit me again that I was her father.
It was up to meto Fern and meto teach her to follow
God's laws, so that she would have a chance at the right
kind of life. That's the big job of parents."
Perhaps it was these musings which drew Lawrence's
mind more often than ever to his own parents and made
him decide to take his daughter home to the farm to show
her off to the folks.
"Of course, I often went back to the farm anyhow/* he
says. "I'd run home whenever I was in the Dakotas and
had a free interval. I kept that up real regular, till my
His mother's death occurred in 1940, and to this day
Lawrence regrets that he could not be with her in her last
"I knew she had been ill for a long time with diabetes,
but I didn't know she was really low until about twenty-
four hours before she died. I was in Pittsburgh when tins
wire came, and I rushed out to the airport, but all the
planes were grounded because of a heavy fog. For a long,
124 MISTEB MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
long time I felt awful that I wasn't there to say good-by to
Lawrence was, however, present when his father died,
a few years before that, though he was almost killed get
Again the weather had been treacherous and Lawrence
drove over icy roads from Minneapolis to Strasburg. Just
before he reached his destination he had an accident. "It
happened so quickly that I hardly know what happened.
I put on the brakes, I think. Anyway the car skidded, spun
around, and turned over in a ditch. I crawled out kind of
shaken up, bruised and cut, but I was a lot more scared
Of course Ludwig died completely reconciled to his
son's career. In fact Lawrence recalls that after the first
few visits made within a year or so of his leaving the farm
his father's misgivings vanished as completely as the echo
of yesterday's discord. From then on old Ludwig never
missed an opportunity to point out to his neighbors: "My
son, Lawrence, the bandleader, you know . . /'
And by the time that Lawrence and Fern arrived with
the new baby, Ludwig was prouder than ever. He opened
up the schnapps and invited his friends over.
Drink to Lawrence Welk, everybody! Prosit!
But this visit soon came to an end with another engage
ment looming up.
On the road again?
Lawrence and Fern looked at each other questioningly.
Shirley Jean would change their life. They realized it sud
denly. Fern could not traipse all over the map with a new
baby. Besides the baby's health might suffer if she were
constantly on the move.
"Rock-a-bye Baby 9 125
A competent nurse was that the answer? Somebody to
take full-time care of Shirley and leave Fern free to travel?
If Lawrence and Fern thought of such an idea, they
quickly discarded it. To them that expedient meant duck
"We could see only one thing to do" says Lawrence,
"find some sort of permanent place for Fern and the baby
to stay, while I'd go off to my engagements, leaving them
But neither Fern nor Lawrence liked being separated.
Finally Fern came up with an idea: "Lawrence, couldn't
you find some work besides music? There must be lots of
things you could do that would keep you in one place.
How about it? Then we could have a real home be to
gether all the time,"
Lawrence turned the thought over and over in his mind.
Should he act on it? And if so how? They were not easy
questions for him to answer. "It got so I was real dis
turbed," he admits. "Seems like I didn't have much peace
in my mind. I knew for sure from home training that real
peace can come only by doing right, but I was having a
hard time trying to figure just what was right."
On the one hand, Lawrence saw in the recesses of his
mind a dream kept warmly aglow by the fires of his imag
ination: it was the dream of playing in big cities like New
York and Chicago, and making many thousands of people
happy with music. He believed in that dream. Someday
he felt it could be reality provided he pursued his music
steadfastly. At times that pursuit seemed a duty.
At other times came doubt. He was a husband and fa
ther, so he should step off this musical merry-go-round
and settle down in a real home.
126 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
"I couldn't decide, even though I prayed about it," Law
rence says. "Finally I figured I wouldn't go wrong by try
ing out another business, because that was probably the
more generous way. And I told the good Lord I'd do the
best I could with it, and leave results to Him."
That meant Lawrence would curtail his musical activi
ties and cut down on traveling. It meant that he would
forget the vision of New York and Chicago. "By the time
Shirley would be old enough to go to school I planned to
be done with tours," Lawrence says, "and music itself
would be mostly a side line. I didn't know what other busi
ness I'd try. I didn't think that made much difference."
Meanwhile he had engagements, previously lined up,
which took him to Texas.
"Deep in the Heart of Texas"
In Dallas, Lawrence came upon a hotel, flaunting a "FOR
SALE" sign. He went inside and examined the place.
What he saw in a first hasty look pleased him. On the top
floor there was a five-room suite, intended for family liv
ing. "It's just right for us/' Lawrence concluded in a matter
Then he began to calculate: profits from the rest of the
building would supply him with a handsome, even luxuri
ous livelihood. The sale price, Depression-influenced, was
to his mind ridiculously low: it might even justify the
otherwise-questionable expedient of borrowing money.
But enough said.
Impulsively Lawrence did borrow the down payment,
and in very short order became the proprietor of a hotel.
He changed its name from the Main Peak to the Lawrence
and went off to tell Fern the news.
"That husband of mine used to have a visionary streak,"
she says. "It's funny, too, because instinctively he was
and iscautious for the most part. But when we were first
married, he'd have those unexpected flights every once in
Apparently there were times when the practical Fern
128 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
had to pull the more romantic Lawrence down to earth
and comb the Stardust from his hair.
Be that as it may, in 1932 Lawrence found himself in
the hotel business, about which he knew nothing.
He moved in with his family, and was confidently strid
ing through the lobby on the first day of his proprietorship,
when one of the guests ran up to him, grabbed his arm,
and gasped breathlessly: "If you're the owner of this hotel,
come quickly. Something awful has happened. I know it
With that the fellow bolted down the hall, and at his
heels followed Lawrence, throwing out, staccato-style:
"What . . . ? What is it ... ?"
"Come on," the guest flung back over his shoulder as he
ran. "Can't you smell the gas? She may have left the gas
logs on," He slid to a stop. "This is it. This is her room,
and she's been very despondent lately, talking about , . ."
Lawrence needed no further explanation. He could
smell the gas all right. Instantly (though he had in those
days no TV who-dun-its to teach him the technique) he
lunged forward against the door, using all the strength he
could summon. It gave way, allowing him to stagger into
the room. On the floor lay a body that of a woman.
"I clamped one hand on my nose, and with the other
hand I dragged her from the room. Then I ran to call the
police," he recalls. "They came right away, and was I
relieved that they brought the woman round to con
So the Lawrence Hotel venture began with an at
It continued with other melodramatic episodes, though
Lawrence himself was not on hand for the next one. When
"Deep in the Heart of Texas'" 129
he bought the place, he had a number of musical commit
ments ahead, and he explains: "I had to take care of those.
That's why I had to leave Fern in charge of the hotel for
a little while."
The day after Lawrence set out for an across-state job,
she awoke to make an appalling discovery: she found that
a bootlegger was operating a full-fledged business from
one of the hotel rooms.
"I sold the place only five months after I'd bought it,"
Lawrence says with a wry grin.
However, he managed a small profit, so monetarily the
enterprise wasn't too bad. Lawrence has never been a
slouch as a businessman, but admittedly he has used
his commercial talents to best advantage in the "music
In the years that followed, without neglecting the band,
he periodically tried further side-line ventures. He bought
and managed an electrical store in Yankton, South Dakota;
he took up chicken fanning in Omaha, Nebraska; he
opened a restaurant in Mason City, Iowa; and he distrib
uted chewing gum throughout the Midwest.
None of these ventures was really successful, but that
was not their outstanding drawback. Fern realized the
trouble long before Lawrence had run this gamut. In fact,
while they were still at the Texas hotel, she admitted:
"Lawrence can't be himself apart from music. He lives in
a state of suspended animation till he can get back to play
Very early, then, though her husband kept on trying out
further enterprises, Fern deciphered the mural handwrit
ing, and she declares: "I made up my mind I might just
1 3 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
as well accept my role as the wife of a bandleader, ob
jectionable features and all."
Although by far the worst feature was the separation,
from Fern's viewpoint there were others, too. Back in her
student days at Yankton she had found out about the oh-
so-coy F.F.F.s, the Fluttering Female Fans. Now she saw
that certain of their more brazen sisters pursued the band
leader openly. True, Lawrence was adroit in dodging
these "ladies"; on the other hand, he considered it part of
his job as entertainer to dance with his circumspect pa
trons, and who could tell if a few of these might not turn
out to be troublemakers?
"If I hadn't known for sure that Lawrence really stuck
by his principles, this phase of his profession would have
given me some sleepless nights," Fern confesses.
Nor did the musical highroad prove the royal road to
fame and fortune, in the 1930'$. It seemed to Fern that
selling apples on a street corner would have been almost as
lucrative as music.
For a while the band had an assignment which offered
limited salary and room and board. (The job was to
play dinner music in several of the Hilton hotels, in Lub-
bock, Big Spring, Abilene, etc., and Lawrence gladly took
it, explaining to his wife: "We get good living for our work,
and our hours leave us plenty of time later in the evening
to earn money at ballrooms.")
Then Fern was plagued by another worry temporary to
be sure, but still a worry. In those days many of the oil
towns of west Texas to which Lawrence traveled were not
quiet little hamlets. Her recurring nightmare had to do
with her innocent husband somehow becoming involved
"Deep in the Heart of Texas" 131
in the shootings and brawls which by some accounts were
as common as cactus.
Lawrence himself used to tell tales of the time he dipped
briefly into Texas with the Peerless Entertainers. "It was
a regular thing at rehearsals,** he said, "to have one of the
boys suddenly give a mighty whack on the drum, imitat
ing a pistol shot. That was a signal. We were supposed to
do a practice dive behind the upright piano."
Could reminiscence have embroidered the stories? Fern
would shudder when she thought of them, and she would
wish that her Lawrence could steer clear of every dance
hall or night club in the Southwest's frontier land.
Nor can there be any doubt that he saw more than
enough to goggle the eyes or even turn the stomach
of a boy who had scarcely hobnobbed with anybody
but sober-living fanners. Some of the itinerant musicians
( coming from all parts of the country) smoked marijuana,
and were given to immoral high-jinks of all varieties. "But,**
points out Lawrence, "they were not my boys. My boys
behaved very well, fortunately.**
A present-day friend of Lawrence's says that the band
leader confided to him: "The most terrible temptations I
ever had in my life were those that plagued me as a real
young man in Texas. But when I left there, and could still
look at myself straight and unashamed, I knew one thing
for sure: we get the strength to do right just as long as
we really and truly want to do right."
If Lawrence had been another kind of man, a creature
more prone to stray from the strait and narrow, his choice
of music versus commercial business might have been dif
ferent. At any rate, Fern might likely have summoned up
132 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWKENCE WELK
what womany wiles she could, in an effort to make it
As it was, she encouraged him to stay with music. But
despite this Lawrence had to make up his own mind. He
was slow about it. Or perhaps in a sense he never really
reached a clear-cut decision at all. For a short period only
he tried to curtail traveling, and intermittently for a long
period he tried to juggle a side-line business, which, so he
kidded himself, he might eventually, upon leaving the
music business, make his main interest. But throughout he
never ceased for a moment to work for and with the band.
In fact, while the Welks were still in Texas, Lawrence
added something new-and something very important-to
"Boys and Girls Together '
"It happened almost accidentally," says Lawrence. "One
evening, Fern and I were dressing to go to dinner at the
cafeteria where we played, and the radio was on. We
heard this girl singing over station WFAA. She sounded
real wonderful, and all of a sudden Fern asked: 'Why
don't you have a girl singer?' I figured she was right. A girl
singer would help the band."
Now at the time Lawrence was supposedly curtailing his
musical activities, but whenever he thinks of anything that
may help the band, he can no more resist going after it
than a dog can resist a proffered bone.
On this occasion he lost no time either. Since both
WFAA and the cafeteria were located in the Baker Hotel,
Fern and Lawrence stopped by the station on their way
to dinner and invited the girl Maxine Gray was her name
to share their meal. Before they had finished eating, Law
rence had persuaded her to take the job he offered.
Maxine was followed through the years by a parade of
girl singers, most of whom Lawrence avows were also "real
wonderful." The description includes a great deal, for in
a moralizing tone he adds the explanation that his ideal of
134 MIS1ER MUSIC MAKEB, LAWBENCE WELK
a good girl singer is the adroit miss who knows how to
be a "sweetheart to all, but a sweetheart to none."
Although Lawrence can wax quite eloquent on the vir
tues of his 'Tittle girls," he can be just as voluble about the
problems that some of them cause. Surprisingly he gives
top billing among problems to the Managing Mammas of
the girls. In the capacity of chaperons they often travel
with their daughters, and does that complicate matters!
Says Lawrence aggrievedly: "There was one lady, a real
long time ago, who told Fern to stay home, that there
wasn't room for her to travel in the car with us. And I've
had them tell me what numbers their daughters should
sing, or complain to me because their daughters didn't get
a large enough share of the spotlight."
One time when the band was playing in New York, also
some years ago, Lawrence invited his Champagne Lady
and her mother to dinner to discuss some difficulties, but
the latter's pride resented the least suggestion or criticism
of her dear child. After an hour or so of haranguing Law
rence, telling him how wrong he was, and how right her
daughter was, she ended up demanding: "Outside my
daughter, what's there to your band? Without her, you
wouldn't have a band at all."
"OK, lady," Lawrence replied. * e We'll see if you re right.
Take your daughter and go back home on the first train
That was the knockout. The lady had no return punch.
She could only gasp.
But Lawrence worries about a mother not only because
her vanity is so often, as he says, "a thorn in my ribs,"
but for "real serious reasons." Usually the dowager pkys
kdy-in-waitiag to the shining star of the family, not so
At a Fan Club picnic Lawrence Welk plays chef, handing a plate he has
just filled to one of his fans, Mrs. Margaret Robinson.
Lawrence Welk with the Lennon Sisters-Peggy, Janet, Diane, and
Lawrence Welk, 1957.
At a teen-age dance in the Aragon Ballroom, Ocean Park, Calif., Donna
leads the orchestra while Lawrence Welk and Alice Lon look on.
Champage Lady Alice Lon and Lawrence Welk.
Lawrence Welk leading his orchestra at Blimp Hangar, Santa Ana,
Calif., in 1954, before an audience of 51,000 people.
"Boijs and Girls Together' 135
much because of mother love, but rather because she rel
ishes the ego-building effect of the job. To keep it, she will
flee husband and other children, plus the home fires she
should be tending.
"I don't like it," Lawrence says. "That kind of pride can
lead to disaster. I remember a case where it caused a di
vorce for one of these mothers."
Also, he explains, it can cause gross selfishness toward
the "favored" child. The mother will block her daughter's
future happiness in order to bask longer in the reflected
glow of the spotlight.
Lawrence recounts: "I used to tease one of my singers
sometimes about her boy friends, but if the mother heard
me, she'd get real mad, and say: 'Oh, Lawrence, cut that
out. My daughter isn't ready to think of love/ "
Nor does employing married girls, though it may push
Friend Mamma into the background, eliminate difficulties.
"A married girl singer can put an awful strain on her home
life, if she doesn't watch her step," declares Lawrence.
But be it said: all Lawrence's problems do not revolve
around his gii*l singers. Lawrence will admit, if a bit rue
fully: "The boys get proud too."
Pride Lawrence defines as "a kind of dishonesty which
makes people blind to what's what," and he says, "To keep
going ahead, a person has to see facts, and that means the
faults which creep in, as well as the good points. Only the
person who sees facts can know what to correct."
Any other problems?
"Jealousy can be real bad," Lawrence confesses, "and it
has given me troubles with the band in the past. But I'm
glad to say there isn't much of it among my boys today."
That last statement is backed up by Bill Lennon ( father
136 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
of die winsome Lennon Sisters ) . He cannot make enough
complimentary comments about the esprit de corps which
animates all the band members, making them work to
gether for the good of the whole, without personal bicker
ing or jealousy. "You know/' he points out, "those fellows
could have resented my little girls being brought in from
the outside. Instead every last one of the boys has gone out
of his way to show my youngsters kindness and considera
tion. Part of the credit goes to Lawrence. People just can't
seem to be petty around him."
Undoubtedly Lawrence would say that the credit goes
in large part to those girls "the loveliest children on
Next to jealousy comes Troublemaker No. 3, drink. "In
the old days, that used to be worse," says Lawrence, and
he tells about a former band member, "a fellow who could
sing a song once and make it an overnight hit. Today he
could be getting fifty thousand dollars maybe a hundred
thousand a year and he turned his back on all that for
Whenever Lawrence encounters excessive drinking
among his boys he is upset. As one of them says: "We're in
for a lecture."
How or why certain people become virtual slaves of John
Barleycorn makes Lawrence shake his head in bafflement.
"And it seems to me," he says, "that they always choose
the very worst time for their bouts maybe just before an
important audition, or special broadcast. They go right
ahead even though they know it means losing a job, or
even losing their union card."
But Lawrence does speak with a certain sympathy of a
friend of his who found alcohol his b6te noir.
""Boys and Girls Together' 137
For several years in a row Lawrence traveled with this
man in the close association of the business, and, says the
maestro earnestly: "He was a talented musician and a fine
man. I looked up to him a lot, and thought of him as a good
Lawrence remembers now that they never had a drink
together until one fatal day. Then it was the bandleader
himself who suggested that they step out for "a few beers."
His friend demurred, but Lawrence urged: "Oh, come on.
Let's celebrate. It's my birthday. That's only once a year."
They had those few drinks together, and afterward
Lawrence returned to his lodgings and went to bed for the
night. Not so the other man. He lingered in the tavern and
helped close it up at 2 A.M. Moreover, he brought back a
bottle to drink in his room, What happened subsequently
Lawrence's friend, whom he 'looked up to," zoomed off
on a wild alcoholic spree.
"That finished him with the band," Lawrence says. "I
felt awful about it."
The incident had a sequel.
Some years later, while on a tour, quite by accident
Lawrence bumped into his old friend, now obviously
"What in the world happened to you that time?" Law
The man had this to say: "I shouldn't have taken that
first drink. I had to find out the hard way that I'm one of
those fellows who just can't touch the stuff. You won't
know what I'm talking about, but I tell you if I take so
much as a sip I'm off. Just one drink sets up a nervous
craving that drives me literally nuts."
138 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
They were walking down the main street of the town as
the man spoke, and he pointed to the window of a liquor
store they were passing: "See that plate glass," he said.
"Well, if I took a drink right now and then couldn't get
another, I wouldn't guarantee what I'd do. I might behave
OK, but then again I might break through that window to
steal a bottle. See what I mean when I say I gotta steer
clear of the stuff."
Of late years Lawrence says, "I've found out about
Alcoholics Anonymous. That's the best thing I know of to
show fellows like that they can stop and how to do it, if
they want to."
Lawrence himself very rarely takes a drink. "I don't like
the taste of the stuff," he declares.
Apparently he never did like it, for one of his old asso
ciates remembers today: "During the Prohibition era when
I was with Lawrence, it was quite the thing for some guy
in the audience who liked our orchestra to come backstage
and pass a flask around. Just so he wouldn't hurt anybody's
feelings, Lawrence would take it and put it to his lips but
he didn't fool me. He didn't take a sip."
Of late years Lawrence has had a medical excuse for not
drinking, namely the gall-bladder condition which neces
sitated his 1952 operation.
Since many people don't know this, Lawrence con
stantly receives gifts of fancy firewater, especially cham
pagne. The cabinet in the Welks' recreation room is
crammed with everything from absinthe to creme de
menthe, from Napoleon brandy to cognac.
After Shirley and Dr. Robert Fredericks were married
(in 1954), Fern found that her new son liked an occasional
drink, so she told him to help himself, and she ended with
"Boys and Girls Together" 139
the remark that hit Bob's funny bone. She complained
wearily: "Oh ? that stuff just keeps piling up down there!"
As he was about to offer her his condolences, she topped
her first remark with: "Go on down now and help yourself,
Take a little of everything."
Bob could only exclaim: "That would be the day! 'A lit
tle of everything and I can just see Dad Welk shipping
me-and a king-size hangover to Siberia, on a one-way
Ah, wine, women, and song! which brings up another
headache that Lawrence has had to contend with at times,
"If a man's home life isn't as it should be, he won't be
any good for the band," the leader says. "And bad love
affairs, especially, spoil a man's playing by making him
jumpy and nervous/'
Why? Well, illicit love affairs in real life aren't like ro
mantic movie dramas. They are often carried on in cheap
hotels, hidden on some back street, and under a pall of
shame and fear of discovery enough reason for jumpiness.
But the Music Maker adds quickly: "Fortunately, we don't
have that kind of man in the band."
"That the maestro gets and keeps upright people shows
that he knows how to select and handle men," says one
of the Welkmen.
Another clue? Could be.
But how does he "handle," and get along with, his boys
on a day-to-day basis?
Hail, Hail, the Gang s All Here '
"It's a surprising trait that crops out after you get to know
the man, but Lawrence has a streak of waggery in his
make-up. He's like the kid who brought the toy mouse
home to scare the wits out of old Aunt Lizzie, or put the
dead frog in Sis's bed. He enjoys pulling innocent jokes/*
So says one of the boys.
Shortly after Maurice Pearson joined the band, the lad
bought a used car. It was neither a Dodge nor Plymouth.
"Don't tell the boss/' he pleaded with several Welkmen.
"He might give me a hard time, especially since I got stuck
with a piece of junk/'
But somehow news gets around and one afternoon a few
days later, when the boy was in the Santa Monica office,
Lawrence announced to the assembled personnel: "Jack
Minor of Dodge Company phoned me today. He says they
have a new car that they'll sell at less than cost around
twelve hundred dollars. Somebody ordered a four-door,
and this two-door was sent by mistake, so it's on their
He paused and glanced at Maurice. The boy was a
sickly green. He had paid eight hundred for his six-year-
old junk pile.
"Hail, Hatt, the Gangs Att Here" 141
"How much down?" a stenographer asked.
"A hundred dollars/' Lawrence replied.
Maurice gulped audibly. He had put three hundred
"How much per week?" another person inquired.
"Oh, not much, just . . ." Lawrence began.
At this point Maurice couldn't stand it a second longer.
He got up and left the room. It was some time later when
he found out that Lawrence had been "pulling at his leg,"
and no such fabulous bargain existed.
But the trait most often remarked in regard to Law
rence's attitude with the boys is an almost paternal solic
"Lawrence is a sort of father-confessor," one of them
puts it. "Although he's been on the job all day, and al
though he's to play again at night at the Aragon, he's never
too tired to listen to you, or too busy to help you. You can
go to him with all your headaches from your mother-in-
law to your mortgage payments."
If a few of the boys dub this "excessive interest" or "in
terference" in their private lives, and complain about Law
rence's repetitiousness, his smugness, his Puritanism, and
his triteness, the great majority take a different tack. They
say: "There's only one Lawrence Welk. Never saw a guy
like him. All in all, he's the best boss in the world."
Then a few of the boys will go on to recount little case
histories to prove their point.
There's the Case of the Musician and the Operation. It
happened in the days when the band was smaller and each
member indispensable to its proper functioning. A certain
musician badly needed an operation, but he felt that he
simply must postpone it. Another man in the band was al-
142 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
ready out ill, and two coincidental replacements seemed
unthinkable. How would Lawrence ever manage? The
man reckoned without his boss. Apprised of the situation,
the bandleader decreed: "Your health comes first. Go
ahead with the operation."
And when the man protested: "Oh, I wouldn't do that
to you, Lawrence," his boss shot back: "Get that operation
now, or you're fired."
Then, to cap the climax, Lawrence, who was not a man
of fabulous wealth in those days, insisted upon taking care
of the man's hospital and doctor bills,
George Gates, Lawrence's musical supervisor, tells a tale
to match. Call it Case History No. 2. After he had been
with the band about a year, he suffered a heart attack
and was laid up for three months. Lawrence mailed him
weekly pay checks just as though he were on the job, and
furthermore billed him on the show as though credit for it
were due him.
"You don't forget that kind of thing," asserts Mr. Gates.
"The loyalty that Lawrence inspires is half his secret."
Another of Lawrence's boys expresses a similar idea:
"You want to work for a boss who gives you your share,
and more, of the spotlight. You want to give him all youVe
Still another associate puts it: "Lawrence is never a big
shot with anybody. He never pulls rank."
Perhaps it is when Lawrence's interest in the boys
touches the romantic, or moral, aspect of man's life that an
occasional discordant note may be struck.
Case histories? Nobody in the band supplies them, but
Lawrence himself tells of good-intentioned maneuvers
"Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" 143
which conceivably, though not certainly, might have
rubbed some fellow the wrong way.
Years ago he had a homely Harry in the band, whom
the girls always seemed to pass by. When Lawrence
called "Ladies Choice" and invited women on the dance
floor to pick their partners from the band members, this
masculine wallflower was invariably left unplucked. One
night the band was playing in a South Dakota town where
a beauty-contest winner, Miss South Dakota, lived. She
showed up at the ballroom, and our homely friend kept
eying her wistfully from afar.
Hoping to boost the morale of his musician, Lawrence
phoned the girl the next day, and asked: "How about
doing me a favor? How about phoning our sax player? It
would make him feel mighty good. Just ask him to stop by
to see you and say good-by before the band leaves town."
There's a bit of characteristic Welkese.
On second thought, though, the actions which contain
moral meat are perhaps more characteristic, like the story
of ... well, let X be his name.
X, a married man (no longer with the band), had a girl
friend of the more intimate variety. Lawrence talked to
the fellow, but he wasn't sure how potent his warnings
were. At any rate, because a new engagement took the
band to another city, the affair broke off. It was then that
the maestro learned through the grapevine that the girl
was to have a baby. He decided to teach X a lesson and
thus discourage future transgressions. Lawrence arranged
with an amiable policeman to apprehend the boy and tell
him peremptorily that he was wanted in the town he had
just left, on the charge of evading paternity of Miss Y's
144 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
X blanched and began to stammer protests: "There
were other men. She was running around with lots of fel
lows. Why pick on me?** etc., etc.
"Tell it to the judge/* cut in the officer. "My orders are to
"Can't I talk to my boss before you cart me off?" the
fellow asked between tremors.
Consent was grudgingly given, and X rushed over to
Lawrence, begging: "Don't let this get to my wife. Tell her
anything, but don't tell her why I'm in jail"
Lawrence was very grave. He listened without comment
at first, but in the end he said: "I'll do more than that.
I'll speak to that policeman and see if there's a way I can
get you released, provided you promise to lead a good life
from now on."
The boy promised. Whether or not he kept the promise
nobody knows. Lawrence naively assumes that most surely
The fact that nearly all of his boys enjoy the blessing
of a happy home is a source of deep satisfaction to Law
rence. "And it shows in their faces," he declares, "When
we go on tour, I have people all over the country tell me:
Tfour group looks so happy.' That's just because they're
Lawrence knows the wives and children of his boys and,
despite his busy schedule, manages to have occasional get-
togethers with them.
Since the relationship of Lawrence aad the boys is per
sonal and intimate, it is not surprising that he takes a great
deal of care in selecting his crew. Then if he finds a mu
sician he wants, it is doubtful that he would let the man
Haft Hail, the Gangs AU Here" 145
get away from him. Take the story of Buddy Merrill's
hiring. . .
After Buddy was the winner of a special contest, The
Lawrence Welk All-American Competition (held in 1955 ) ,
Lawrence decided that the boy might be a good addition
to the band. When the winds wafted the hint of Law
rence's genuine interest to Buddy, the boy was a mighty
thrilled, but at the same time a mighty upset, kid. It was
a fantastically fortunate opportunity, but ... he had not
finished high school. He certainly didn't want to turn
down the chance of a lifetime, but he did long for that
diploma that he'd worked for throughout almost twelve
years of schooling. Buddy bounced around on the uncom
fortable horns of this dilemma for a while because he
did not know Lawrence Welk. When Lawrence realized
Buddy's predicament, he made the decision for the boy.
He said: "Go ahead, finish school. I'll keep the job open
Lawrence doesn't seem to go about hiring men in an or
thodox manner. For instance, he doesn't emphasize experi
ence. When he was about to take on one of his younger
boys, somebody in his organization protested: "Why pick
an unknown kid? You're paying him big money. For that
kind of dough, you could get the best pro in the business/*
"But good pros can always get a top-notch job," Law
rence retorted. "This kid, because he's green, may not land
much right off. He's real good. I like him and I want to
give him a chance."
On the other hand, Lawrence will not readily give a
chance to a man who asks for it on the plea: "I belong to
the same church you do, Mr. Welk."
Says Lawrence: "That's wrong. We shouldn't use our
146 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWKENCE WELK
religion to trade with. Lots of my boys don't go to my
church, and I wouldn't want them to, if they went just to
butter me up."
Character and decency are Lawrence's first require
ments then talent. Therefore, he looks at each musician
as a man, never as a part of a mass, or as a unit in a cate
gory of violinists, or pianists, fellow churchmen, or what
One of the boys expresses it this way: "I'm not just a
trombone player to Lawrence. I'm Pete Lofthouse, who
happens to play the trombone/'
Such an approach inspires more of that loyalty which
George Gates spoke of.
Lawrence will advise his boys with all their problems;
he will hospitalize them if they need it; he will aid and
abet their romances, he will take them to a priest, minister,
or rabbi if a marriage needs straightening out, but come
to think of it there is one thing he won't do. He will never
lend them moneyor hardly ever.
"You make enemies lending money, and you don't do
the people any good, either/' he declares. "Often a person
can't pay the money back and then instead of blaming
himself, he gets mad at you, and at the whole world. Or if
he can pay back, hell probably ask you for more money
the next year, and he'll be sore if you refuse the second
loan. If you keep lending money to people, you have a bad
condition: after a while, they think you owe it to them. So
you've hurt their character, and independence."
Nor is Lawrence particularly prone to give his boys
money in cash. Even the very handsome bonuses he pre
sents at Christmas are usually in the form of insurance pol-
"Hail, Hail, the Gangs All Here" 147
icies or securities, which Lawrence feels will not be spent
so quickly as cash.
"People spend too fast today/' Lawrence declares. "You
can't build up big and substantial that way."
With regard to bonuses he confesses: "Sometimes I like
to give a little extra to a real deserving fellow, but if I do,
I can't let on to the other boys. They might be envious.
Some of my advisers tell me I shouldn't give extras. I don't
see that. We shouldn't let envy stop our generosity. It's
right to be real generous for some reason not every out
sider sees, as long as we give everybody his due."
The securities Lawrence does give his boys he hopes will
be held, or be reinvested and made to increase. "Every
body who works should try to put up a little for a rainy
day," he opines. "We never know when that day will come,
and we shouldn't expect Uncle Sam, who only has to take
the money from the pockets of our friends and neighbors,
to look after us."
Lawrence carries his idea of investment and saving so
far that he has encouraged an investment club, started and
managed by accordionist Myron Floren. The plan is that
every member invest a set sum each week, the total to be
used for the purchase of securities listed on the New York
The club has grown very rapidly. In 1956, the year it
began, there were seventeen members owning $12,000
worth of stock. Then a second club was formed for newer
members who preferred to invest smaller sums. By Jan
uary 1957, B Club had a total of twenty-one members,
since some of the boys were members of both clubs. Any-
148 ' MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
one can sell out as lie desires, but so far that lias happened
only once or twice.
Lawrence Welk's boys like being capitalists.
But none of them was a capitalist in 1934. Wasn't that
where the story left off?
1 Get Ideas"
When the Texas interlude had ended, a few zigzag jaunts
led eventually to Yankton and familiar station WNAX for
the second engagement there. The band this time was
billed as The Hotsy Totsy Boys.
"Isn't that an awful name?" Lawrence practically
blushes about it now.
It was during this Yankton engagement that the band
leader bought his electrical appliance store, and doubled
as shopkeeper for a few hours following the morning
broadcasts, some mornings when he could spare the time
from the band.
Says a Welk enthusiast: "Lawrence never lets anything
come before the band. If I had to name the one major
quality which accounts for his success, it would be that
business of keeping his eye on the ball, and on his long-
range plans. Regardless of every other demand on his time
and attention, he never allows his mind to stray far from
Ever on the lookout then for anything or anybody that
might improve the band, he was pleased as punch when
organist Jerry Burke crossed his path. "I knew who he
was,* 9 Lawrence says, Tbecause his older brother played
150 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
banjo and guitar with me while Jerry was still in high
school. Now I found out that he was real good, and I had
an idea that he would help the band. I decided to hire
Although Lawrence is a hard person to turn down, once
he asks a person to do something, the fact that Jerry ac
cepted the bandleader's offer can best be explained by the
esteem in which the organist held his prospective boss. He
says: "I was making seventy-five dollars a week with a
co-op band pretty good wages for the Depression. The
prevailing scale of forty a week less was the salary that
Lawrence could pay me."
Evidently Jerry knew what he was doing when he
agreed to go along with Mr. Music Maker. Today he
claims: "That was the smartest decision I ever made."
He holds a record with the Lawrence Welk band: he
has worked with it longer than any other member twenty-
four years. Also that must be some sort of record in the
business, for most musicians change jobs almost as often
as they buy a new suit of clothes.
As Lawrence added to his band, and made improve
ments generally, his reputation grew, his plans expanded,
and new ideas came to him.
The band traveled a great deal, and a group of eight
men crowded into a seven-passenger car (with their in
struments strapped to the top), besides not making for
comfort, posed another problem. The very weight caused
the tires to blow out. Lawrence tried to solve the latter
problem by having the car lengthened, but the crowding,
the discomfort, and the lack of rest, remained. What could
he do about them?
One bleak, raw morning, traveling along the highway,
"I Get Ideas" 151
Lawrence looked around at his little group of sleepy mu
sicians, drooping in their seats, and asked unnecessarily:
"Are you fellows tired?"
A weak voice from the back seat piped up: "I wouldn't
exactly say tired, but two vultures have been following us
for the last hundred miles."
The other men should have presented that fellow with a
medal if it was his remark that inspired Lawrence's next
idea. He decided to build a trailer bus of his own, have it
fitted up as a sleeper with folding bunks installed along
the sides, so that the boys could rest during their nocturnal
journeyings. He even hired a man to do the driving. While
the man drove the boys slept; while they played he slept.
"I'm not sure," says Lawrence, "but I think maybe we
invented the sleeper bus. It is used quite a lot now by
His next idea was certainly a novel one too, though it
concerned a far different kind of tiling than bus travel.
Lawrence noticed that the highest-paid bands were usu
ally the sponsored ones, so he declares: "That was what I
wanted next a sponsor."
The question was how to get one. That he could not find
a firm willing to consider the band was no reason to forget
the idea, not according to Lawrence. "Never say die,"
might well be his motto, and a recurring clue.
Anyway he says: "When I couldn't talk anybody into
sponsoring us, I decided to become my own sponsor."
Now that may sound like something Alice in Wonder-
hncFs duchess might have dreamed up, yet Lawrence
managed it. He ordered huge quantities of chewing gum,
wrapped in paper labeled "Honolulu Fruit Gum." Then he
had painted upon his bus in giant red and green letters:
152 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
"LAWRENCE WELK AND HIS HONOLULU FRUIT
GUM BAND/* and wherever the band played, there was
an announcement from the bandstand: "Lawrence Welk
and his orchestra, sponsored by Honolulu Fruit Gum."
But that was only the beginning. As one of Lawrence's
Hollywood cronies says: "The man is instinctively a show
man. He has a flare for putting things across."
At his nightly dances Mr. Music Maker gave out free
gum and held popularity contests of all sorts. Patrons
could vote in the contests by writing on the gum wrapper.
There was no limit to the number of votes a person might
cast, provided each vote was written on a separate gum
Some of the contests were for a Miss South Dakota, a
Miss Nebraska, etc. And were some of the contests for fa
vorite bands and musicians? And did some people vote for
the Lawrence Welk band? At any rate, as though a sor
cerer's wand had been waved over the Midwest, making
the inhabitants suddenly We]k-conscious, so the notion of
contests seemed to work. Evidently, too, the public rea
soned that, if the band were good enough for a sponsor,
it must be really good, and they wanted it to play for them.
"On account of the demand, we could get higher pay,"
the leader points out.
All very neat! Ingenious and at the same time ingenu
ous. Lawrence Welk is one person who proves that the two
qualities are not always mutually exclusive.
But ideas continued to come. Why not make money di
rectly from the gum? As a preliminary, he began to put out
gum of varying flavors, so that soon the wrappers bore
the words: "Lawrence WelFs Spearmint," or "Lawrence
Welk's Peppermint/' or "Lawrence Welk's Cinnamon
*7 Get Ideas" 153
Gum/' etc.; then he hired several men (one of them being
old George T. Kelly, of Peerless Entertainers days) as
traveling salesmen to distribute his product.
Eventually, however, as might have been expected,
some snags appeared. First, a national chewing-gum man
ufacturer claimed that Lawrence's wrapper infringed on
his, and threatened to file suit. Second, ballroom operators
began to wail loudly: after every Welk dance, they had to
scrape their floors, and then call in the refinishers.
Lawrence decided that his chewing-gum venture must
inevitably die the death. "Requiescat in pace!"
"I didn't feel too bad/* he states. "It had lasted long
enough to help a lot. The band was better known and bet
Engagements were plentiful. Constant one-night stands
throughout the north Midwest kept the band on the go.
Popularity seemed to snowball.
Also (since more musicians were employed) the band
grew bigger, and Lawrence began to feel that it was ready
to go on to a bigger city and do bigger things.
"Whatll I Do?"
In the fall of 1936 Lawrence and the band went to
Today that city reminds him of three things: another
business venture, a new baby, and his bus carrying him
into a period of uncertainty,
But first why did he go to Omaha?
"I guess it was one of those impetuous moves that Fern
says I used to make/' Lawrence admits, "but I got real ex
cited when some friend kept talking to me about a great
opportunity for the band there. Omaha is a lot bigger than
Yankton, so I figured that we were on our way to bigger
tilings. Right away I sold the store and our Yankton house,
and bought a home near Omaha. It was on the highway
out from town and it had a nice little piece of ground
around it, tooabout three acres, where I plaimed to raise
chickens as a side-line business.'*
This particular commercial venture might have boosted
the family exchequer. Lawrence went about it very scien
tifically with all the latest methods and equipment, and
he hired a man to look after details. However, a certain
habit of his drained off profits. He would say to his boys,
and to everybody else he met: "We're raising chickens.
"Whafll I Dor 155
Stop by the place some afternoon, and well give you a
They stopped by in droves.
Meanwhile the music business also suffered a setback,
and that's why his bus continued to be so important. Law
rence encountered union red tape. It seems that the union
there had a rule that a man, though belonging to a na
tional union, must also join the local union, and there is a
certain "sweating out" period while the man must wait for
his local card before he can work in that jurisdiction.
"I couldn't just sit around in Omaha and wait," Law
rence explains. "According to the rules, I could accept jobs
in the outlying districts, so that's what I did."
It meant constant one-night stands, and riding the
sleeper bus again. Only the expected baby could break the
Returning home on a certain night, after one of his ex
peditions, Lawrence was met at the door by a woman the
Welks had planned to have take care of Shirley during
Fern's confinement. The presence of the outsider indicated
that Mrs. Welk had already gone to the hospital. Mrs.
Schroeder, the wife of Lawrence's agent at the time, had
driven her there.
"I rushed over real quick," Lawrence recounts, "but I
couldn't see Fern. She was in the delivery room. I just had
to wait. While I was waiting, I happened to get talking to
this doctor, and right off I let myself in for something, be
cause I was breathing sort of raspy."
The doctor diagnosed pleurisy and prescribed hospitali-
zation for Lawrence too.
Fern was on one floor, Lawrence was on another. He
kept asking the nurse every few minutes how things were
156 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
going on the maternity floor. He says: "It seemed a long
time before they told me that it was over. Fern was aU
right, and it was a girl."
When he did receive this word, it was literally too much
for him to "take lying down." He wanted to see his wife
and daughter. What matter that he was running a fever?
Watching his chance to elude the nurses, he stole from bed
and upstairs to Fern's floor. He wasn't sure of her room
number, but he easily found the nursery and took a peek
through the glass partition. Scrutinizing the occupants of
the tiny cribs, he picked out an infant he felt sure was his
own, and although he didn't burst into song with "Yes Sir,
That's My Baby," he did startle a passer-by with the ex
cited cry; "That's my baby over there! The one with the
As a musician, Lawrence would expect his offspring to
have a good earor ears. But he had guessed correctly.
For the little girl born that February day of 1937 he
wrote his song, "My Donna Lee." But the creative effort
did not interfere with his bus-riding existence. That re
sumed the minute he left the hospital.
It was like Yankton doubled and redoubled. Every night
a new place; every dawn the long ride home.
It was during this sleeper-bus era that an accident oc
curred which in turn led to perplexity and doubt.
Late one afternoon the band was hurrying toward a
playing date, at Esterville, Iowa. Despite the lingering
daylight some of the boys were resting in their bunks, and
Lawrence himself was trying to get a little of the sleep so
hard to find time for in his business. Suddenly the thing
happened. The spindle broke, the wheels locked, and the
clumsy vehicle lurched crazily, then with surprising speed,
crashed down an eighteen-foot embankment into a ditch,
where it lay like a dead elephant.
Lawrence describes the incident today in some detail:
"I was in my bunk at the time, but I was thrown to one
end of the bus. Maybe I was knocked out a minute. I don't
know for sure. I remember feeling sort of dazed and smell
ing gasoline real strong. But then it dawned on me that
that could mean fire. Scared as a jack rabbit, I jumped up
and crawled through the window. Some of the fellows had
been thrown clear out of the bus. There, on the highway,
were bodies. All I could think of was: Is anybody hurt bad?
I ran from one to another. I could see blood on a couple
Leo Fortin, and Terry George. I thought they were dead,
and I tried to pray. There were a lot of people around.
Where all the people came from, I don't know, but we were
on a pretty busy highway. Some cops were there too. I
guess they must have been the ones who called the am
bulance. We got Leo and Terry on that."
Before these two men were rushed to the hospital, Law
rence learned that they were not dead, as he had feared.
In fact, it developed that even their injuries were not very
The policemen on the scene drove the rest of the group
into town. They were a bedraggled lot, scarred with a few
cuts and bruises of their own. They had been wearing over
alls to travel in, and these were saturated with gasoline
and in sqpie cases torn and muddy. The rest of their clothes
remained behind in suitcases stored in the wrecked bus.
**We had a date that night the one we were heading for
when the accident happened,** Lawrence says, a l phoned
the ballroom operator when I got in town, but he didn't
want to hear about the accident. The only thing that wor-
158 MISTER MUSIC MAJKER, LAWRENCE WELK
ried him was whether we'd show up for the dance. And
he was kind of sore about us being two men short/*
None of the boys felt like playing, but they did play
and in their torn, muddy overalls. They had nothing to
"We must have looked funny," Lawrence admits. "And
there were Band-Aids and even big bandages on some of
Moreover, Lawrence remembers: "The band didn't
sound so good. I was awful glad when we finished up
2 A.M. never seemed so long in coming before, because all
the boys were exhausted. I was myself, but I was so upset
that I couldn't sleep."
For some time Lawrence remained upset. The accident
lived in his mind as a vivid horror. He would frequently
wake in the night and the whole scene, accompanied by
the sound effects of the screeching ambulance sirens,
would re-enact itself.
Although nobody was hurt very seriously, he felt guilty
that anybody in his employ should have been hurt at all.
For the first time since the opening year of his career when
the trumpeter had lampooned his playing, Lawrence con
sidered giving up the music business. Since Shirley's birth
he had tried to keep a foot in both camps music and a
commercial enterprise, but what he thought of doing now
was different. He really faced up to the idea of abandon
ing music completely.
To do it would mean a fearful wrench, so there followed
the time of crisis, the time during which Lawrence had to
answer the perplexing and painful question: What'll I do?
Maybe the period was short-lived, but it was long
"Whaftt I Do?" 159
"I really prayed hard to know what to do," Lawrence
avows, "but I stayed in the dark. Well, I had been taught
that God doesn't usually reach out of heaven to whisper
things right in our ears. He oftener works through humans
like ourselves, so I decided to talk my problem over with
our parish priest/'
To Lawrence's surprise he was told: "You have no moral
obligation to give up music. Sure, you had an accident,
but there are hazards inherent in the process of living.
Since there was no palpable negligence, don't blame your
Lawrence walked out of the rectory with a lighter step
than he had managed in weeks. Then he went home that
evening to hear five-year-old Shirley adding to her night
prayers: "Please, dear God, don't let the bus go over in a
ditch any more."
The priest's opinion and Shirley's prayer would proba
bly have been enough, but on top of them came the offer
of a booking in Denver's Rainbow Ballroom. These three,
converging in point of time, effectively laid Lawrence's
scruples to rest.
Today he will set forth as an important rule of success:
"Find something you love, and then stick to it. Everybody
can do one thing real well, but nobody can do a lot of
things just right."
But did Lawrence disregard his own advice? When so
challenged, he reacted with shocked surprise: "Oh, I
thought about giving up music, and at times I had other
businesses, but in the meantime I always stuck to music.
And when in the very beginning, I picked music, I picked
it only because I loved it. I often work sixteen or eighteen
l6o MISTER MUSIC MAJKER, LAWRENCE WELK.
hours a day. People ask me how I do it. I can do it be
cause, like Fern says, my work is my recreation too."
Indeed she goes further, declaring: *lf Lawrence didn't
love his work, it would kill him."
That is not hard to believe, after a few spot checks of
his grueling schedule. Take the trip to Washington for the
presidential inauguration. He left California on the night
of January 20, after performing at the Aragon Ballroom at
Ocean Park. His plane landed in Washington the next
morning. That means he had to sit up all night, dozing as
best he could.
The arrival time was 11:05 A.M., and from 11:10 on,
when he had an appointment to pose for photos, it was
one appointment after another all day long, ending in the
late afternoon (4:30), when he saw Drs. White and Walsh
about his nomination as commander in chief of the Heart
Fund's March of a Million scheduled for February 24.
At a few minutes before 5 P.M. he went to his hotel room
for an interval of about an hour, supposedly reserved to
check factual data for this book with Mary Lewis Coakley.
During that work, Les Kauffman, one of his staff, ordered
a light dinner sent up for Lawrence. It consisted of bouil
lon, sandwich, and custard; it was the only meal the band
leader had a chance to eat between then and breakfast the
As he ate, also answering questions for his biographer,
the phone kept ringing. Though Les answered it, it was al
ways for Lawrence, and Lawrence always took the call.
Les cut up the sandwich, and handed it to Lawrence in
bits, as the latter held the phone and listened. One woman
called up to say: "I got you the bid to play for the In-
1 Dor 161
augural Balls. I wrote a letter to Congress suggesting you.
I want you to get me a bid to one of the balls."
Another phoned to tell him: "I knew you when you
played in St. Paul. I wasn't married then, and now would
you believe it, I have five children! I thought you'd like to
hear from an old fan."
To all Lawrence was unfailingly polite, and he ended
each conversation with: "Thank you for calling. It was nice
to talk to you."
(Who spoke of Lawrence's never-tiring courtesy as a
When Lawrence finished those phone calls and his din
ner, he had to hurry to a cocktail party at the Sheraton
Park Hotel (for ABC personnel, disc jockeys, and the
press); he had to meet the governor of North Dakota; and
he had to find time to dress in tails before the eight-o'clock
rehearsal, preceding his nine-thirty performance at the
first inaugural ball, also at the Sheraton Park.
Parenthetically, the full-dress suit Lawrence wore that
night was rented at the last minute before he left Cali
fornia. He didn't have time to buy one, and he explains:
"A couple of months before along with most of my suits
I gave away my tails to the Hungarian Clothing Drive. I
figured they would keep some poor fellow warm anyhow."
That night he played at three of the four inaugural balls,
that is he played at the Sheraton Park, at the Mayflower,
and at the Armory. He was scheduled to go on to the
Statler, for the remaining inaugural ball. However, because
his replacement orchestra was late in arriving at the May
flower, the latter part of the schedule was thrown off, and
through no fault of his own Lawrence never did make the
l62 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
He finished up at the Armory between 2:30 and 3 A.M.,
returned to his room at the Mayflower, changed into a
business suit, and left for the National Airport. A special
plane landed him in New York between 5 and 6 A.M., where
he checked into the Warwick Hotel. (N.B.: Only a short
morning nap, but no sleep that night. )
During the day he had to make six New York interviews,
set up for him with ABC personnel, script writers, public
ity men, etc. At 12:40 the next morning, he left New York
for Wichita, Kansas, and thence on to Los Angeles. He ar
rived in time to take over the rehearsal for his forthcoming
Saturday-night show, thus relieving Myron Floren, who is
an occasional substitute leader.
Since its beginning Lawrence never missed a single net
work show, until he took his first vacation from it, in the
midsummer of 1957. "To tell the truth/* Lawrence admits,
"that was not only my first vacation from ABC, it was the
first vacation I ever took since I had a band of my own."
It lasted a meager two weeks. In that time limit he and
Fern flew cross-country to New York, and thence to Eu
rope and back again. How much could he really have seen
of London, Paris, Rome? And he never glimpsed the
German/French town of Strasbourg, whose progeny was
responsible for little Strasburg, North Dakota.
Then, before he could leave on the trip, he worked lit
erally around the clock, to set up programs to be shown
on kinescope in his absence. ( Incidentally, that is the one
instance of Lawrence using kinescope. At all other times
his show comes "live" from Hollywood. )
But he loves the life, every minute of it!
He loved it back in 1937, when, shortly after Donna was
born, he set out for Denver. The Rainbow Ballroom, where
I Do?" 163
he was to play, was owned by O. K. Farr. He and his wife,
now living in California, have maintained a friendship
with Lawrence and Fern from that date to this.
Of their first meeting Lawrence says : "I was glad to play
for Mr. Farr, a real nice fellow/* and he adds: "I figured
that the Rainbow would be a good steppingstone to the
big things I always dreamed about."
But before he actually saw his dream take on any sem
blance of reality, he had to experience a few more struggles
or even, it might be said, a long crisis, in which his career
seemed to hang in the balance, swinging first this way and
Like a seesaw came success, failure; and success, failure
St. Paul, Minnesota, which ( after the interposition of a
few one-nighters ) followed Denver, was a success, and
even today Lawrence tells about it in an exultant tone.
He was playing for a few nights* run at a town about
thirty-five miles from St. Paul. During his free daytime
hours, on one particular day, he brought the band into the
city for lunch at the Lowery Hotel. Enjoying the quiet,
dignified atmosphere of the place, which contrasted fa
vorably with the hurly-burly of some of the ballrooms on
their recent route, Lawrence remarked, strictly as a joke:
"I'm going to book you fellows in a hotel like tiiis."
Everybody laughed and, being in a relaxed mood, con
tinued the banter. As they left the Lowery, and were walk
ing down the street, they saw a block or so away the St.
Paul Hotel. "Might as well begin now," Lawrence said.
"Ill go in here, and come out with a booking/*
Actually, because he knew the manager of the hotel, a
Mr. Calhoun, he did decide to stop by and say hello. But
did he also figure "Nothing ventured, nothing gained/*
when in the course of the conversation with his friend he
asked (still in the joking manner, to be sure): "When are
you going to book us here?"
Mr, Calhoun replied: "When can you start to work?"
To Mr. Music Maker's ears the tone sounded serious. He
shot back: "You mean that?"
"Sure I do," came the response.
"Oh-h," gasped Lawrence, and then, quickly recovering
his poise, he added: "111 let you know what I can arrange/*
As usual he was booked up with scattered engagements
through many weeks ahead. But this opportunity was too
good to turn down, if there were any possible way of seiz
ing it. Leaving Mr. Calhoun staring after him, he rushed
to the nearest phone. Quickly he called ballroom opera
tors who had engaged the band, and asked them if they
would release him temporarily on his promise to give
them a future booking. At last he fixed it so that he could
begin work at the St. Paul in about four weeks.
That booking was important. It was the first hotel ball
room the band had ever played. "It gave us class, and
helped us reach real good spots later," Lawrence explains.
As it happened, the manager of the St. Paul knew the
manager of the William Penn in Pittsburgh, and he rec
ommended the Welk orchestra so highly that Lawrence
soon found himself on the way to the steel city.
In the seesaw pattern this engagement was a failure.
The least said about it the better.
But with a Boston engagement that followed Lawrence
soared upward again to success. A booking there in Roy
Gill's ballroom meant that the erstwhile Midwestern farm
boy had at least cracked the hard East and made a few
* Now the Perm Sheraton.
l66 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
gentry of a staid metropolis sit up, take notice, and enjoy
liis gay tunes.
While lie was still on that job, his booker, Bill Freder
icks (of Fredericks Brothers Music Corporation), came to
him one day to announce that the manager of the Wil
liam Perm in Pittsburgh wanted the band for a second
Lawrence's answer was: "Now, Bill, please don't kid
me. This isn't funny to me. I know we flopped there last
Tm on the level," Bill Fredericks replied. "The manager
decided that he'd made a mistake the first time. He put
your band in that ornate, formal Italian Room.* It didn't
suit your style. This time he's going to put you in the raths
keller. It's a homey, casual setting that he thinks will give
you the proper background."
Red-faced and embarrassed at the very remembrance of
his other performance in the hotel, Lawrence declared:
"I don't want to go."
Bill didn't argue the merits of the place further; instead
he changed his tactics: "Lawrence, I didn't know you felt
that way, and now I'm on the spot. I already signed a con
tract for you. Won't you help a guy out and go through
It was the kind of plea that Lawrence Welk wouldn't
To this day Lawrence is happy that he did return to
Pittsburgh, and he declares: "That engagement was the
first real success for our band. Even on Monday, the dull
est night of the week, we had the place bursting with peo-
* Now the Terrace Room.
pie. And of course Pittsburgh is a milestone because of
something more important/*
He is referring to the fact that it was in Pittsburgh dur
ing that second engagement that Phil Davis, of radio sta
tion WCAE, heard the Welk music and remarked: "It has
the sparkle and effervescence of champagne/'
"So-o," says Lawrence, "after fifteen years of playing in
public, we had a name for our music. It clicked right off/'
There, in two words, the fans found a veritable defini
tion of the elusive quality of Welkese melody.
It followed naturally that Lawrence began calling his
male trio the Sparklers, and his girl singer the Champagne
Lady, and for a signature piece he took a song written
years before, made it lighter and bouncier, and called it
"Bubbles in the Wine/' (It is still the signature piece on
the Lawrence Welk show. Now, can't every fan from
Maine to California hear its familiar strains on his inner
Incidentally that song was none other than the tender
ballad, originally called "You're My Home Sweet Home,"
which he had written (and lost money publishing at his
own expense) when Shirley was born. In Lawrence's heart,
then, Shirley will always be his first Champagne Lady.
On the band the first Champagne Lady was Lois Best,
"a real wonderful little girl." She gave up her job when she
married Lawrence's trumpet player, Jules Herman. Re
cently, when the maestro was in Minneapolis, he invited
the Hermans (Jules now has his own orchestra, and Lois
sings for him) to the stage to perform with the present
Champagne Music Makers.
But meantime, back in 1938-39, the term Champagne
Music spread rapidly as Lawrence kept touring. To list the
l68 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
places he went to in the next months would be to sound
like a train dispatcher, spieling off his litany. En route to
any new booking Lawrence always ran in a few one-
nighters. This earned extra money and it broke the trip.
As for notable bookings, the next after Pittsburgh was
Milwaukee, a reasonable success, and then more notable
still the "sad flop" of Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Unfortunately the latter place cannot be dismissed with
just a phrase. It had always been one of the most impor
tant spots in Lawrence's private dreamland.
"As a kid back on the farm, I used to listen over our
first crystal radio set to Danny Russo's band there," Law
rence recalls. "To go there with a band of my own was a
real big ambition for me. When the bid came through, I
could hardly believe it. My friend Joe Kayser, of Freder
icks Brothers, told me that the band had been booked for
a whole summer season.**
However, from the very beginning of the engagement,
things did not go well. When Lawrence and the band ar
rived, the manager of the hotel, William Dewey, sug
gested to the leader: "How about making a little opening
talk at the orchestra's debut here? 77
To Lawrence that sounded like: "How about cutting
your throat?" Throughout the long years up to his day
in Chicago, Lawrence Welk of the German accent had
never made any kind of speech before an audience. He
didn't even announce the numbers the band played. "One
of the boys could do that at a dance," he explains, "and
when we played a theater, I used to hire a master of
At the very mention of the plan Lawrence could feel the
cold perspiration prickling his skin, and when he tried to
open his mouth to express misgivings to Mr. Dewey, he
found his mouth was painfully dry. "In the end/' he says,
"I just nodded OK."
With a little help from his henchmen he laboriously
wrote out a few hundred words, enough to account for
about two minutes' speaking time, and then, like a school
boy, he set himself to the task of memorizing them word
Opening day came as quickly as a movie film sequence,
and about as automatically Lawrence found himself be
fore a crowd gathered on the hotel terrace outdoors. Mr.
Dewey made a very brief introduction and then stepped
Lawrence stood alone. Before him was the crowd,
blurred, but fantastic, like a many-headed dragon, whose
thousands of eyes were all focused on him. Above was the
sky, gray, gloomy, and heavy like a giant's clammy hand,
seemingly poised to close in upon the victim himself. Sum
moning what courage he could, he cleared his throat, and
made the desperate plunge with his inimitable: "Ladies
At that instant, with perfect timing, there was a clap of
thunder, the clouds above literally burst, and rain in great
pelting drops hit him in the face, on the shoulders all
over. As fast as its collective legs would carry it, the au
dience before him scattered in a disorderly scramble for
Lawrence remained just where he was.
Doggedly, as though he didn't know what was going on,
he began his speech, and as doggedly continued with it to
the very end. By the time he had finished, not a person,
17O MISTIER MUSIC MAKER, LAWKENCE WELK
not even one of bis musicians or a stray waiter, remained
Lawrence, looking like a plucked chicken with his
drenched white summer suit clinging to him, admitted:
"That beginning wasn't so good."
In the weeks that followed he had to admit that the rest
of the engagement "wasn't so good" either. The failure was
largely due to his inexperience. Before he had ever played
the place, he had gone to the hotel several times, to see
how other bands performed there, and he remembered
that the leader, between numbers, had approached certain
tables and chatted with the more important and distin
guished-looking guests. When he came to the Edgewater
himself, he was told by the management to play up to a
few regular guests of the hotel, for their approval of the
band was highly desirable.
Says Lawrence: "Even though I saw what the other
leader had done, and even though I heard what the man
ager said, nothing sank down in my mind. I don't know
what was the matter.**
Anyway, Lawrence made no special moves toward spe
cial people and after he had been at the hotel only a very
short time, one of the couples who were permanent guests
of the hotel, and whose favor the management wanted
particularly to court, remarked to Mr, Dewey that they
were disappointed in the Welk orchestra.
Word was passed on to Lawrence through his agent,
and he was given to understand that it was more impor
tant from the hotel's viewpoint that he please three desig
nated couples instead of a large crowd. Indeed, if he failed
to do it, he could expect to receive his notice, and out he
"I was on the spot/' Lawrence recalls. "I figured I'd
have to move fast. On the night after my agent told me
the bad news, I grabbed the bull's horns."
In the intermission between his twenty-minute sets
Lawrence went over to the table of the people who had
complained about the band, introduced himself, and re
marked that he had noticed them there several times.
They were gracious and invited him to have a chair and
join their party.
He began his conversation with them by saying in all
candor: "I started life as a farmer. So to speak, I still have
overalls on. This is the first time I ever played a real plush
hotel, and I'm a little nervous, because I'm in the darkness
about what people like you want me to play. I'd appreciate
some suggestions. What tunes would you like to hear?"
They co-operated willingly, and before the evening
ended Lawrence had the man up on the bandstand direct
ing the orchestra, while he, Lawrence, danced with the
But better still and without Lawrence's solicitation
that evening the couple left a note under Mr. Dewey's
door, reading: "I take back what I said about Lawrence
Welk. No doubt he was nervous in the beginning. I would
like you to reconsider and keep the orchestra."
However, though he salvaged his job, the engagement
did not win him so much as a sprig of fresh laurel for his
brow. In fact, as Lawrence says bluntly: "It just about
ruined us. We had been getting around five hundred dol
lars for one-night stands, but when we left the Edgewater
Beach, we were lucky if we could get two fifty."
One reason for the debacle was what happened with re
gard to the "music men" from the song-publishing houses.
172 MISTER MUSIC MAJKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Now that Lawrence was in the key spot of the Edgewater
and had a network radio show every night, these men
came to him and asked him to feature their "plug songs,"
that is, songs they wanted introduced and pushed for their
own commercial interests. Once, while he was at the
Edgewater, Lawrence played a fifteen-minute radio pro
gram in which he used twelve "plug songs."
Vaguely he realized that he was damaging his reputa
tion by using these new songs, instead of his library of the
tested and true numbers, but he did not have the heart to
turn down the music men, or the experience to withstand
their pressure when they came to him with tears in their
eyes and tojd him that they would lose their jobs if they
could not get their songs played on the radio network.
"Afterwards I found out," says Lawrence, "that they would
get together over a beer, and decide among themselves
what sob story to use on me."
When he left the Edgewater Beach, things looked
black. There was serious worry that his fiasco at this hotel
would mean relegation to the sticks again, and that all his
gains of the recent past would be lost.
Here was the very brink of his crisis! He teetered dan
gerously. His career could go either way.
"Three Little Words"
Long conferences were held with Lawrence's hookers,
L. A. Fredericks and Bill Fredericks. Something had to be
done. L.A. knew the manager of the Chicago Theatre.
Perhaps there was a way to persuade the fellow to take on
the Welk band.
As the talk wove back and forth, Lawrence listened pes
simistically. He didn't see how he could climb out of the
hole, and even now, on Hollywood's heights, when he re
counts that he was indeed booked at the Chicago, a note
of wonder creeps into his voice. He says: "How L.A. did
it I don't know, because that theater hired only big names.
I wasn't one of them. What's more, L.A. arranged so that
they would show a top-notch movie during my engage
Crowds flocked to the Chicago to see the movie, but on
the marquee of the theater, beside the title of the picture,
appeared a notice of Champagne Music. The Fredericks
brothers managed to snap a few photos of the crowds
waiting to buy tickets, just as they stood under a sign bear
ing three words, "Lawrence Welk's Band." These photos
When Lawrence played at a theater in those days, it was cus
tomary for him to play on a billing with a movie.
1/4 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
could be used to sell other theater managers on the idea
of hiring the orchestra in the future.
"I didn't make such a lot of money on that engagement/'
Lawrence admits, "but even so, I'll never forget it. It was
one of the best/*
He has reason to speak so glowingly. The engagement
indicated which way this critical passage of his life would
eventually be resolved. Meanwhile it also completely
counteracted the failure of the Edgewater Beach Hotel
and, moreover, it led to an outstanding in fact a unique
event in the whole Lawrence Welk drama.
Eddie Weisfeldt, manager of the Riverside Theatre in
Milwaukee, heard Lawrence and the band at the theater
in Chicago. He liked what he heard, but he retained one
mental reservation about Lawrence.
After the performance he made his way backstage with
a proposition: "Come to Milwaukee/' he said, "and I'll put
you on at $1750 a week provided you announce your own
"But I can't talk/' Lawrence protested. "Folks won't un
Mr. Weisfeldt shrugged, picked up his hat, and moved
toward the door, then, turning as though to nod good-by,
he tossed this small bomb over his shoulder: "Double that
I'll make it $3500 a week/'
"What did you say?" stammered Lawrence.
"You heard me/' Weisfeldt replied, and closed the door.
In a split second Lawrence had yanked it open again
to utter three little words: "I vill talk/'
With them he had made the first move to break through
his own personal sound barrier!
The follow-up moves were not easy. The speech at the
"Three Little Words" 175
Edgewater Beach, still fresh in his mind, was a fearful
saboteur of morale. He could face a Russian tank just
about as easily as he could the microphone.
However, though he began haltingly, his little an
nouncements were well received by his Milwaukee audi
ences. Accent and all, people rather liked the added touch
of his personality to his programs.
He even had women phone him and comment on his
"thrilling" speaking voice. He didn't know at the time
that, in order to give him a psychological boost, his man
ager had put them up to that. The scheme boomeranged
when one woman told him: "You sound just as good as
. . ." and she mentioned the name of another bandleader
with a thick accent.
"That really made me feel awful," says Lawrence. "If I
was anywhere near as bad as that fellow, I was sure
To this day Lawrence worries about his mistakes, while
at the same time he cherishes a wistful hope of eliminating
One afternoon in the summer of 1956 he turned to Lois
Lamont, his secretary, and asked: "YouVe been with us
eleven years, Lois, do I talk better now than when you
first knew me?"
Lois at first made some evasive reply, but when pressed
for an answer she finally spoke up: "Well, if I have to say
it you talk about the same now as the day I met you. You
know, you have a mental block. Your very fear that you
can't speak*English fluently throws up a barrier. But," she
added hastily, "don't let it worry you. Your way of speak
ing is part of your charm."
Maybe she has something there. Most people do seem
176 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWHENCE WELK
to like the individualism of the Welkese language twist.
Why even the people whose names Lawrence garbles take
it as an amusing and rather endearing quirk, and they will
almost boast: "Lawrence calls me such-and-such."
There's the story which has to do with Lois. Her name
isn't really Lamont, but a multisyllable moniker, Biele-
feidt, which for the life of him Lawrence couldn't remem
ber. Characteristically, he decided that she really should
change her name, and he actually had the boys in the band
run a contest and vote on die ten best names available.
Then the list of these names was handed to Lois for her
to make a selection. Before she had a chance to study
them, however, Lawrence had occasion to introduce some
one to her. He began: "May I present you to my secretary,
Miss er Miss Lamont."
"Out of the nowhere, into the blue" came Lamont. And
apparently it is here to stay.
But then almost anything can happen with Welk and
One night he announced his Champagne Music as
Shampoo Music. Another night he announced the song
"Standing on the Corner" as "Standing around the Corner,"
and then, realizing that he had made a mistake, hastily
corrected it by saying "Standing in the Corner." And he
always calls the song entitled "Dry Bones" the "Rib Song,"
and he has been known to refer to the microphone as mi
The speech stories are as thick as Hollywood's bright
lights, for Lawrence not only makes occasional speech
blunders, he is also at times quite baffled by the correct
speech of other people. Jerry Burke tells about the time a
newspaper write-up dubbed Lawrence "an infinitesimal
"Three Little Words' 177
nonentity.** Jerry, "who is very fond of Lawrence, resented
it a little, and passed the newspaper to the maestro, point
ing out the gibe. Lawrence read it and nodded gravely. A
couple of days later he approached Jerry and asked: "What
do those words mean Infinitesimal nonentity *?** Jerry ex
plained, and Lawrence, a trifle miffed, demanded: "Why
don't you tell me "when they say bad things like that about
Despite all this the Weisfeldt command to talk was
equivalent to the order; "Forward march on the double/*
Did Lawrence realize that back there in Milwaukee in
3-93Q-43 when he signified that he was falling in step with
his three little words; "I vill talk"?
Still playing just a little longer the seesaw game, Lawrence
had one more serious failure to undergo before he could
balance himself on a more or less permanent higher level
and feel that the crisis was definitely past. The failure was
in the Tower Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri.
There was a reason for it. Champagne Music was not
known in Kansas City because Lawrence's broadcasts had
never reached the place. Audiences then were pitifully
small, and financial rewards worse than nonexistent. Law
rence was engaged on a percentage basis, and there were
not sufficient profits to make his share large enough to
cover the salaries of his musicians and other expenses. He
lost $2200. "That was the biggest amount of money I ever
lost in one week," he declares.
However, he could sing "Smilin* Through" because the
sad picture was relieved with amusing incidents.
The first day in the city he was walking along the street
toward the theater where his band was to play, and at the
distance of a block or so away he saw a long line of people
apparently waiting to buy tickets.
"It looked like a miracle,' 1 he describes it. "I didn't expect
that crowd in a town where nobody knew us/'
"Smiliri Through" 179
It meant that he could make "lots of money,*' a welcome
prospect at any time. He stood there foolishly grinning as
his thought spun on, then he noticed that he had stopped
before a haberdasher's shop, flaunting large signs on which
was printed the single word "SALE." It occurred to him
that he was low on shirts and ties, and on shoes and socks.
Why not stock up at bargain prices?
He proceeded to do just that. Then, carrying his bulky
package containing his purchases, he went on his way. He
hadn't walked more than a few yards when he almost
dropped the package in consternation. "Those peoplethat
beautiful, long line of people were not waiting for tickets
to our theater, but to a theater next door to it that I
hadn't noticed before. It was playing a real, real popular
Later that day the band opened to a very straggly au
dience. Lawrence didn't need anybody to tell him that
there would be no profits from which he might draw a
share. In fact, if this went on, he would need every cent of
cash he could lay his hands on to pay his expenses.
Why, oh why, did he have to squander that money on
And about that opening show, it was enough in itself to
turn his hair gray. In telling what happened Lawrence ex
plains that, before the band arrived in Kansas City, the
manager of the Tower hinted that he would like some acts
to enliven the orchestra's part of the program. Driving
through Iowa, on the way to the new assignment, the boys
heard of a performing dog, and arranged for the animal's
trainer to give a show in the hotel where Lawrence was
staying. The dog went through his tricks, and Lawrence
l8o MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
admits: "That pooch looked great. I hired the act right off
and took it to Kansas City with us."
At the opening performance the orchestra played a few
introductory chords, the dog was led to the center of the
stage by his trainer, and then the spotlight was put on him.
Presto frightened by the glare, the animal turned tail and
made a dash for the wings.
Talk about pandemoniuml The maddest of mad scram
bles ensued, as everybody in the band, plus a few stage
hands as well, tried to catch that elusive bit of frisky,
frightened fox terrier without success.
Just as the mounting blood pressure of the manager
threatened to bring on apoplexy, somebody had the gump
tion to ring down the curtain.
Now, was the band out of a job? That question loomed
up ominously in the mind of each of the boys. Lawrence
himself didn't even think of it. (He might have saved him
self most of the $2200 had he been ousted. ) Something else
was on his mind. He says: "I felt sorry for the guy who
owned the dog."
With such sensibilities Lawrence acted as only he of all
the world would act. "Our hero" bearded his enraged boss
with the proposition that the dog be given a second chance
the next show.
No doubt the man was so taken by surprise, hearing that
request, that he scarcely knew what he replied. He agreed
to the "second chance." This time the act was not a com
plete debacle; it was just a mild flop, which did nothing
to enhance the band's prestige or, come to think of it, the
Now, throughout that second performance, as well as
throughout the first, there sat, in one of the front seats, a
"Smffitf Through" 181
little old lady. Nobody could fail to notice her. At the open
ing show there were scarcely fifty people in the theater,
which could have held many hundreds, so the musicians
were conscious of each separate person in the audience.
That made this poor soul so much the more disconcerting
when all through the show, she sadly shook her head, and
clacked her tongue in disapproval.
"It gets you down," the boys said to one another that
But what was their amazement when she showed up
again for the third performance, and the fourth, and the
fifth, and . . . and ... So far she wasn't missing a single
Though with each day the crowd had grown, there was
no forgetting the elderly Calamity Jane, for she never
ceased making disparaging motions and noises.
Four shows a day, two matinees and two evening shows,
it went on! In one week that would mean twenty-eight
But long before the band had played that often, nerves
began fraying. In fact, about midway through the week,
one of the boys came to Lawrence and said: "I'm quitting.
I have to. I can't stand that woman one more time. She's
driving me nuts.**
Lawrence tried to persuade him to reconsider, but had
no success until the manager put in a word: **Oh, you're
talking about old Mrs. X. Don't mind her. She's bats. Her
family don't want to put her in an institution, because she's
harmless, so they give her money to come to all the shows."
After that the boy was able to go along, "smilin*
And there were a few more situations which challenged
l82 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Lawrence to do the same. Another quickie engagement of
the period took him to a theater in a small Pennsylvania
town. Since this particular theater had only one matinee,
rather than the customary two, arrangements were made
for him to autograph records, during the free time, at the
music department of a local furniture store.
On schedule Lawrence entered the department from the
bright sunshine outdoors, to see in the dimness a dusty
counter and dustier shelves, but at first glance no salesman.
Only as his eyes adjusted to the light did he perceive, way
in the back of the place, a skinny man, seated in a swivel
chair, reading a newspaper. The man didn't greet him, or
look up, until Lawrence went over, cleared his throat self
consciously, and mentioned his mission. Then the man
grunted: "Uh-huh. Make yourself at home," and reverted
to his newspaper.
"I didn't know what to do next/' Lawrence says. "I just
stood around, leaning first on one foot then the other, wait
ing for buyers and autograph seekers."
He waited, and waited, and waited.
Finally a woman bustled in like a gust of fresh air, and
to Lawrence's joy, she asked for his theme song, "Bubbles
in the Wine." Mystery of mysteries! What Welk records did
they stock? They didn't have that primary one.
But Lawrence didn't want to lose a sale. Eager-beaver-
like, he stepped forward and suggested that he send the
record by mail later. Then with his brightest, beamingest
smile, he added: "So you like our music?"
"Oh, I don't know," the woman replied. "I haven't heard
it. My husband owns the theater where you're playing. We
try to keep a file on orchestras we've had there, so that we
don't rehke a lemon."
"Smiliri Through" 183
But despite contretemps the Lawrence Welk fortunes
very soon took a turn for the better, and Mr. Music Maker
found himself going to some of the very best and most
charming hotels in Dixie, including the Peabody in Mem
phis, the Roosevelt in New Orleans, and the Adolphus in
By the time he had run through most of them, an im
portant event was due: Fern was expecting another baby.
Therefore, instead of feeling elated at his new progress,
Lawrence could think of nothing but the old dream of set
tling down in a home of his own, and ending these eternal
tours and one-nighters. He could swing it only if he could
find enough long bookings in one locality.
While he chewed the cud of these ideas, his agent, Bill
Fredericks, flew to Texas with a sheaf of contracts for Law
rence to sign, contracts which would have taken him over
the same ground he had just covered in his Southern route.
It was a compliment to his band that he was wanted back
so soon for repeat engagements and at hotels that a few
years before Lawrence would have mortgaged anything
but his accordion to get into. However, to Bill Fredericks'
surprise the bandleader said: "I can't sign those contracts."
"What?" The agent could scarcely believe his ears.
"No," Lawrence insisted. "I can't sign them. We need a
home, and I have an idea of how we might get one."
He then proceeded to explain. He had looked over Job
possibilities, and had steadied his sights on the Trianon
Ballroom in Chicago. That large ballroom in the big city
was one of the few places that might well provide long
bookings, and he hoped . . .
At this point Bill cut in: "But, Lawrence, you can't get
184 MISTER 1MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
a booking there. I know, because another booking office
controls their business."
Lawrence came back: "Bill, I just can't take 4 No' that
"That's why you always get what you go after," Bill mur
mured, while Lawrence went on: "Do you think you're a
good enough salesman to get me there for one night? One
night is all I ask."
"Wel-1 . . r
At that word Lawrence walked over and shook hands.
"Always I try to get some beginning," he will explain. "I
call it getting my foot in the door. It is like the days I'd
play for nothing sometimes, hoping it would lead to other
things. Usually it did."
This time was no exception. Andrew Karsas, owner of
the Trianon, was enough impressed with the band's per
formance on that one night to offer a contract for six weeks
in the near future.
During the interim Lawrence traveled to Dallas, where
he had left Fern in her "blessed condition." On the way
down he was planning to tell her the happy news of the
Trianon contract, and of his hopes of protracting it. When
he arrived in Texas, however, the odds are ten to one that
he forgot. Fern gave him something more important to talk
about. She told him that he was already a father again.
"And it was a boy . . , born on my own birthday, March
11," Lawrence gloats. "He had to be a Junior."
Only one small cloud appeared on his mental horizon:
he regretted that his own father had not lived to share this
joy with him. But he kept Western Union wires humming,
announcing the good tidings to the rest of the family in
North Dakota, and to friends throughout the country. He
"SmtZm Through" 185
spent thirty-five dollars altogether on telegrams, and he re
marks: "At that time I couldn't afford it."
Too bad, with his comparatively new-found voice, that
he didn't broadcast it on the air waves. But perhaps he
topped that idea. He wrote a song to mark the event. It
was entitled "Heaven Is Mine Again," which should reveal
his state of mind at the time.
And did he sense that with the birth of his son he was
to enter a new phase in his life, a phase in which, for the
first time in his career, long engagements in top-notch
places would take precedence over one-night stands in
small, unknown places?
Actually, though no dramatic clash of cymbals or roll of
drums heralded it, Act III of the life of Mr. Music Maker,
Lawrence Welk, was beginning. Scene I is laid in Chicago.
To peg the curtain rise on a date: the year was 1940,
and the age of the 'Tiero" thirty-seven.
"My Blue Heaven"
It was all taking shape. The prospect of extended Trianon
engagements made possible that desire, cherished long
and lovingly by Fern and Lawrence a permanent home.
Always in some vague tomorrow it had hung like a mirage
which upon approach dissolved into wispy clouds.
First had come the attempt in Yankton. Lawrence had
actually bought a little cottage there, only to have it fade
and grow dim, while constant one-night stands took him
miles into the hinterland. During two years of ownership
he could almost count the evening meals at his own table.
Usually at the normal dinner hour Lawrence, on the way
to some dance date, would be eating in a diner by the side
of the road.
Then he had made that other try for a home in Omaha.
He had been optimistic enough to buy the house sur
rounded with a few acres where supposedly he might
putter with chicken farmingand eventually, perhaps,
settle down to it in earnest. The place was out from town,
west of the suburb called Benson, on Main Street, but to
the paterfamilias it remained little more than a mailing ad
dress. The mix-up with the Musicians Union, barring him
from local jobs, meant "on the road," with no breaks worth
"My Blue Heaven* 187
mentioning. Fern was left to manage the place, which
in Lawrence's absence seemed only a ponderous white
"These two houses were the nearest thing to our own
little nest, like the songs say," declares Lawrence, "and we
didn't keep either of them more than a year or two. The
rest of the time, it was just rented places, furnished or un
furnished, and often just apartments, hotels, or motels. It
got awful monotonous."
Though Fern and the children could not follow Law
rence to every whistle stop, they did make an effort to re
flect the broad pattern of his treks. Intermittently on the
move, they had to choose a place they could leave on short
If Lawrence had a number of engagements booked
ahead in a given area, they would have to pull up stakes
and follow along. These gypsy journeyings had already
meant a couple of school switches for Shirley, the eldest
child, while for both little girls the changes prevented their
having the same playmates long enough to make friends.
"Maybe these weren't such big troubles to kids that age,"
Lawrence concedes, "but they were another straw to help
break the camel's back. The worst part was how terrible
the life was for Fern."
When she would pile the two children, plus the bulging,
battered luggage, into the car, and set off, cross-country if
need be, she often did not know where she would find a
place to stay en route, or at their destination. One thing
only was certain: comfortable rented apartments or houses
were not readily available to people with small children.
On one tour Donna avowed: "When I get big, I'm going
l88 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
to open a place that takes just dogs and kids no grown
Lawrence didn't worry so much about dogs. He says:
"There are folks who will welcome dog or cat owners but
who will not rent to couples with children. That's not right.
Those same folks may talk big words about security, but
don't they know that we can't have security not any of
us in this country unless we look after the family. The
family is the first thing."
When at last they would find a place to hang their hats,
the brunt of whatever inconveniences it possessed fell on
Fern. "If I went on a short hop," Lawrence explains, "Fern
would stay with the children. Most of the time she had to
be the man as well as the lady of the house."
But even without extra inconveniences that double role
would have taxed her strength, emotionally and physi
cally. About the latter Shirley attests: "Mother was the one
who had to wrestle with storm windows, screens, blown-
out fuses, stopped-up drains, and all that."
And about the emotional factor Lawrence himself drops
some hints. He makes clear that when two people are in
love, it is "terrible hard" to be apart so much, and he lets
slip that his "good wife" wanted "a home together," and
that she, as he did, felt that something was lacking in those
first years of marriage.
Now, since Chicago looked like the Promised Land of
lengthy job opportunity, the time had come for another try
at home establishment.
From their apartment in the area they undertook house
hunting expeditions. At first, however, they ran into a few
snags, but Lawrence points out: "Better later than never.
"My Blue Heaven" 189
In 1942, I put a down payment on a place. It was in the
River Forest section."
Home, sweet home! Every time Lawrence walked in the
front door, he marveled afresh that this was his all his.
And Fern never had an instant's doubt about the exact mo
ment he did walk in, since he would flip on the radio, or
begin humming a tune, just from the sheer joy of finding
himself within the walls of his "blue heaven."
For nine full years, until 1951, that is, the Welks con
tinued to live there ensemble. The children put down roots,
Shirley went to grammar school, then to Trinity High,
where she stayed the whole four years, long enough to
make real friends, and finally she went on with some of
them to matriculate at Marquette University. Donna be
gan at St. Vincent Ferrer's Parochial School, and stayed
there throughout the entire eight years, while little Larry
started his schooling there and had no breaks either, until
the big California move. With a grin Lawrence sums up:
"It was real wonderful."
All this was possible, be it repeated, because the Music
Maker was able to sign up year after year for "long" en
gagements in the area. In the music business "long" is usu
ally defined as six or eight weeks.
Besides the Trianon Ballroom he often found local jobs
at the Chicago and Oriental theatres, and at the Aragon
Ballroom (not to be confused with the Aragon in Southern
California), under the same management as the Trianon.
Comments Lawrence: "This was a new life and better
than all those one-night stands that we'd had for mostly
fifteen years before. And now we had new prestige, too.
The Trianon was known to hire only top-notch bands, so
visitors to Chicago, as well as folks who lived there, would
IQO MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
come to the place. They went home and spread the name
of our band. Our broadcasts from the Trianon over WGN
helped us an awful lot too. Suddenly we had a real national
Yet between Chicago engagements Lawrence still trav
eled. When he had to travel in the fall or winter, the family
no longer attempted to follow. Only during the summer
vacation months did they revert to the vagabond life.
"Fern was glad that she didn't have to change the kids'
schools/* says Lawrence.
So much did summertime and tour time continue to
be synonymous that one season, for example, Lawrence
played in thirty-eight ballrooms in eight states, Minnesota,
South Dakota, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio,
"It was scads of fun," says young Larry today. "I liked
summers better'n any other time."
But did his mother and sisters agree with him? Shirley
shows a certain lack of enthusiasm when she describes
some of their trips. "You know Daddy the darling would
get us anything in the world we wanted, but one part of
him lives a dreamy kind of existence. He never even no
tices physical comfort. Often when we'd stop for the night
in some country town, he'd get out of the car and go up
to the proprietor of a tourist house and say: 1 have my
wife and three children with me. Can you fix us up for the
night?' But he would forget to mention a private bath, or
to inquire about what kind of accommodations were avail
able. I remember a time, just before we moved to Califor
nia. Daddy pulled his usual line about 'my wife and three
children' at this tourist home, but he didn't make clear that
one 'child,' me, was then almost twenty years old, and that
"Af y Blue Heaven" 191
even the youngest child was a big, overgrown boy of eleven
or twelve. When we got inside, wilted and weary after driv
ing all day, we found that aU they had for us 'children'
were cribs. How Donna and I jackknifed ourselves into a
crib Til never know. Larry didn't try. He slept on the sofa."
Then she tells of the time they were traveling through
the Dakotas, headed for an Indian reservation where Law
rence was to play. They stopped at night at a string of
adobe huts calling itself a motel. They entered, to find that
the whole family was expected to sleep in one room, on
beds lined up only inches apart.
That was the least of their troubles!
Facilities were strictly primitive. If a patron wanted to
wash, he would have to resort to the well.
Lawrence left for his playing date, and Fern sent her
Jack and Jill, Larry and Donna, to fetch a pail of water.
They brought it back dutifully, and Larry couldn't at first
understand why his mother was shocked to see him wash
ing from it. "He didn't know," Shirley explains, "that you're
supposed to pour just some of the water at a time into a
washbowl, so that each person can have fresh water when
his turn comes."
Finally they retired. According to Shirley's story: "The
beds were rickety, the mattresses were thin pads stuffed
with straw, and the pillows . . . well, the first thing Donna
said when she put her head down was: 'Mother, my pillow
smells.' It did, too. They all did. They were musty. Every
few minutes she'd make some comment about her pillow,
till Mother told her not to say another thing that night."
Scarcely had the family quieted down when they were
disturbed by voices outside. Lawrence had come back to
the "motel" and tried the door of the adjacent, identical
1Q2 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
hut. He found it locked, so he called: "Honey, let me in."
"Hey, honey! Honey, let me in. This is Lawrence."
A pause, and then a bass voice boomed: "Don't you
honey me again, or I'll bust you in the jaw."
Finally, grasping the facts, Fern jumped from bed, and
ran to her door. "Lawrence," she stage-whispered, "you
have the wrong place. Here we are."
Inside, Lawrence lost no time undressing and getting to
bed. His first words when his head hit the pillow: "Honey,
you know, this pillow smells."
He was baffled when his remark evoked laughter.
Again the family quieted down, but nobody could sleep.
Shirley recounts: "One or the other of us would keep rear
ing up in bed and look across the room to find several pairs
of wide-open eyes staring back. Finally Daddy proposed:
'Let's get up and drive on to the next stop/ "
It was 4:30. Yet driving at such an hour was no novelty
to the Welks. Often on a tour, in order to save time pri
marily, and money secondarily, they would engage sleep
ing accommodations only alternate nights. For instance,
they would drive all day, arriving at about dinnertime in
the town where Lawrence was to play. After dinner Law
rence would go to his ballroom, and Fern and the children
would go to a movie and then return to the car to sleep as
best they could for a few hours. After the dance Lawrence
would join them and they would drive on. At the next des
tination they would go to a motel or hotel and, if the hour
were still early enough, nap before dinner.
Strenuous? No doubt about that, but Fern kept remind
ing herself of the favorable aspects of the Chicago setup:
it supplied so many jobs in the vicinity that at least Law-
"My Blue Heaven" 193
rence's winter traveling was much less than in former days.
And when a winter tour did whisk him away from the
windy city, the family knew that he would be returning
in a matter of days, weeks, or months to the sure harbor
of the Trianon, and the house in River Forest.
Of his home-comings the children say; "We kids always
loved seeing Daddy get back after a trip. He's fun to have
around. And besides that it was like a party. Mom killed
the fatted calf for him you know the best china, flowers
on the table, scrumptious food and all. We grew up think
ing Daddy was a sort of king we really should be on our
best behavior for but a jolly, wonderful king, who teased
us, and loved us, and, I guess, spoiled us a little."
As for Lawrence himself, he found it an unfailing com
fort to be able to return always to the familiar spot, and to
"Fern and the kids," his sure refuge and balance in a giddy
world. Clearly the woman whom Shirley called "a genius
in the home" kept ready and waiting for him the kind of
peaceful, warm haven that all men ideally envision at the
end of a long road.
But if Lawrence was happy to come home, he still cher
ished the hope of someday making an Eastern tour which
would culminate in a New York performance. That dream
had lived in his imagination for more years than he both
ered to count.
In 1943 & e kid came from the big city.
He set off for this particular Treasure Island with great
expectations, but he confesses succinctly: "It wasn't ex
actly like my dreams."
The band was neither a smash hit nor a dismal failure. It
drew a good enough following, and some papers carried
moderately favorable reviews.
194 MISTER MUSIC MAJCER, LAWBENCE WELK
So much and nothing more!
They played at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway, and
Lawrence could not do his best in such a place. On the
huge, remote bandstand, lifted above and cut off from the
"folks/' he looked out into the cavernous immensity and
found that he could not even see the faces of his audience.
The homey Welk technique was lost in space. It was like
dropping a daisy into the Grand Canyon and waiting for
Incidentally Ralph Edwards, who now produces the TV
show This Is Jour Life, and who in March 1957 featured
among his guests one Lawrence Welk, was billed on the
Capitol Theatre program at the same time the Music
Meanwhile, from New York it was back to Chicago for
In Chicago the WeBcs, for almost the first time in their
married life, managed a little social life. It was the first
time they had stayed in one place long enough for much
of that sort of thing. Among their group of friends were
the Spauldings, Lawrence could say gratefully: "When
I'm away, I can always count on good folks, like the
Spauldings, to give Fern helpful hands, if she needs any
thing. That makes me easy in my mind."
Today Lawrence employs Ed Spaulding in California as
a business administrator and personal trouble-shooter.
"It is characteristic of Lawrence," remarks Ed, "that he
never forgets a friend."
But how could Lawrence forget the Spauldings? Unin
tentionally, and indirectly, they were the cause of Law
rence almost losing his wife.
"Keep the Home Fires Burning"
It was Lawrence's birthday, March 11, 1945. He wasn't
home to celebrate it with his family, but was playing in
New Orleans. The engagement, a routine thing, presented
no special problems, so Lawrence was relaxed. Says he: "I
didn't know what was going to happen."
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Fern sat home with the chil
dren, feeling perhaps a bit blue that Lawrence was away
on such an important occasion. If she tried to picture him
in the Southern city, where undoubtedly the weather at
that date was balmy and springlike, she would have found
it hard to do, for March 11 of 1945 in Chicago was cold
But whatever her musings, they were interrupted by the
phone ringing. It was the Spauldings. They suggested that
they come by and take her out for the evening.
Why not? She accepted thankfully, and a little later, as
her friends drew up before the house, she hurried out,
throwing a kiss to the children.
She did not return for weeks.
In the course of that evening, driving along the slippery
streets, a car emerged at a certain intersection and hit the
Spaulding car broadside. Its three occupants were all sit-
196 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
ting in the front seat Ed at the wheel, Mrs. Spaulding in
the center, and Fern on the right end. The car hit on the
Although what immediately followed is vague in Fern's
memory, she is under the impression that she never com
pletely lost consciousness. Anyhow, by the time the am
bulance arrived, she was alert enough to realize that she
could not move her legs. She was paralyzed from the waist
Because the Spauldings both 'looked dreadful" to her,
she wrongly assumed that they were worse off than her
self, and she proposed that they be placed on stretchers,
saying: "I'm able to sit up."
Sit up she did, all the way to the hospital. Once there,
she begged for a phone. She was told that someone in an
official capacity had notified Lawrence, but she still in
sisted that she wanted the phone. At least she could talk
personally to her children, so that they wouldn't be any
more frightened than need be.
'Tin OK," she told Shirley, "but hospital authorities are
cautious. They'll keep me for tests and all. Now, there's
one thing I want you to be sure to do: sleep in my bed
because your little brother always comes in my room in the
morning, and hell be upset if he finds the bed empty. Do
everything as usual. You can manage . . . but call Jayne
Walton in the morning."
Nurses then carried Fern off, and almost immediately
she went into a state of shock. For some days thereafter
she talked to no one coherently. Her condition was cer
tainly very grave, if not critical.
Her pelvis had multiple fractures, her sacroiliac was
sprained, and her left hipbone broken.
"Keep the Home Fires Burning* 197
When Lawrence reached Chicago, he was told by the
doctors that there was doubt whether his wife would ever
Meanwhile, before he arrived in town, Jayne Walton,
who, after six years as Champagne Lady, had recently
given up that job to get married, rushed to the Welk home
to take care of the children. It was a strange interval. The
children, when they speak of it today, mention Cream of
Wheat. It was a symbol.
Having been told that Cream of Wheat was the usual
breakfast fare, Jayne proceeded to cook it for the first
morning meal she prepared. She had never tackled the
stuff before, and she tried very hard.
Donna, however, just sat there with tears dripping into
"Eat your breakfast, darling," Jayne urged.
"Mother's Cream of Wheat doesn't have lumps like this,"
"Uh-uh, it doesn't,** echoed Larry, and began to wail
Poor Jayne's stricken face would have been enough to
stimulate Shirley's tear ducts if they hadn't already been
in full production out of sympathy for Donna and Larry;
she knew that they were crying, not because of lumpy
cereal, but because they missed their mother and were
Then Larry asked: "Will my mom die?" and Jayne's
eyes overflowed too.
Not a soul touched breakfast that morning.
But Jayne did cook the children other and more satis
factory meals, until a few days later, upon the arrival of
Cornelia Weber, she returned to her own home.
ig8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Cornelia was a cousin whom Lawrence asked to come
stay with the children and "to keep the home fires up."
Apparently Lawrence was able to plan well enough to
make provision for the children, and to go on automati
cally with the music business, but in some respects he suf
fered a state of shock analogous to Fern's. He was half
dazed by what had happened.
It seemed strange beyond believing that his "good wife,"
this efficient, energetic, woman, should be invalided. And
he simply could not grasp the idea that she might not walk
again. He says: "I didn't know what to make of things. I
just prayed harder than ever."
When Fern returned from the hospital, her cheerful
courage convinced him that everything would be all right
again pretty soon. And the children took their cue from
the adults. Here was an unpleasant fantasy that would
pass in due time. Meanwhile, they would pray, and try to
Actually after some weeks Fern was able to sit up and
dangle her legs over the side of the bed; then she ventured
to stand; later she demanded crutches and taught herself
to get around; finally she really was "all right again," and
one day, climbing into her car, she drove herself to the
hospital to return the crutches. Today she hasn't even a
limp to remind her of her ordeal.
All the while, she had encouraged Lawrence to main
tain his usual schedule. World War II was still in progress,
and he was receiving more dance bids than he could
handle, particularly since for the last few years he had set
aside some part of each week to play gratis for the armed
"It was the least I could do," he explains. "I'm an Amer-
"Keep the Home Fires Burning" 199
lean, and I hope a strong kind. I heard enough of the 'old
country' from my parents to know that only in the United
States, where business doesn't have all kinds of govern
ment restrictions, can a man begin with nothing, and just
by working hard, go ahead as far as he wants. As long as
we keep our free system, the only thing that can hold a man
back will be himself."
In the course of his numerous army performances Law
rence met Sam Lutz, the man who plays a supporting role
in the Lawrence Welk drama today. Sam was in the Army
a sergeant in Special Services and it was his job to find
weekly entertainment for the GI's at Gardiner General
"Show business is erratic/' he says. "Seems like I was al
ways being stuck without a performer. When I was in a
jam, I could send an SOS to Lawrence Welk. He was the
most obliging fellow in the world."
A few years later Sam, having received his discharge,
went to the West Coast with the hope of forming a theat
rical agency there. Lawrence was playing at the Aragon,
in Southern California, and it didn't take long for Sam and
him to get together to talk "old times."
Just then Lawrence retained a huge, impersonal agency,
so he was not averse to switching his business to Sam and
a nascent company, where a client could count on plenty
of attention. Also Lawrence adds: "Sam was an old friend.
I was glad to be able to help him get started."
Lawrence Welk was Sam Lutz's first client.
A few months later the firm of Gabbe, Lutz and Heller
was formed, and today it handles the orchestra's business
from handsome offices at Hollywood and Vine, above the
famed Brown Derby restaurant. From the same eyrie the
2OO MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
agency also handles Liberace and other glittering per
Speaking of the bandleader back in Chicago, Sam
avows: "Lawrence was different from a good many enter
tainers I dealt with. None of them received money, of
course, but lots of them would expect little concessions and
favors. I remember one gal. She said sure she'd do this
army hospital show, if I'd see to it that she was slipped a
couple dozen boxes of facial tissues. Paper products were
hard to buy during the war. Well, I couldn't get the facial
tissues for her, so, believe it or not, she refused to play for
the hospital. Lawrence was never like that/'
In four years Lawrence supplied more shows for Chi
cago's Gardiner General Hospital than any other enter
tainer. Also he played for a number of army camps too
during those years (and even after peace was declared).
Besides that he became a crack salesman of war bonds.
He didn't make any announcement about them from the
bandstand; he feared his German accent would prevent
rather than promote sales, but he and the boys would sell
war stamps in person to their patrons. Lawrence called his
group the Bomber Brigade, since their object was to raise
sufficient funds to defray construction costs of a bomber.
Also he did his "bit" to "keep the home fires" of justice
burning brightly in his native land, and there must be told
a little by-plot, which thickened the general over-all plot of
Lawrence's life at this time. It concerns Mrs. A, an old
friend of Fern's, and it involves a crime. Mrs. A, while
working at a large institution, had been blamed for the
disappearance of a considerable sum of the institution's
"Keep the Home Fires Burning" 201
Fern was appalled. She knew the girl well enough to
feel sure that Mrs. A was innocent. What was up?
At Fern's urging Lawrence flew to the scene of the crime
and began a one-man investigation. The more deeply he
delved into the mess, the more convinced he became that
Mrs. A's friends must be right when they said she was
Meantime the girl was arrested, convicted, and sent to
prison. That really galvanized Fern and Lawrence into
action. They became a regular Mr. and Mrs. North work
ing on a case.
First of all, Lawrence, who ordinarily abhorred debt,
raised money by using his house as security, and then he
put up a bond for Mrs. A. Next he visited lawyers, asking
them to re-examine the evidence.
Because his tours did not frequently take him into the
city where he could confer with these lawyers, he had to
find time and means to travel back and forth to that city.
To cut transportation costs, he secured engagements to
play for army camps in the locality, so that he could have
more opportunity to work nearby.
Fern also was busy. She wrote to practically everybody
who had ever known Mrs. A and asked for their opinion
of the girl. She and Lawrence collected stacks of letters
testifying to Mrs. A's upright character. Finally, through
the instrumentality of Lancelot and his ''good wife/* the
Parole Board reviewed the case, and they released the girl
at the earliest moment the law allowed, one year after her
"East Side, West Side"
While Chicago was good to Lawrence, it is not to be con
fused with Utopia. "There were/* as he puts it, "some flies
stuck in the ointment."
One thing Fern particularly disliked was the long dis
tance Lawrence had to travel back and forth between
home and the Trianon. The twenty-one-mile drive, mostly
through traffic, took a full hour each way. "Many a time,
I'd worry myself half sick," she admits. "Lawrence would
get so sleepy, driving home at 3 A.M., that he would have
to pull over to the side of the road and nap a bit before
he could go on. I was afraid that one night he might not
pull over in time, and would fall asleep at the wheel. Then
I could just see the car careening across the highway, to
crash into a tree or something."
Of course the Welks might have moved closer to the
Trianon if that had been feasible, but in the vicinity of the
ballroom there was no residential area. Moreover dis
tance was only one irksome detail. Lawrence himself ac
cumulated a few small grievances.
He mentions occasional differences of opinion with the
Trianon owner, Karzas. For instance, Mr. Karzas had been
upset when Lawrence had tried to vary Champagne Music
"East Side, West Side" 203
and go in for "class." Explosively he had threatened: "Get
back in the groove or you're fired. We're losing customers."
Says Lawrence candidly: "Karzas was right about this.
Folks couldn't dance as well to the modem arrangements.
Champagne Music put the girl back in the boys arms-
where she belongs/'
But was Karzas's excitable temperament a bit hard on
The bandleader doesn't say so. He speaks of another ob
jection to the Chicago setup. The ballroom operators in the
city knew that he preferred to play in the immediate area,
where he could be with his family, so, taking advantage
of that, they tended to offer him considerably less money
than he was paid when he went on tour. "The difference
seemed too much," says Lawrence, "and besides I felt that
everything combined was getting me stuck in a kind of
rut, where I couldn't ever get any bigger.' 1
Of course, if he wanted only monetary advancement, he
could achieve it simply by traveling more frequently, but
the hardships and hazards of traveling were such that he
would have liked to reduce, not increase, traveling. In fact
one particular experience of the era almost made him re
solve never to budge from his own back yard again.
Going from Denver to Salt Lake City, the troupe was
caught in a blizzard in Utah. The road was lost in a white
blur and they were winding their way over a steep moun
tain pass. Only inch by inch could they creep forward,
guessing by the line of trees the road's edge and the brink
of the incline. Finally they overtook a track, and from then
on could follow in its tracks, as it too proceeded with the
nerve-racking uncertainty which had marked their previ
2O4 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
When they reached their destination after driving all
day and all night, they were as exhausted physically and
emotionally as if they had crawled on all fours through
a hail of bullets. The drummer was running a 103 tem
perature, induced by the ordeal. No wonder that Law
rence did not consider additional travel the answer to his
While he was still groping for whatever was the right
answer, he received a bid to play on the West Coast. In
1945, at Dan London's invitation, Lawrence and the band
went to San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel, for a six-week
engagement. Those six weeks stretched into six months-
testimony enough that Mr. Music Maker was well received
in the city of the Golden Gate.
From there he went to Southern California, to the Ara-
gon Ballroom in Ocean Park. Again he was booked for six
weeks, and this six weeks became seven months, thus mak
ing his Western stay, that time, total thirteen months.
During the period, Lawrence flew East for no engage
ments whatever, but only for the purpose of seeing his
family, and they flew West several times to see him.
"It's funny that the Aragon turned out the way it did,"
says Lawrence. ""When I first saw the pkce, it didn't look
good to me. I didn't think our band fitted in there/*
But how did he happen to stay as long as seven months
that time? Usually ballrooms change bands much more
frequently. Lawrence has an explanation: "Tops' Gordon
that is Gordon Sadrup wanted something to stand up
against the real strong competition of the Casino Ball
room, which is in Ocean Park too, just about a block away
from the Aragon. The operators there always hired the
biggest names in the country, and they had a couple of
"East Side, West Side" 205
extra-special ones as coming attractions. Pops asked my
advice about what band he should get after my six weeks
were up. I suggested Guy Lombardo, but Pops said that he
had already asked Guy and couldn't get him. I mentioned
some other bands, like Jan Garber's, but it ended with Pops
offering me the job. I was bowled all over. I had never
played against the kind of competition I saw ahead, and I
told Pops that. He said I could do it, so, kind of scared, I
agreed to try. It was worth the effort, and the chance.
Maybe competition is good for you makes you do your
best. And for the first time in my life, I felt that I was in
the big time for sure."
Perhaps being *in the big time" led to Lawrence's in
vitation to the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. At any rate,
that was the next important steppingstone in the Music
Maker's career. In 1947 ^ e went there for a spring fill-in
For twenty years Guy Lombardo had held sway at the
Roosevelt, and Lawrence, who as he avows, "thought a lot
of this bandleader," wanted to play the game of follow-
the-leader. Quite simply, then, he asked Guy's advice:
**What can I do to make the folks back here like us? w
Mr. Lombardo was very generous. Declares Lawrence:
TKe helped us a lot, especially with advice about songs
So it is not without reason that Lawrence Welk was,
and still is, often called the second Guy Lombardo.
One night a woman approached Lawrence and said: T
came all the way from Canada to hear you in person. I
love your music, and I'm proud that you're a Canadian
2O6 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
"But I'm not a Canadian," Lawrence answered. "I'm an
American, born in North Dakota."
"North Dakota!" echoed his vis-a-vis. "Why, everybody
up our way thinks you're Canadian."
"Are you sure that you haven't got me mixed up with
Guy Lorn "
"Oh . . . aren't you Guy Lombardo?" gasped the
A reasonable facsimile, all right!
But there are many who say that the second Lombardo
has outstripped the first, that the protege has surpassed
the tutor. However, Lawrence himself is not one of them.
He says: "I could never take the place of Guy Lombardo."
At any rate, Lawrence did "please the folks" who flocked
to the Roosevelt, and for three successive seasons he was
called to New York for repeat engagements.
But before going on with that, Lawrence has a little
story to tell about what happened on his way to the first
Roosevelt engagement. As usual, he ran in a number of
one-nighters en route. In Iowa his Champagne Lady, Joan
Mowery, became ill and had to fly home for an operation.
Lawrence phoned Joe Kayser in Chicago, and asked him
to send a substitute for Joan and pronto, please!
In short order the girl arrived. She was a long, taU, dan
gling creature, not much to look at, but oh so willing and
determined to make good.
Lawrence had his misgivings the minute he saw her, but
at least she deserved a chance. He heard her sing. It was
then that his misgivings were tripled.
"I didn't see how I could use her," he says, "but with
her so anxious for the job, it was awful hard to turn her
down. I tried to say it real easy and kind, but even so
"East Side, West Side" 207
when I started talking to her, the tears just rushed out,
and she carried on something awful."
"Oh, Mr. Welk, you can't do this to me/' she sobbed.
"My big chance! And I've told all my friends back home,
and . . . Oh, Mr. Welk, I'll .do anything, but please,
please, please don't send me home."
It was too much for Lawrence to withstand. He sof
tened. And he says: "We rehearsed extra carefully."
Carefully indeed! The girl asked Lawrence about every
gesture she should make, so that she might perform down
to the last hairsbreadth as he wanted.
She was to sing a duet with one of the boys, featuring
the song "Doin What Comes Naturlly." In the course of
it the boy was supposed to put his arm around her, and
she was to look at him warningly. Next, he was supposed
to lean toward her as though to kiss her, then she was to
spurn him with a gesture and whirl gracefully away from
him. They practiced the routine under Lawrence's observ
ant supervision, and apparently tall Tillie had it pat.
Evening came. The crowd arrived. Now the sang! The
pair began it, the boy at the proper cue put his arm
around the girl, she scowled at him, he attempted the kiss,
and then shades of Mack Sennettl it happened. She gave
him a blow with all the fervor of her desire to obey in
structions and "spurn," and what did she do but knock the
fellow down. Suddenly he lay sprawling in the center of
For a moment there was stunned silence. Even the or
chestra had faltered in amazement. Then the boy, strug
gling to his feet, shattered the stillness with a disgusted:
As though those two words were a signal, the orchestra
SOS MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
to a man dissolved in laughter. It was all Lawrence him
self could do to grab his accordion and stagger to the mid
dle of the bandstand for a number.
"As I looked out over the upturned faces of the audi
ence, I could tell by the expressions that folks didn't know
whether all this was a cooked-up gag, or an accident/' he
And he didn't enlighten them.
In retrospect Lawrence sees that amusing incidents
were a regular monthly, or even weekly, supplement to all
his touring days. He tells of the time, some years before,
when the Champagne Music Makers were covering the
same familiar Midwest territory. They had finished play
ing for a dance at Tom Archer's Tromar Ballroom in Des
Moines at i A.M. Then, having stopped by a diner for a
sandwich, they set out on their travels, intending to drive
all night until they reached Norfolk, Nebraska, and King's
Ballroom, where they were to play the next engagement.
Toward 5 A.M. everybody began to feel very weary,
wilted, and woebegone. The Champagne Lady, Jayne
Walton, particularly wanted nothing so much as a hot
bath and a place to sleep. She put her head back against
the car cushions and tried to nap, but Lawrence was talk
ing: "See that farmhouse over there?" (He indicated a
place up the road a bit. ) "A good friend of mine lives in it."
"I wish you'd pipe down and let a girl sleep/' Jayne
mumbled. "Besides you're probably just boasting. Every
body's your friend."
"What's his name?" one of the boys teased.
"Bet you don't know him at all," the girl took up.
"That's where you're wrong," retorted Lawrence, and
"East Side, West Side" 209
then in a bantering tone matching theirs he added: "Let's
stop and see him."
He turned into the farmer's driveway and hailed a man
going to the barn to milk the cows: "Hi, Harry!"
"Why, Lawrence!" came the reply. "Where did you
come from? You must stay to breakfast."
The crowd piled out of the car for breakfastall but
Lawrence. He said he'd go into town for Sunday church
and then join them a little later.
"Jayne, she was a good scout, but even so, she never for
gave me for dumping her there." Lawrence chuckles as he
tells about that day. "First she asked where the bathroom
was, but of course Harry didn't have any city bathroom.
He--or I guess it was his wife told Jayne to go out behind
the barn and she'd see . . . Well, she didn't like what she
However, being stranded, Jayne and the boys rested for
a while, and later in the day nothing would satisfy their
genial host but that they stay for a midday dinner.
By that time, of course, Lawrence had returned to join
them for a sumptuous meal.
"It was grand," he reminisces, "two kinds of meat, sweet
potatoes, white potatoes, hot biscuits ... I can't tell what
Grand? Well, yes . . . except for a slight flaw. A breeze
was blowing that afternoon, from the direction of the pig
sty: it blew straight into the dining room, and into the
nostrils of the diners. Poor Jayne! She wasn't a country
lass, and with each breath she drew she turned a shade
greener. Finally, she just had to excuse herself and go out
doors. By this time her complexion was a perfect match
for the grass.
210 MISTER MUSIC MAXER, LAWRENCE WELK
When the troupe drove off late that afternoon, Jayne's
first and only comment was: "No more farms or I'm
Incidentally, she could have meant exactly what she
said, for Welk personnel are not bound by the legal strings
of a contract. After giving two weeks' notice required by
union rules, anyone, or all of the band, could walk off the
That there is very little job turnover must be due to one
cause only: people like working for Lawrence Welk.
But why no contracts? Contracts are considered as
much a part of show business as make-up.
Lawrence has his reasons: "I'd rather have folks work
ing for me because they want to than because they have
to. They do better work then. Where I come from, a hand
shake is as good as a written contract any day."
With all business associates Lawrence dodges contracts
when he can. "If a person is going to be dishonest," he
says, "there's always a way he can find to wriggle out of
a contract. If he is honest, I don't need one."
Honesty, one of Lawrence's pet subjects, usually
prompts a Welkese dissertation. "It is so foolish not to be
honest," Lawrence avers. "If I see a fellow trying to chisel
a few dollars here or there, I may let him take those dol
lars, but in the end 111 probably have to fire him from a
job paying fifteen or twenty thousand a year maybe."
"Honesty is best policy." Is that what he's saying? Not
exactly, for he adds: "But you shouldn't be honest for
gain. If you act good because you think it will make you
money, then you're not really good, and people sense that
and won't trust you when the heat's on. It's like when
somebody is nice to you for what he can get from you.
"East Side, West Side' 9 211
You soon see through that, and you think less of him than
if he had never been nice to you in the first place/'
So Lawrence talks. But enough of talk for the moment.
What did Lawrence do about his Chicago situation?
Why didn't he or couldn't he find a niche for himself on
either the East or the West Coast? That's what he would
have liked at this time.
"More and More"
Lawrence grew more and more restless. Each time he re
turned to Chicago from a long tour or engagement, he
saw the situation in the home town through darker glasses.
But at one point he thought he would be able to leave
it all behind him. He had gone off to an engagement at
the Statler in Buffalo in mid-December. In keeping with
the season he had prepared a show featuring special
Christmas songs and music. Because of the sacred nature
of some of the songs he asked the crowd not to applaud
until the conclusion of the forty-five-minute program.
Usually, when the applause did come, it was tremen
dous and prolonged. One night while it was still going
on, a well-dressed middle-aged man, together with his
diamond-bedecked wife, approached Lawrence on the
bandstand and asked: "Could I have a word with you?"
As the Music Maker bent his head to listen, the stran
ger complimented the leader at great length on the band's
performance and then ended up with a proposition: "My
best friend is owner of the Statler chain. Would you like
to play his hotels for the next couple of years? You could
begin at the Statler in Washington, go to New York, and
"More and More" 213
so on. I can arrange it, but first I'd like to know would
it interest you?"
It definitely would and did interest Lawrence, and he
was about to say so most enthusiastically when the wife,
who had seemed edgy all along, plucked her husband's
sleeve. "Come on, Charlie," she urged. "Let's go." Then,
turning to Lawrence, she winked and said: "Don't pay
any attention to my husband. We've just come from a
Anyway, with that the two departed, leaving Lawrence
to ponder the irony of the gods of show business.
But during this somewhat unsatisfactory latter part of
the Chicago era, there was one large boost of the Law
rence Welk career. The maestro gives Leo Fortin, his
trumpet man at that time, credit for the idea.
Lawrence was traveling along the highway with Leo on
a tour, when a billboard sign caught the attention of both
men. It was advertising Miller High-Life beer, "the cham
pagne of bottled beer." Leo remarked: "I have a friend
who knows Roy Bernier, the advertising manager of Mil
ler Brewing Company. I understand that the company is
going to expand its advertising, Lawrence, why don't you
run up to Milwaukee to see them, tell them you can ad
vertise their product by tying in the champagne of beer
with the champagne of music?"
Without hesitation Lawrence answered: "I'll do that.
It's a real wonderful ideal And if I get busy, and keep
putting it off, just you keep reminding me."
Actually he didn't put it off long. He made that Mil
waukee trip, met Mr. Bernier, who introduced him to
214 MISTER MUSIC MAZER, LAWRENCE WELK
"that grand gentleman" Fred Miller.* The rest followed
quickly. Sponsored by Miller High-Life beer, Lawrence
Welk went on his first nationwide broadcast. It was on
the ABC network.
The program was reasonably successful. Moreover, the
voice of radio carrying across the land brought its echo
of prestige and acclamation everywhere, not to speak of
more and more dance jobs, here, there and yonder. Fred
Miller, believing in personal appearances for the band, as
a means of putting over the radio program, had made
them a part of his deal with Lawrence. Touring, it seems,
is an inevitable part of the bandleader's life.
On many a highway could be seen a little caravan of
cars, bright-hued with a decal of the familiar Miller High-
Life advertisement of the girl sitting jauntily on a cres
cent moon, while the lettering (or some of it) spelled out
"The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk."
One of the tours took them to the Northwest. It was a
memorable tour, not because it is a clue to the Lawrence
Welk success story, but because it reveals a facet of Law
rence Welk the man.
He felt that some of the boys had the wrong attitude.
They didn't want to practice; they didn't want to work.
They were just looking for a soft job. "Especially with this
real wonderful opportunity with Miller, that made me see
some red," Lawrence comments, "though I can always
blow off the handle when I meet laziness, or this dis
honesty of expecting something for nothing. I need more
Shirley would disagree with her father's statement
about requiring patience. In fact, she declares: "If I had
* Fred Miller was killed in a plane accident in 1955.
"More and More" 215
to name Daddy's one outstanding characteristic, it would
be patience. He bears wiii a person for ages and ages,
giving whoever it is every possible chance. People figure
lots of times that they're getting away with something,
that gullible, naive Daddy doesn't even see what they're
doing right under his nose. He sees all right, and he un
derstands. It's his patience that makes him hold off for so
long. It's only when he decides that the case is hopeless,
and when he figures that no amount of time is going to
change the person or persons involved, that he at long last
lowers the boom. And are people surprised!"
When Lawrence "lowered the boom," he broke up a re
hearsal by declaring that the whole band to a man was
fired. "I was ready," he avers, "to go out and find musi
cians who were willing to give fair work for fair wages/'
However, as soon as the boys had absorbed the shock
of their dismissal, they decided that they would be more
than willing to practice adequately, and to work in all
ways on Lawrence Welk's terms, if he would reinstate
them in their jobs. One by one, they sidled into his room
and said this in their own words.
"I rehired most of them," he says, <r but only after I made
sure that their attitude had changed, and that their prom
ises of turning a different leaf were sincere."
When he went on tour again, he felt that the band
was behind him, willing to do their best. This next tour
through the Midwest was sheer routine except for one
notable event. In St. Louis the maestro happened to hear
an accordionist named Myron Floren, playing in a little
Western-type band. "The fellow is good," Lawrence ex
claimed, and forthwith offered him a job.
Returning to Chicago with his new find, he ran into
2l6 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Karzas's opposition. The manager protested: "You can't do
that, Lawrence. The patrons say that this new fellow is
better than you, are. Youll have to get rid of him quick."
"Of course he's better than I am/' Lawrence answered
blandly. "That's why I hired him. The only kind of musi
cians I do hire are fellows better than I am/'
"Are you crazy, manl" the manager bellowed. "Would
Dorsey sign a trombone player better than he is? What
kind of showmanship would you call that?"
"The best/' Lawrence replied. "The best showmanship
is to give folks the finest thing you can get. Myron stays."
Baffled, Karzas shook his head, but he didn't argue
"When Lawrence is sure he's right about something,"
says one of the boys, "you can't any more argue him out
of it than you can talk a traffic cop out of handing you a
The band, improved by the addition to its personnel,
was as popular as ever at the Trianon. With no spectacu
lar offer coming from either coast, it looked, as Fern says,
'like Lawrence would be there till we were both gray and
Well, why not relax and enjoy the situation he had?
Theoretically Lawrence might agree that that was wise;
the trouble was that he is not the relaxing sort.
He realized that he was not badly off, that in fact he
had reached the top 'echelons of his profession in most re
spects, yet another thought obtruded: music was a pre
carious business. To a large extent it depended upon the
whims of a public, allegedly fickle. The cautious man
should have an ace in the hole, so Lawrence concluded:
"I got the idea again that I'd work up some commercial
"More and More' 217
deal on the side. The day might come when Td have to,
as well as want to, stop touring altogether. Then I could
spend my time on my new enterprise, and with Fern and
His thoughts turned toward "the food business." He
and Fern (the latter a veritable culinary expert despite
the fact that before marriage she told Lawrence she
couldn't cook) experimented with recipes in their own
kitchen, and concocted a special sauce for hamburgers, re
named by Lawrence "squeezeburgers."
A squeezeburger was to be served on a rhythm roll with
piccolo pickles and fiddlestick fries, and packaged in an
accordion-pleated box, sporting pictures of band mem
bers. Lawrence thought that he might lease his idea and
recipe to restaurants under contract and thus build up a
But first he bought a diner and began serving squeeze-
burgers over the counter. The diner was at the juncture
of two busy highways, U.S. 65 and 18, in Mason City,
Iowa, a town through which he often traveled. He pro
ceeded to give his new property a face-lifting.
"The maestro loves gimmicks," says one of Lawrence's
publicity men, who should know, as he has had something
to do with a few of them, including the radios shaped
like a champagne bottle with the cap of the bottle the dial;
with the paint sets for children with pictures of Lawrence
Welk in color; with the "Drive Carefully" windshield
stickers "and enjoy Lawrence Welk's Champagne Music";
with the accordion-shaped earrings, and tie clasps; the
pencils with tiny champagne bottle heads, and so on.
Lawrence has these gadgets made up to give to his fans.
Naturally, then, he would set to work on his diner. He
2l8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
revamped the outside of the place so that it looked like
an accordion, and he redecorated the inside from top to
bottom with novelties shaped like musical instruments.
Despite all his ingenuity, and grandiose plans of expan
sion, and despite the fact that diner profits were satisfac
tory, Lawrence did not stay in "the food business" long.
"When I went away, I left other people in charge/' he
says, "and they didn't pay much attention to business.
Well, I couldn't take care of it myself, unless I neglected
the band. There wasn't anything to do but sell it."
Where did he go when he went away? To no other
place than California. In 1951, shortly after he acquired
the diner, he was booked at the Claremont Hotel in
This particular journey to California was more impor
tant than he knew. It meant a shift of scene. Yes, Scene
II of this Act III is laid in California.
"California, Here I Come"
"It all goes back to trying to do somebody a good turn.
Mostly when we stop thinking of what we can get out of
it, but are kind to folks because we should be, that's when
we're most likely to have nice rewards come to us."
So Lawrence talks about what happened in Southern
California in 1951, and the events which landed him with
supersonic speed smack in front of TV cameras.
After he had finished up his job in the northern part of
the state, he decided that, before he returned to home
base in Chicago, he'd swing south through Texas and pick
up a few jobs.
On the way he planned to stop in Los Angeles to make
some recordings at Coral Studios. "There I was, real near
the Aragon Ballroom," Lawrence says, "so I thought I
should look up the manager, my old friend Pops Sadrup.
I heard that he had his dander up high, because after I
had played his place, I'd gone to a rival ballroom, the Pal
ladium on Sunset Boulevard.* 1
By taking the Palladium job Lawrence had not in
tended to sabotage the Aragon's business, and he planned
to explain as much to Mr. Sadrup. "I never want to help
myself by hurting the other fellow," he avows. "That's
220 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
basically wrong, and in the long run, it's bad business,
When Pops Sadrup saw Lawrence, he began to talk
shop. He grumbled to the maestro: 'Tat chance I have of
getting name bands for the price I can pay nowadays. The
Aragon is losing money."
Lawrence listened and then made a spontaneous offer:
"How would you like to sign us up? After all, we don't
have to go to Texas."
"Are you kidding? The way things are, you know I
won't be able to pay you the kind of dough you're used
to. The union scale is all "
"Tell you what I'll do," Lawrence cut in. 'Til come for
four weeks on union scale, and a fifty-fifty split"
It's a deal," Pops replied, "and I'll never forget you for
With that pet idea of his of going "one step further than
is necessary to do the right thing/' Lawrence was glad to
make this conciKatorY gesture.
He didn't know as he sealed the bargain with Sadrup
that station KTLA-TV had been picking up the bands di
rect from the ballroom for a local program.
"I guess I wouldn't have been much impressed even if
Td known," he says. "We'd been on TV in New York two
different nights, and we didn't set fire on the world."
For some time KTLA had featured whatever band hap
pened to be at the Aragon. At the rate bands were usu
ally changed, that meant a different band telecast every
few weeks. The manager of the TV station, Klaus Lands-
berg, had used the program as a proving ground. If a
band showed fan appeal on the Aragon tryout, anything
could happen. A couple of times it had resulted in Lands-
"California, Here I Come" 221
berg finding the band a regular spot of Its own at the
Prior to Lawrence Welk's appearance, however, being
disappointed with the bands Sadrup had hired, Mr.
Landsberg had discontinued telecasts from the Aragon,
and the arrangement ended with Sadrup owing Lands-
berg money. "Get me Lawrence Welk," Landsberg had
once prodded Pops, "and we'll work the thing out."
So Pops had Welk. There was only one possible hitch
from Mr. Landsberg's viewpoint: Lawrence Welk's con
tract with Saderup to play his four-week Aragon engage
ment failed to mention telecasts. What if the Music Maker
should object to that idea?
"I wasn't anxious to be on television," Lawrence admits.
"I had all the confidence in the world in the band. But I
didn't know how I'd be in front of a camera."
He was aware of his "country boy" personality. Before
the imglacable Cyclops eye of the camera, there would be
no hiding the least quirk. Every detail, every gesture,
would show up "big as life and twice as natural."
There wasn't much time to decide. The first telecast was
arranged for the first week of his Aragon engagement.
Despite fears and worries he must have considered the
stakes large enough to warrant the gamble: his answer was
The date was May 11, 1951. The show ran one hour,
10:30 to 11:30, and it had barely gone off the air when
response from the public began trickling in to Channel 5,
Phone calls, followed by letters the next day, commented
favorably and often ended with the Oliver Twist request:
"Please, sir, may I have some more?"
Before the month was out, and before Lawrence's con-
222 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
tract with Sadrup was up, Lawrence had signed with the
local KTLA station. The engagement was for four weeks.
So rang the opening gong for the Welk TV careerl
His popularity didn't zoom rocketlike into the strato
sphere, but it did show healthy progress upward each
week, as Lawrence tried "to do the right thing" morally as
well as musically for his new TV audience, just as he al
ways had for his familiar ballroom and radio audience.
Even in those initial four weeks the show made some
money for KTLA, which in itself speaks well for it. As the
manager of any station knows, a new show is a gamble
and even the eventually successful ones do not always
prove lucrative from the start. Others make considerable
money to begin with and then die quickly.
Under the circumstances could the contract be re
newed? If so, with the Aragon in the offing, Lawrence be
gan to wonder whether his hopes of anchoring on one of
the coasts could become a reality.
Always an outdoor fellow, he liked California. He liked
the climate which permitted him to sleep under the stars
(without the blanket of snow such as nature provided
in Denver the night Shirley was born) and the climate
which allowed him to keep the top of his car down most
of the year.
"I hadn't been there long when I decided to make the
move, if I could," he says.
He had no sooner come to this decision, however, than
he was ready to do an about-face and reverse it. He wasn't
sure that he would, or in his opinion could, stay at the
Aragon. He began to see that many patrons now came to
the place, not to dance, but to use the hall as a hangout
"California, Here I Come" 223
for cheap love-making sessions. Lawrence wanted none
Promptly he went to the ballroom managers and told
them so, asking them, at the same time, to police the
place. Dumfounded, they demanded: "What do you think
this is, a church?"
Lawrence didn't argue. He simply answered: "Do
something about it or get yourself another band."
They quickly made promises, and Lawrence reinforced
any efforts on the management's part with some of his
own. There were instances when he left the bandstand to
remonstrate with a petty would-be Lothario so positively
that the man either changed his ways or else left the Ara-
gon once and for all.
Watching the exhibition, the managers quaked in their
boots. The Lawrence Welk band had been their bright
hope to pull them out of the hole, and now what? Surely
such tactics would only sink them deeper into the finan
cial morass, for who would come to a Puritanical play
ground? Soon the place would be empty.
To their surprise nothing of the sort happened. Quite
the contrary! The Aragon was attracting more customers
every night, and of a different type than formerly, a type
which gave the place a higher "tone."
Everybody was satisfied. As one man amazingly put it:
"After all, you don't have to run a laundry to make money
in a clean business."
Later even the small town of Ocean Park, usually de
scribed by Southern Californians as "a honky-tonk berg"
began to spruce up a bit. Unwittingly Welk influence was
fashioning a Pygmalion, a My Fair Lady.
Lawrence is still playing at the Aragon, which is the
224 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
all-time record for length of engagement of any name
band at any ballroom in the United States.
He has added special features of his own devising. He
has given teen-age matinee dances, during which the
Aragon bar remains closed. "We should try to give decent
entertainment/' Lawrence says. "Not that entertainment
alone will keep kids out of trouble if they haven't been
taught the right thing at home and so don't want to be
good. But if they want to be good in the first place, then
decent entertainment may make it a little bit easier for
Also, to encourage graceful ballroom dancing rather
than gymnastic cavorting, Lawrence holds his weekly
dance contest for his usual patrons.
This is an amazingly beautiful pageant. The center of
the floor is cleared, and then usually about thirty com
peting couples glide out over the polished surface, while
the rest of the crowd stands in a wide ring, off in the
The very size of the place lends dignity, sweep, and per
spective, as the couples whirl around till the full, beruffled
gowns of the women flash every luscious color of an art
ist's fantasy. As somebody put it: "It's like a movie pro
duction of a palace ball. And the silent, intent spectators
encircling the dancing couples are like courtiers, stand
ing in the shadows/*
Whatever Lawrence devises seems to take. The crowds
seem to grow larger with the years. Police and fire guards
are assigned to the building to make sure for the public's
safety that the place does not bulge dangerously beyond
its five thousand capacity.
But before all this happened, how did the local tele-
"California, Here I Come" 225
casts come along? And how about the move to the West
After the first four-week contract with KTLA had run
its course, Landsberg had offered Lawrence a continued
weekly show. With this assurance, plus the Aragon, what
was Lawrence waiting for? The move to California was
only a matter of mechanical arrangements or wasn't it?
Unexpectedly Lawrence found Fern reluctant to pull
up roots. She didn't want to give up the nearest thing she
had ever known to a permanent home, unless and until
it was as sure as taxes that California could offer as much.
Also she had a few misconceptions derived in part from
the tabloid press and the movies about Hollywood itself.
This made her wonder if it would be the best environment
for the children.
She says, "I was willing to wait a while and see. I didn't
want to rush right out and sell our River Forest house."
However, she adds: "Once Lawrence has made up his
mind and especially about business matters I don't, and
can't, hold out long with a different opinion."
In that she is like a great many other people. After
Lawrence once had Pete Fountain, the clarinet player
from New Orleans, on the show as guest, the bandleader
declared: "I want him for our band."
Several Welkmen repeated Lawrence's remark to Mr.
Fountain, but he shrugged it off with: "I'm proud to know
that Mr. Welk wants me, but I'm not interested in a new
job. I'm going to stay in New Orleans. I like the place."
This reaction was relayed to Lawrence and he said to
Larry, his son, and to Lois, his secretary: "111 get Pete.
Wait and see."
"Dad, you can't do it," Larry protested. "I've talked to
2,2,6 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
him myself. He told me he'd never leave New Orleans."
Lois spoke up: "He told me the same thing/*
"Wanna bet I can't get him?" challenged Lawrence.
"We know better than that," Lois answered for both of
them, "Determination is your middle name."
Within a few days Lawrence had hired Pete Fountain.
Obviously Fern couldn't have held out long about mov
ing to Southern California. But, to shorten the time that
she might resist his sales talk, Lawrence began house
hunting. He explains: "I figured that when Christmas
came, since I couldn't get back East, she and the kids
would be coming West for the holidays. Now, if I had a
house all picked out and ready, Fern wouldn't keep put
ting me off."
Not a bad psychologist, our Lawrence!
He soon saw what he was looking for, too, and immedi
ately made an offer through the real estate agent. How
ever, since the offer was considerably below the asking
price, it was refused.
Then Christmas did come and with it, "Fern and the
kids." She saw the house of Lawrence's choice and liked
it, but she didn't suggest that he raise his offer; as what
woman wouldn't, she wanted to look further and see all
the possibilities for herself before Lawrence had a deed to
some house in his pocket.
The real estate agent was happy to show the Welks
around, and he kept advocating larger and more preten
tious places. They left Lawrence quite cold. Says he: "I
thought a fancier house would be foolish, and even bad,
like getting something just to live up with the Joneses.
Anyway, I fell for the first place. Fern came to see that it
was pretty nice too."
"California, Here I Come" 227
It was fine with both of them, then, when the agent
called to tell Lawrence that his original bid had been ac
cepted. Lawrence paid his money, and a house in Brent-
wood, a section of west Los Angeles, was his.
Meanwhile Fern had returned to Chicago. The plan
was for her and the children to stay there until school
closed in June. But everybody knows what happens to
"the best laid schemes o' mice and men."
Long before June, Fern received an urgent SOS: come
to California without delayl
Lawrence had practically collapsed on the bandstand.
"All or Nothing at AIT
"I had a gall-bladder condition, which caused awful
pain," Lawrence says. "One night it got impossible. I don't
even know what happened. The pain was so bad that I
was sort of foggy in my head, but somebody I think one
of the band members led me off the bandstand and
rushed me to the hospital."
As quickly as a plane would carry her, Fern arrived at
her husband's side. She was there in time for the operation
he had to undergo.
Recovery seemed rapid. Soon Lawrence was back at
work, and urging Fern to return to Chicago to sell the
River Forest house, and to make any other arrangements
necessary for the move West at the close of the school year.
She had not been gone very long when, on another
night, pain recurred to Lawrence, and with it came a
weakness so extreme that he all but collapsed. Again he
was led from the bandstand.
'The doctor said I shouldn't have gone back to work so
quick," is his laconic explanation.
When Fern arrived in California in June, she was
shocked to find her husband in an enfeebled state, exist
ing on baby food and milk. She set to work to build him
"All or Nothing at Air 229
up. They lived in a motel with kitchen facilities, and she
cooked him food that combined the qualities of digesti
bility, nourishment, and tastiness. In a few weeks Law
rence really recovered, and the family, with bright hopes
for the future, moved into the Brentwood home.
As a year or so passed after that move, Fern was cer
tainly convinced, if she had not been before, that the
business setup for Lawrence in Hollywood was as perma
nent as anything of the kind could ever be. Especially was
this so after Dodge sponsored the show.
But how did that come about?
As some people look at it, there might be a certain ele
ment of luck connected with it, but Lawrence himself
says: "I just know that if we do our part as well as we can
and leave results to the good Lord, then great things can
happeneven great material things sometimes."
Before Dodge entered the picture, Champagne Music
had been good enough to draw several sponsors, includ
ing Chicken of the Sea Tuna, and Laura Scudder Food
Then Bert Carter, representative of Dodge dealers in
Southern California, decided that he would like to see
and hear Lawrence Welk in person, with the idea of con
sidering the band as an advertisement medium, However,
the Carter- Welk meeting hinged on a small incident.
To arrange the get-together, Jack Lavin (with Walt
Disney) brought Mr. and Mrs. Carter and their subdeb
daughter to the ballroom on a certain night, but because
the young lady was underage, the doorman, according to
the rules, refused them entrance.
If they had taken his word as final, and turned away
before coming face to face with Lawrence, would the
230 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
whole notion of the local Dodge- Welk combination have
died a-borning? Lawrence was a comparative newcomer in
Hollywood, and there is at least some doubt that Mr.
Carter would have been persistent in seeking a chance to
hear the band in person. Meanwhile there were other es
tablished entertainers he might have cast an eye toward
As it happened, however, Jack Lavin managed to over
ride objections, and escorted his friends into the ballroom
to introduce them to Lawrence. The bandleader chatted
amiably and apparently aimlessly. He didn't know that
Bert Carter was looking him over for a purpose. But it
wasn't long after that meeting that Lawrence had as spon
sor the Dodge dealers of Southern California.
The next step and it was a giant one came when
Jack Minor, an officer of the Dodge Company in Detroit,
spotted the Welk show and exclaimed: "Why don't we
have that band to advertise nationally?"
Shortly thereafter the company offered to sponsor the
Lawrence Welk show for a summer replacement on a
"When they talked to me about it, I got a little dizzy,"
the bandleader confides. "I was crawling out on a limb if
I signed up. It wasn't an easy decision to make."
He thought about it carefully and prayerfully. True,
his "country boy" personality had gone over in Southern
California, the Shangri-La of many retired Midwestern
farm folk, but would it be equally acceptable throughout
the United States? Since merely a summer replacement
was offered, that question was crucial. If he did not go
over very, very wellif indeed he were not a smash hit
"AR or Nothing at ATT 231
come fall, according to the usual fate of summer replace
ments, his show would be sidetracked to make room for
the regulars. Moreover, if this fate awaited his band after
he had left Landsberg for the nationwide job, would a
spot remain open* to him at the local KTLA?
"It was like the song C AU or Nothing at All/" Lawrence
But even so, he didn't delay overmuch in casting his
vote for opportunity, reasoning: "If we look for security
alone, that's all we'll ever have. We have to take some
chances of loss, if we want the chance at big things."
The decision once arrived at, Lawrence turned eager-
beaver, anxious to begin his new venture. However his
contract with Landsberg had another year to run, so Law
rence told Dodge that he was not yet available for the na
"I could only hope they'd be willing to wait the year,"
That they did wait is, to the bandleader's mind, just one
proof among many that he has "real wonderful bosses/*
He says further of them: "I couldn't work for finer people.
At the time that they gave us a spot on national TV, there
wouldn't have been another company in the country will
ing to take that chance. Nobody else believed that a
dance band would go over so well on television."
With this big opportunity looming ahead the delay of
one year was a terrible ordeal for Lawrence. He chafed
under it, but he admits now: "It took me a long time to
see, but that delay was really good for us. Knowing that
the big show was coming up, I had a year to practice with
it in mind. That helped. I got a lot of wrinkles ironed out
232 MISTER MUSIC MAJCEB, LAWBENCE WELK
during that time, and when the show did appear nation
ally, it had a better chance because of the extra work."
Those months of waiting were also useful in formulat
ing policies. Many of Lawrence's associates held the opin
ion that, in order to make the show go over nationally,
spectaculars should be added to it, as well as a line of
shapely girls. To their surprise Lawrence, the neophyte
in this TV medium, balked. He controverted the sugges
tions of the experts, saying that he wanted to present his
show just as he had always had it. The flamboyance they
urged might be all right, but . . . well, it wasn't his style.
To him it seemed a little pagan.
"Now, Lawrence/' they protested. "You're anxious to
make the big time. OK, then, you have to have what it
takes. Without a few chorus cuties, and a few acts, you
won't last beyond summer. Out you'll go on your ear and
you'll be worse off than before you got into the thing."
Lawrence shook his head. His band, with one girl vo
calist and no more, his band with no acts whatever, would
take its chances. "Well, at least get a glamorous movie
personality for an emcee," was another suggestion, vetoed
"Guest artists! That's the answer," some bright-eyed
idea man spoke up. "You need variety."
Lawrence considered. Since the day of America's Big
gest Little Band, when six men played thirty-two instru
ments, in fact since the days of the Peerless Entertainers,
when everybody did everybody else's job along with his
own, variety was one thing Lawrence had striven for. He
knew that he had variety within the band itself. More
over he wanted the homey effect of having the same peo
ple week after week. "Folks will think of us as a family
"AZZ or Nothing at AW 233
come to make a regular weekly visit. We don't need
"How corny can you get?" The experts were aghast.
"I wouldn't mind making this a talent show/* Law
rence countered. "I've always dreamed of some way to
help gifted youngsters get a start. Maybe through the
show . . ."
"Cut the kidding," came a regular chorus. "Dodge is tak
ing a big enough chance on you and your band without
loading the dice with unknown talent. What do you think
Two years later Dodge came to Lawrence proposing
that he have a second show on Monday nights and try-
out his talent-quest notion. That second show, Top Tunes
and New Talent, now rivals in popularity the first that is,
the Saturday-night show.
But in the days before the national hookup all this was
very controversial. Also controversial was Lawrence's in
sistence upon only "good songs."
Naturally a song wasn't "good" if it was even slightly
suggestive. Such a song called for Lawrence to protest in
an aggrieved tone: "Fellows, you know we don't want any
thing like that on our show!"
At first some of the men argued back: "But you have to
play all the popular numbers, regardless." Or they would
say: "You should add zip to the show, or your rating won't
"I don't want to win a public that way," Lawrence
would answer. "Besides I don't even think that's the way
to win the largest public. You hear a lot about the wrong
kind of folks. They make headlines and scandals, so you
234 MISTIER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
think there are more of them than there really are. Any
way, let's please the good folks."
For a while his opponents continued such discussions:
"If the majority are 'good folks' as you say, there are still
plenty who can no more stomach entertainment without
a dash of the sexy than an egg without salt. The way to
keep everybody happy is to gear most of the show for your
'good folks/ but throw in a tidbit here and there to keep
the other fellows tuned in too."
To that kind of reasoning Lawrence always responded
by talking about the mother of a family. "Suppose she turns
off the TV just once, because she thinks the kids shouldn't
be listening to our show well, the chances are that that
family is through with us. They'll never again tune us in,
What if we've gained a couple of loose fellows, if at the
same time we've lost a whole family?"
Anybody who wanted to introduce an off-color lyric
learned that he might as well forget the idea. Lawrence
wouldn't listen. However, other differences of opinion con
tinued to crop up occasionally. Lawrence would turn
thumbs down on a lyric if he detected an idea at odds with
any point in his basic philosophy, remarking: "Freedom of
speech is a great blessing. We have to take care of it. The
best way to take care of it is to say right and reasonable
things, not things that ball up people's thinking. Then we
prove that we can be trusted with freedom."
Sometimes his cohorts scarcely knew what he meant. For
instance, a number of them were baffled when he made a
little pronunciamento of this sort in vetoing the song which
goes: "The good Lord is with you right or wrong." Law
rence had to explain: "Folks could take that different ways.
"Aft or Nothing at AIT 235
Lots of them might think it's telling them that God doesn't
mind your doing wrong/*
So it went. Obviously a great many policies were formu
lated by July 2, 1955, the date when Lawrence Welk first
appeared on nationwide television.
'O Happy Day'
In the semiconsciousness of waking up the thought over
lay his mind: something big was to happen. Oh yes, this
was the dayl This was the day he was to go on national
TV. Wonderful and frightening!
"I went down to the studio with . . . what is it people
say . . . butterflies flapping around in my stomach/' Law
The show had been rehearsed thoroughly. Even so, he
left his Brentwood home at 7:30 that morning for a last
all-day session. Over and over the program went the
twenty-two tense men, and one nervous girl, Alice Lon.
"Lawrence has always been a perfectionist," observes a
long-time band member. "How do you think he got to the
top in his profession if it isn't that one thing about him?"
Well, certainly on this day of days, the show had to be
perfect. Not till five o'clock that afternoon did the band
knock off, and then they had only one hour of relaxation
before the show went on the air.
"I can relax anywhere," Lawrence will say. "On a tour,
I can sleep bolt upright in a car. I can sleep on planes, in
Pullman berths, on a day coach, even on floors/' But
"O Happy Day" 237
he should add: "When I have nothing worrisome on my
With the show on his mind that day Mr. Music Maker
could not even sit down quietly. He paced back and forth
across the stage, checking and rechecking to see that all
was in order. He read over the "idiot" or cue cards, crayon
scrawled with the announcements he would have to make.
"I could hardly swallow," he says, describing his state. "I
had a tight feeling around my neck like somebody was
choking me and I kept remembering that there would
be millions really many millions of folks listening every
time I opened my mouth. I was afraid that Td never get
the words out."
He thought of those people. To him they were not a
grayed mass. They were separate persons. He thought of
Shirley and Bob, at that time living in Washington, D.C.
He knew that Shirley would be listening, but would Bob
be able to get away from his duties as intern in the hospital,
at the very hour that he, Lawrence, would be on the
air? He felt that Shirley would want to share with her
young husband this experience of seeing her daddy cross
He thought of Donna, who was visiting in Chicago.
Nothing short of fire, flood, and earthquake combined
would keep her away from the TV screen tonight. Afifec-
ttonate, impulsive Donna! No doubt in her excitement she
would practically go through the screen when she did see
He thought of Edna Stoner, the bedridden arthritic, in
South Dakota, his loyal fan from the beginning. Would she
be seeing him? Then his mind skipped to his sister Eva,
working as a nurse in the very town where he had begun
238 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
his career, Aberdeen, South Dakota. How about her? And
liis brother Mike, the only one of the family still living in
the old house on the farm? Probably the show would not
reach that area, even if Mike and his family owned a tele
And there were George T. and Alma Kelly, now living in
a small Wisconsin hamlet, would they have access to a TV
set in a city which would carry the show? He wished he
could thank all for the support and encouragement they
had given him through the long struggle to these dizzy
He glanced at his wrist watch. Was it running? Time
seemed an incredible laggard as Lawrence waited for his
zero hour. Nothing to do until then.
He looked out into the studio auditorium. Silence, like a
fusty curtain, hung over the almost empty hall, and its
thick folds engulfed his musicians, too, and himself. There
was something preternatural about it.
Ah, there was Fern sitting calmly in the front row!
She rarely came to the Aragon, and she had never been
one to drop in at any ballroom, radio station, hotel, or
night club where he played. "And I don't encourage wives
doing that. They don't really belong in a man's place of
business," Lawrence will avow. But this was different! It
was mighty good to have her at the Hollywood studio that
Self-consciously he grinned at her, and she smiled back
placidly and reassuringly.
"A wonderful woman!" Lawrence murmured to himself,
and a lump rose in his throat, as for some occult reason he
remembered their hungry "honeymoon" in Chicago. Per
haps it was symbolic of all they had been through together.
*O Happy Day" 239
Then lie saw his son, Larry. A self-constituted private
investigator, he was wandering about the studio, excitedly
poking into this or that. Lawrence caught the boy's eye
and received a reassuring grin.
Soon the guards posted at the doors admitted the crowd
which had been outside waiting to see the show. Lawrence
went backstage but he sneaked a look from the wings. He
recognized faces here and there. Some were of folks who
came weekly to the Aragon, some of friends of his in private
life, some of course strangers.
As he studied the crowd, the guest director, Ralph Port-
ner, appeared to make his little salutatory speech. Now it
was Lawrence's turn.
He struggled through the words he was supposed to say
in his usual diffident fashion, and they were received with
tremendous enthusiasm. He smiled at "the folks " grate
fully, thinking: That was nice of them to give me a good
Now there should only be about ten minutes more, the
"warm-up time," as it is called in "show biz." He beckoned
to Myron Floren. "How about a quick number?"
There was the entertainment to put the folks in a recep
tive mood for what was to come. Maybe he should also
dance with a lady or two, if he could. He realized that he
was sweating beneath his layer of pancake make-up, and
that his hands were trembling.
He managed, flashing smile and all.
Then the music ended, and a silence more unearthly
than ever descended. Its immensity was broken by one
dramatic sound effect, the thump-thump of his own heart.
But somehow he lived through the seeming eternity of it
240 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
all, and at the precisely correct moment he heard himself
utter his mystic formula: "Uh-one, and uh-two, and . . ."
and music came in great bolstering swells.
From then on he was on "Champagne Time" skipping
along at a quick, gay tempo.
But how did a show look to the viewers on television
screens throughout the country? This thought hammered
with muffled but steady beat in the back of Lawrence's
mind, even while the fore part of his brain attended to the
problems at hand.
He glanced up to see the sound man, there upon his
perch, maneuvering his Martian-looking contraption. Then
he followed with his eyes the cameraman, swooping and
swiveling down to take close-ups. He even cast a quick look
at the stagehands silently and expertly setting up props
for the next number, as he was directing Alice Lon's solo.
The old three-ring circus had nothing on this!
Haphazard as all the activity might look to the studio
audience, Lawrence knew that only the most rigid follow
ing of cues and time limits would allow the performance
to proceed without mix-up,
"Talk about butterflies in your stomach. I guess by this
time, I had eagles in mine," he says. "Only a few feet be
yond the camera's range I'd see a stagehand run with a
towel and dry ice to apply to the sweating jowls of one of
the boys. I knew it was awful hot with those dozens and
dozens of klieg lights, and I was used to them doing that
same thing with the local show, but it scared me that night.
I kept thinking, What if the camera should make a mistake
and swing around and catch this?"
But as the classic poet puts it: "All's well that ends
"O Happy Day" 241
well/' Now people were swirling around, congratulating
Was it all real? He looked over the heads of the fans to
his boys, the same fellows he had worked with day after
day, and their faces seemed transfigured in light. Bob
Lido's smile, for instance, seemed to make the boy's face
into a veritable sun . . . and Barney Lidell was grinning
. . . and Aladdin and Orie Amadeo . . . all of them.
Lawrence felt as though he had been transported to
some strange new worldglorious, gorgeous, and quite in
Or was it just good familiar earth, heaped up with bless
ings. There at his side stood Lois, his secretary. Her smile,
honest and wholesome as bread, met his boyish grin. He
exclaimed: "Isn't TV wonderful!"
"Merrily We Roll Along"
Since the night of his nationwide premiere Lawrence Welk
and his orchestra have appeared weekly on the TV screens
of many millions of people, so that today only a Rip Van
Winkle would ask: "Who's Lawrence Welk?" Everybody
And if the word "singer'* is mentioned, someone is bound
to bring AJice Lon, petticoats and all, into the conversation.
Indeed the individual boys of the band will never again
be able to travel incognito, even so much as the length of
one city block. Their faces are more familiar to the Ameri
can public than those of the men who represent us on Capi
Of course, since the first night, Lawrence has added a
few new faces to the band among them that of Larry
Dean, Tiny" Little, George Thow, Maurice Pearson, Jack
Imel, Joe Feeney, and Pete Fountain. It has always been
Lawrence Welk's policy to reinvest a good portion of his
income to improve his organization. For example, five more
members were recently added: Art Depew, Kenny Trim
ble, Jimmy Henderson, and Alvan Ashby. Most notable of
all the additions, perhaps, are the very dear faces of the
"Merrily We Roll Along' 243
A sidelong glance at those little girls.
Their career began over the kitchen sink. Mrs. Lennon,
the mother of nine children, naturally expected her daugh
ters to help in the busy household, and she put the famous
Lennon Sisters to work washing dishes. Throughout that
nightly chore the girls would sing.
Papa Lennon (who, like his wife, looks only a few years
older than Diane) was a former vaudeville singer and per
former, so it was the most natural thing in the world for
him to act as a sort of casual impresario to some of their
sessions. On occasion he would help them harmonize with
the aid of pitch pipe, and he would direct them by wielding
a wooden-spoon baton.
But he didn't want his daughters to pursue show busi
ness in the way he had as a boy. He remembered the tour
ing, the living in cheap hotels, the long, grueling hours,
the lack of a stable home life.
"I wanted them to get in at the very top/' he says.
Could there ever have been a more fantastic wish? The
odds were 99 9 */ioo against it.
"But we did a lot of praying," Bill Lennon explains. "We
have special devotion to St. Joseph, and we asked him to
intercede for us that the girls would get the right kind of
spot at the top."
Meanwhile Bill plugged away at earning a living for his
large brood without trying to augment the family income
through the obvious talents of his children.
Then it happened that Diane, the eldest sister, who at
tended St. Monica's High School in Santa Monica, was in
vited by a classmate, Larry Welk, to a school dance.
It is doubtful that the thought even crossed her mind
that the son of the famous bandleader was a good person
244 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
to cultivate. At any rate, whether it did or not, she de
clined the date, She had promised to sing at a charity af
fair, the Catholic Women's Club Benefit.
Larry must have a little of his father's persistence. He
said: "OK, I'll wait till after that's over, and well go to
the dance late."
Larry hung around and listened while he was waiting.
He had nothing else to do. "Gee whiz/' he told Diane after
ward, "I thought you were going to sing in a choir with a
whole bunch of girls. I didn't think you had a swell sister
act like that! It's terrific!"
Next day he repeated his high praise of the Lennon Sis
ters to his father, but Lawrence didn't appear interested,
and "no," he couldn't "find time for an audition not at all
Aside to Fern the bandleader said: "All kids think
their friends are wonderful, Larry doesn't have an ear for
Undoubtedly St. Joseph was on the job. A few weeks
later Lawrence was in bed battling a heavy cold. It was
then that young Larry maneuvered the Lennon Sisters into
the house, and persuaded his father to give them a hearing.
What Lawrence heard amazed him. "Such perfectly
blended voices! And real wonderful personalities, tool"
It was almost too good to be true. Was the penicillin he'd
been taking giving him hallucinations? He had the girls
audition for his producer, director, and musical supervisor.
Opinion was unanimous: "The Lennon Sisters are a find
So from that day forward Diane, Peggy, Cathy, and
Janet have appeared regularly on the Lawrence Welk
In the spring of 1957, Janet remarked before the Satur-
"Merrilij We Roll Along" 245
day-night cameras: "We have a new baby in our house.
His name is going to be Joseph Lawrence/*
She didn't explain the Joseph. Probably she thought ex
planation unnecessary. Anybody who knows the Lennon
family knows that their devotion to St. Joseph would have
prompted the name. But Janet did explain that the Law
rence is for young Larry, not Lawrence Senior. So the two
patrons, the heavenly and the earthly, are honored.
However, if young Larry did a great deal for the Len-
nons, the Lennons, or the Lennon Sisters, have done a
great deal for all the Welks. Those youngsters have done
their bit and more to make the Lawrence Welk band
wagon roll merrily along the highway of success.
But the personnel of the orchestra isn't everything.
Equally as important to Lawrence's progress have been the
policies he has followed. His insistence upon a simple, non-
spectacular show and his rigid adherence to the whole
some have paid off.
Not that Lawrence devises his policies primarily to fill
his pocketbook. In any aspect of his business moral consid
erations come first, then money. Says Sam Lutz; "I've seen
Lawrence refuse fifty thousand dollars for an endorsement,
just because he didn't particularly approve the product.
But on the other hand, don't you ever try to gyp him out
of so much as five dollars, or you'll be sorry. Lawrence
hates injustice and he won't be taken."
Indeed the bandleader himself recounts: "J ust before
last Christmas some firm asked me to endorse their toy ac
cordion. They wanted to put my picture in all the national
magazines with a caption telling parents to get this accor
dion so their kids would learn to play. Well, I tried it out,
and I saw it was a piece of junk that would fall apart in a
week, so I turned the proposition down. Some of my asso-
246 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
elates thought I was foolish to pass up a few thousand dol
lars that I could get that easy."
The overriding motive behind any of Lawrence's policies
(whether they are connected with the show or not) is un
related to the monetary. Yet, in the words of a cohort of
his: "These policies in the long run make money, or at least
they have not prevented money-making. Lawrence rakes
in the cash as fast as government mints can turn it out/'
Didn't Chapter i mention that Lawrence Welk's 1956
income-tax report shows a gross of about three million?
And as for 1957 it offered Uncle Sam even larger pickings.
Then the other day somebody in the Welk organization
made the flat prediction: "1958 is going to be the best year
Along with the financial rewards have come the honors.
To rattle off a few that Lawrence has won within the
last couple of years: in the fourteenth annual poll of Radio
Television Daily y the nation's radio and television editors
selected the Lawrence Welk show as The Musical Show of
the Year; the National Ballroom Operators have dubbed
the Lawrence Welk orchestra the No. i Dance Band of
America; then Lawrence still holds the all-time record for
a one-nighter attendance won back in 1954, when he drew
a crowd of 51,233 at Blimp Hangar, Santa Ana Air Base;
and he holds the record for the longest engagement at a
ballroom by a name band, playing continuously at the
Aragon Ballroom since 1951.
Heaped on top of these past honors come the new ones
each day, so that by the time this is in print, there will
be dozens more that could be listed. Indeed Lawrence can
not accept all that are offered him, because often the group
or society making the award want to present him with a
medal, plaque, scroll, or some such memento during his
"Merrily We Roll Along" 247
show. As his producers point out: "Much as he hates to do
it, he has to turn them down, or even his fans would get
sick of seeing him being handed something new on every
But one of the laurels he did accept, and proudly, was
the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, conferred on
him by University of Portland. "That wasn't something
handed to me on the show. I was supposed to go to Oregon
for that/ 7 he says. "On account of TV, though, I couldn't
get away, so Fern went to accept it for me/'
Another award he accepted gladly was that of Musical
Father of the Year, and there he could be present to make
an acceptance speech himself. His subject? To the aston
ishment of his confreres it was the Ten Commandments.
"These laws given us by God/' he declared, "should be
stressed when we train our children."
But besides high-sounding honors, and record-breaking
feats, Lawrence Welk has the recognition of vast numbers
of John and Mary Does throughout the country. This goes
far beyond that aforesaid business of being well known.
In many cases it seems to go to the point of affection and
Mr. Music Maker cannot go beyond his own front
door without gathering well-wishers and autograph seek
ers with every step he takes. And they really mean it when
they say: "I want to thank you for the happiness youVe
given me." Some of them also add: "I remember the night
I first heard you in Sioux City ... in Denver ... in Dallas.
I was dancing to your music when my husband proposed
When Lawrence enters a restaurant or hotel, he draws
a small crowd as quickly as though he blew a fire siren to
announce his approach. While his party is ordering and
248 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
eating, he will be signing menus, business cards, backs of
envelopes, or any other blank surfaces that eager fans
thrust under his nose. Only between signatures can he gulp
a few bites and often he manages no more than a partial
meal before it is time to leave for the next scheduled ap
pointment. And says Fern: "That kind of thing seems to be
building up all the time. Lawrence never buys gas without
the folks in some passing car spotting him, and he never
goes in a store, office, airport terminal, or club without be
But perhaps a greater proof of progress than anything
else is the demand for more Welk music. Because of
that demand, in the fall of 1956, Lawrence uncorked an
other bottle of Champagne melodies and inaugurated his
Monday-night show, Top Tunes and New Talent.
He was glad to do it, despite his already full-to-bursting
life, because, he says: "It's always been a dream of mine
to give talented kids a real break.**
"Kids" of all ages, talented and otherwise, are eager to
make the show. Tape recordings by the hundreds pour into
the Santa Monica office. Lawrence now has a talent com
mittee who handle the auditions under his direction. Also,
he has arranged with Daughter Shirley to act as his East
ern talent scout. At the rate things are going there is not
the slightest danger that he will run out of talent before
the year 2010.
So the two full hours of nationwide television time with
approximately two hundred stations carrying his shows are
his indefinitely. Besides that his record sales run a million
a year, and dance dates and xadio contracts are his to the
extent that he can squeeze them into his tight schedule.
No doubt about it, Lawrence Welk and the boys roll
along merrily with Champagne Music still fizzing away.
"Dear Hearts and Gentle People"
So much for the events of Lawrence Welk's life. The tale
is told. It seems to fall neatly and naturally into separate
acts, like a play. But I, the writer who put the story on
paper, also indulged in a little prologue to present the man
and to pose the problem to be solved.
Now there must be an epilogue. I need it because I
haven't quite made good my boast. I boasted that I could
uncover the clues and, in the end, expose the mystery, the
how-done-it of Lawrence's success. There are still some
elusive bits to bring out.
Nor have I revealed in full the who-is-he-really of the
man. I contracted to do that, too. I must fit in some mighty
important segments before all the other pieces of the jig
saw puzzle make sense and the whole man springs into full
I know what's missing.
The night before I was to leave the Welk home, I
glanced over my notes. I had the outline for the story as
I have presented it here, and I was satisfied that it was
reasonably complete. Then I began packing. As I was col
lecting a pile of papers, magazines, and so on, a portfolio
slipped out and fell to the floor. From it spilled a letter
and a picture.
MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
They struck me as symbols. In a flash they brought to
my mind the question I had asked Lawrence almost in the
very beginning: "Who helped you most toward success?"
and his answer: "The folks who liked our music" and "Fern
and the kids."
I picked up my souvenirs or symbols. Had I sufficiently
emphasized the two, and had I even looked at them from
every angle? After all, it was true, Lawrence's fans and
family did further his success; also they help reveal the
I opened the letter and spread it out. It was given to me
by one of the boys, and it was written by Lawrence to the
band members and intended only for their eyes. I reread
it, and here are a few sentences from it: "Going to a dance
is an occasion for most folks. The housewife usually has
her hair done, and then she dresses up in her party dress,
and the husband changes from his work clothes to his care
fully pressed best suit. That evening the couple go to the
dance, and stand around watching, dressed up and ex
cited, but a little bashful. That's why youVe heard me say:
"Hi, folks. Nice to have you with us. What tune would you
like?' It breaks the ice. You boys can do a lot to make folks
feel at home too."
Now, doesn't that help round out what I've written so
far? Lawrence thinks of the people he plays for today just
as though they were the folks who came to barn dances
back in the Dakotas, and he thinks of himself, not only as
a bandleader, but also as a host at a party, enjoying him
self with his neighbors.
"Lawrence Welk has never lost touch with the public,"
is a much-repeated Hollywood remark, but it doesn't say
all. Lawrence Welk is not in touch with a public outside
'"Dear Hearts and Gentle 'People' 251
himself; he is of it, of the folks. He knows what they like,
mainly because it is what he likes himself.
That picture? I picked it up and studied it. It was the
usual family group, showing Mother, Father, and children
the Welks. I think, to round out the man completely, Til
have to end up with an extra bit in this epilogue just about
the Welk home and my stay in it.
But first I want to finish with the fans.
When I asked a newcomer to the band about his boss,
he spoke surprisingly about a picnic that Lawrence gave
for the fans. It occurred a couple of weeks before my Cali
fornia arrival. I'm sorry I missed it, but here's this musi
"The affair wasn't publicized. Just by word of mouth of
his fan club of Southern California,* three thousand peo
ple showed upand were fed at Lawrence's expense.
"I arrived with my wife and kid, and looked around for
him. He wasn't in sight, but I told my wife, who was dying
to meet him: 4 Oh, he'll probably drop by for a few hand
shakes, and then leave. Going through this crowd would
be like going through a wringer. You can't expect him to
take it for long.'
**I had hardly finished speaking when I spied Lawrence.
Dressed up in a chefs hat and apron, he was standing at
the head of a long table, dishing out food. Four hours later,
he was still going strong.
"But that wasn't all. After lunch he played with the kids
different kinds of games, including baseball, with the
* There are eighteen Lawrence Welk fan clubs. Mary Lee Schaefer
of Los Angeles is president of the national fan club.
2$2 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
little-leaguers he sponsors.* He ended up by giving out
prizes to the winners of the competitive games and danc
ing with the gals. One gal, a two-year-old tot, kept beg
ging: 'Dance me/ He had 'em all ages."
Then did he succumb to battle fatigue? Not Lawrence!
According to the teller of the tale, the picnic ended at
6 P.M. to allow Lawrence to get to the Aragon at the usual
time, where it was play and play on till the wee hours.
Anything for the fans!
And Lawrence finds endless ways of reaching his fans.
He sends out a booklet, "magazet," as he calls it, entitled
Sweet Notes of Friendship. He doesn't write or edit it him
self, but he does pass on its contents of light verse, prose
quotations, and short articles, which, as he says, plug "the
good way of life."
Then Lawrence has always taken his fan mail with tre
mendous seriousness. Up till 1950 he read every letter him
self, and he would find time in a car, or plane, to dictate
personal answers. Today, with thousands of letters weekly,
that kind of thing is almost impossible, but he does keep
a private line of communication open to many chosen
souls. Among them is Edna Stoner, and she is one reason
why this epilogue is being written. I think that I gained
much greater perspective on the Lawrence Welk career, as
well as glimpsed more side lights on the Lawrence Welk
portrait, by stepping back and looking at them through the
eyes of this girl, whose own life story is entwined with that
of the Music Maker.
After I returned to my East Coast home from the Cali
fornia sojourn, I corresponded with her and with other
* They appeared on the Lawrence Welle show in May 1957-
"Dear Hearts and Gentle People' 253
long-standing Welk fans, and here's Edna's story as I
pieced it together.
In 1927 she was a pretty youngster with laughing Irish
eyes of clearest blue and a love of dancing. She lived in
Beresford, South Dakota. When the Lawrence Welk band
played in the area, Edna and her high-school crowd would
get up a party to go to the local ballroom. Later after Law
rence began his first regular radio program at WNAX,
Yankton, she and a boy in the neighborhood would often
whirl about to the gay music in her own living room.
But in the fall of 1928 something happened to Edna. She
would wake in the night with pain in all her joints. The
doctor diagnosed arthritis, and in December, just after
Christmas, Edna was sent to a Sioux Falls hospital for "rest
Still the disease hurried on, twisting her hands and feet
into odd, contorted shapes. On January 13, 1929 Edna
has no trouble remembering the exact date the doctor
broke the news: she would be bedridden the rest of her
For the fifteen-year-old girl with laughing eyes that was
a blow which doubled her up in mental anguish as surely
as the disease doubled her up in physical pain. She could
see only loneliness and isolation ahead. How face it?
"Aside from my faith and my grand family," she says,
"my biggest help was my radio friends. Like a little girl,
I made believe they were real friends, who came to visit
me through my loud-speaker. Lawrence Welk was my fa
vorite. I always listened to his program. I had to play
games with myself, so I began trying to find out about my
friend Lawrence's life and career. It was fun when I dis
covered a new fact."
254 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
When Lawrence left Yankton for a few years, Edna
heard him only occasionally until the spring of 1934
brought him back to WNAX. "The band stayed two and
a half years this time, and I'm sure I didn't miss one broad
cast," she avows. "And did I chew a lot of Honolulu Fruit
When Lawrence was to play in the evening at some
nearby town, he would announce it on his morning radio
program, and if Edna was not familiar with the place, part
of her "game" was to look it up on her road map and make
believe she was there. "I did extensive imaginary traveling
that way," she avers.
In the fall of 1936, Lawrence left for Omaha ( and sub
sequently went on to other far places), so thereafter Edna
could rarely tune in the band.
But one bleak night in January 1938, after a gray,
dreary day, Edna's sister happened to twirl the dial of the
bedside radio, and over the sound waves came gay, spar
kling rhythm. Unmistakably that was Lawrence Welk's or
chestra. The music emanated from the William Penn in
Pittsburgh, and soon the announcer referred to Cham
"That name! It's perfect!" Edna exclaimed, and then, im
pulsively turning to her sister, she requested: "How about
writing Lawrence Welk for me?"
Until then she had never written him. "It didn't even
cross my mind that he would be interested in knowing how
much I enjoyed his music," she explains, and "besides," she
adds, "my well, my hands."
Edna's hands were too badly crippled to guide pen or
pencil. But now she wanted so much to congratulate Law
rence on the name, and on his success, that she was im-
"Dear Hearts and Gentle People" 255
pelled to ask her sister's help, adding excitedly: "I kept
telling everybody that someday he'd outstrip Guy Lom-
bardo, Wayne King, or Jan Garber, all of them. Now that
he's at the William Perm, I know he's all set to go."
This young arthritic, and virtual recluse, had more vi
sion than Lawrence's agents and bookers. Back in 1938 she
saw clearly the heights ahead.
And ever since 1938, Lawrence and Edna have been
corresponding. In answer to her first letter he sent her a
short note, along with his picture, and a schedule of his
After that, as she continued to write him, he sent her
postal cards of places where he was playing, as well as
newspaper write-ups, pictures, and trinkets.
But it was the very first slim packet of material which
suggested a way to enlarge her game. Edna decided to
start a Lawrence Welk scrapbook. Today she says: "I have
six books filled with cards, letters, pictures, clippings, and
souvenirs, and I have enough stuff to fill several more
books. My sisters and I are working on them now."
In the fall of 1944 the band was on tour in South Dakota,
and Lawrence darted off his beaten track to visit Edna in
Beresford. He took his Champagne Lady, Jayne Walton,
and a couple of the boys with him, and right there in
Edna's bedroom they gave an impromptu concert, playing
all her favorite tunes. In parting they dubbed her No. i
Since the first visit Lawrence and a few of the boys show
up at Edna's whenever a South Dakota tour brings them
near Beresford. Then in 1948 the maestro, being booked
to play at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, sent
an ambulance the 107 miles to Beresford to pick up Edna
256 MISTTCR MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
and her two sisters and bring them to the afternoon show.
After the show he invited them to join him and some of
the boys for a dinner party backstage.
What a thrill for Edna!
But since then there have been many thrills Edna speaks
of: "Trips to Tom Archer's ballroom, the Arkota in Sioux
Falls, a tape recording of interviews between Lawrence
and myself, and, best of all, I guess, what happened in July
1949. That was when I, as Lawrence's No. i Fan, was his
guest on his coast-to-coast radio program for Miller High-
After the broadcast Edna received letters from all over
the country. By this time she had learned to write with her
twisted hands, so she answered them herself and lo, she
had pen pals.
Magazine articles about her followed, and in turn more
pen pals. Today she can truthfully say: "I'm not lonely any
more. I have many friends even if I don't see them. Law
rence Welk fans and fellow sufferers of arthritis, too, write
me all the time. I love corresponding with them, and all of
this came through Lawrence. He'll never know the happi
ness he's brought me."
One pen pal in Winner, South Dakota, belonged, as it
happened, to both the arthritic and Welk fan category, so
she and Edna decided to meet at the Corn Palace four
years ago, when Lawrence played there again, and again
sent an ambulance the 107 miles for Edna. This time he
gave a big dinner party for her in a private room of the
local hotel. She described the evening by saying: "I felt
just like Cinderella, escorted to the ball by Prince Charm
ing. I was so happy it never occurred to me that it must
"'Dear Hearts and Gentle People" 257
have looked strange to other people to see me being carried
and wheeled into the ballroom on an ambulance cot."
Lawrence's kindness to Edna is not a mere fan-pleasing
maneuver. He is sincerely devoted to her. When I met him
in Washington on Inauguration Day, one of the first things
he said to me was: "I got word that Edna Stoner's father
On the day of his great triumph he thought of her and
Of course all of Lawrence's fans are not so charming as
this arthritic girl. He draws a few "characters/' Watching
him handle them gave me another slant on the Lawrence
One night when I was sitting in the Welk living room
with all the family (except Lawrence, who had gone to a
recording session) a shadow seemed to glide past the pic
"A ghost/* young Larry said matter-of-factly, and then,
taking pity on my mystification, he explained: "Dad's
women fans sometimes have the weird habit of walking up
and down in front of the house trying to get a glimpse of
him. We call *em ghosts."
He went on to tell me about the ghosts who write gushy
letters, and he produced one fit for a psychiatrist's ponder
ing. In it a woman told Lawrence that she had read in the
stars that he was her soul mate. And shortly after the
haunting-of-the-house episode some woman wrote to him
saying: "If you play my favorite song at the Aragon to
night, I'll take it as a sign that youll meet me at closing
Lawrence made a mental note of the song, not in order
to play it, but to be sure that he would avoid it. However,
258 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
as luck would have it, when he stepped from the band
stand a minute, the strains of that very song assailed his
As he left the ballroom later, this particular ghost took
on flesh and rushed toward him, exclaiming: "At last!"
"Lady," protested Lawrence sternly, breaking the hold
she had on his arm, "I'm a family man."
With that he was in his car and away.
But there are others like her and worse. "It isn't always
funny," Fern said. "The original ghost, as the children
called her, was a poor demented woman in Chicago. She
threatened to jump from the Trianon balcony if Lawrence
didn't pay attention to her. Then she threatened to kidnap
the children. We had to notify the police."
And then, of course, there are the ubiquitous F.F.F.s.
To even the most desirable and persistent of them Law
rence always manages to give what he calls, the "fluff-off."
"With the letter writers, it's easy," he says, though he
admits: "Yes, there are an awful lot of them," and "Yes,
they do have love on the brain."
They often ask his age and marital status. One woman
explained that she was particularly interested in this data
because she was a widow, and she added: "For your in
formation, my home is worth $10,000."
The gush, the goo, the giggles do not affect him. He re
peats: "The folks we want to please are sensible, honest
people homebodies ."
Occasionally he will receive an angry note berating him
for failure to grant a request. One of these letters, picked
at random, has to do with a discount on a car, and it reads:
"Do you think I would have written you in the first place
"Dear Hearts and Gentle People" 259
if I could get a discount from my local dealer? You must
be dumb to refer me to him/*
"Some fan mail you can't take seriously," Lawrence
says. "That kind of faultfinding isn't sensible. Lots of praise
isn't sensible either; it's exaggerated. I pay attention to sug
gestions and requests for songs, and I really appreciate it
a lot when folks write nice friendly letters."
Among the "nice" letters was one from a mother tell
ing about her four-year-old. At the end of the program,
just after Larry Hooper's deep bass had come in with:
"Dodge had a good time too/' the child remarked sol
emnly: "Mommie, God's always having a good time on the
Lawrence Welk show, isn't He?"
Besides letters gifts also deluge the Welks. "We get
stormed under sometimes," Lawrence puts it. Anything
from a sack of potatoes, sent by a farmer, to a pipe organ
may appear upon their doorstep, or at the office, or TV
One day the local express man phoned and told Fern:
"Two pheasants and two peacocks have arrived for you,
air express. They are addressed to the office. What do you
want me to do with them?"
Fern, thinking in terms of pheasant hunting back in
North Dakota, and of the many birds she had canned for
food, answered: "Just go ahead and deliver them. Mr.
Welk can have them put in the deep freeze."
"I don't think you understand," came the reply. "These
are live birds."
Every gift seems to add to Lawrence's sense of gratitude
to the "wonderful folks." One way he tries to repay them
is by the many thousands of dollars' worth of trinkets he
gives out to his fans. The night I met him, and we went on
260 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
to the Aragon, I was loaded down with a small assortment
of pens, pencils, records, key rings, etc.
But his gratitude is best shown by his thoughtful concern
for his fans. What happened in Houston, Texas, is a good
example. He was to play there, and a week before his ar
rival every ticket for the three-thousand-capacity audito
rium was given out gratis courtesy of Dodge. But scalpers
somehow obtained a cache of the free tickets which they
proceeded to sell at ten dollars each. When Lawrence
reached the auditorium the night of the show, he heard
about this "funny business." Instead of being flattered that
people had been willing to pay a premium to hear him, he
"blew off the handle/' and insisted that the auditorium
manager find out who, among the crowd, had paid for
Some people who had obtained tickets irregularly were
at first reluctant to give their names and addresses. As one
man explained: "I didn't know what was up, a penalty,
maybe. At best, I thought we might be asked to leave."
Nothing of the sort.
The next week those who had given the information re
ceived by mail a check signed "Lawrence Welk," to cover
the ticket price.
Of course he also favors his fans with benefit perform
ances when he can. Unless, or until, another day is added
to the weekly calendar, he could not be more generous in
squeezing charity affairs into his bursting schedule. At the
same time he says: "I don't like to use my religious dona
tions for publicity."
"And that's as it should be," says one of his fans.
But why do I keep calling them fans? I mean friends,
"Home, Sweet Home*
Now, with the photograph before me, 111 get to the missing
piece of the jigsaw puzzle and the final clue to the mystery
story, Lawrence's family and home life.
I shall never forget the first time I entered the Maison
Welk It was that Saturday afternoon when, en route to
the studio, I stopped by the place with Ed Spaulding. Of
course I had only a quick preview, yet it was downright
startling in its revelation.
I stepped from the California sunshine, still bright and
shimmering despite the later afternoon hour, into a cool,
shaded interior, and immediately I seemed to be envel
oped by an almost tangible serenity. I glanced around,
perhaps to notice vaguely the soft gray-green walls and
carpeting that contributed to this effect, but I didn't take
them in, not really. I had glimpsed, and then instantly my
eyes had been pulled toward one object.
Looking the length of the living room, and on through
the master bedroom beyond, I saw, exactly framed in a far
window opening on the garden, a large statue of the Virgin.
The arms were outstretched in a simple gesture, as though
to embrace all children of mortal man, and especially, so
it struck me, those who enter this house. There was a soft
262 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
luminosity and an ethereal quality emanating from the
tiling, partly due, so Donna told me, to a bluish bulb hid
den in the dark cluster of shrubbery. It cast a faint glow
on the white figure, and made the leafy growth around it
play with delicate light and shadow on its stone surface. I
could only exclaim: "How lovely 1"
Is it significant? Does it mean that Lawrence Welk and
his family live within the aura and influence of a simple
religious faith? That was the question I asked myself. After
I had stayed with them awhile, I could answer only one
Sunday is the big family day. It begins when all the
Welks go to Mass together, and then gather in the small
breakfast nook off the kitchen for a leisurely brunch, at
which Lawrence himself sometimes turns chef.
The first Sunday I was there, the morning after my ar
rival, I was rather surprised when Lawrence asked: "Like
me to fix you some scrambled eggs?"
During the day he often plays a game of ping-pong with
Donna or Larry, and almost always he puts in a long
distance phone call to Shirley and Bob.
At 2 P.M. Lois arrives with a list of songs requiring Law
rence's selection for the next Saturday's show, but this
doesn't take long, so he can rejoin his family at an early
afternoon dinner. Throughout the week he wedges in odd
intervals with his family and he declares: "I really do en
joy those breaks. I used to play golf, ride horseback, or
hunt, but nowadays when I have so little free time, I hate
to use it for anything but my family,"
In 1956 Lawrence and Fern celebrated their twenty-fifth
wedding anniversary with a party. "Fern is the original
ministering angel!" claimed one of the guests.
"Home, Sweet Home" 263
True, she spends her life ministering to the needs of hus
band and children. She strictly regulates Lawrence's diet,
limited by a digestive ailment.
Having heard of this, I was taken aback when I heard
him ask Fern one night, as he was about to leave for the
Aragon: "Where's my bottle? Did you slip it in the car
The "bottle" turned out to be a thermos jug, filled with
skim milk. Were, or are, the patrons ever disconcerted if
they see him take a nip from it? Or would they surmise
the truth: that he was seeking nourishment and stimula
tion from nothing stronger than milk?
Their conjectures don't bother Fern. She is thinking
about Lawrence, and she feels that he requires sustenance
through the long hours till 3 A.M.
Habitually his health is one of her prime concerns. When
he must eat a whole meal on the fly, she packs him a lunch
box. Three guesses what's in it. Often canned baby food.
Fern knows that this bland concoction is guaranteed not
to upset his temperamental insides, especially when food
must be gulped in seconds flat. It should also facilitate, I
would imagine, Lawrence's weight control. "I try to keep
around 177 pounds, and no more,** he told me.
Home meals are not set by the clock but by Lawrence's
engagements. On Friday the dinner hour is advanced to
5 P.M., because, says Fern: "I like to have it early enough
to give Lawrence a chance to take a nap before his long
session at the Aragon."
And she is there to wake him gently lest he oversleep,
that is, if the impetuous and affectionate Donna hasn't
beat her to it, by rushing in the bedroom and kissing him
back to consciousness. (Any excuse is enough for her to
264 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
give her dad a bear hug and a few quick kisses.) Then, if
he is pressed for time, the whole family may crowd around
ta hand him socks, cuff links, tie, etc., though Lawrence
points out: "Usually that's not necessary. Usually I arrange
things so that I don't have to hurry, because the ballroom
is a fair distance. It's a rosary away."
Meaning? Why, that he has time to say the rosary beads
through between home and the Aragon.
Who but Lawrence would so measure distance? But
then many things about the Welks are "different." Their
life is a strange enclave in the Hollywood hullabaloo. I was
really struck by this when I looked at Lawrence and Fern
acting out their parental role.
I remember the day I asked Lawrence: "What ambitions
do you have for the children?"
He answered: "We want them to be good."
That stark reply left me momentarily speechless, and I
was still fumbling for words to ask: "But would you like
one of them to pursue a musical career?" when Fern spoke
up: "Whatever job or profession they choose, we just hope
they'll remember what we're trying to teach them now-
definite standards of right and wrong."
I could see how she and Lawrence went about it. I ar
rived in California shortly after young Larry, then sixteen,
had become involved in a little misadventure. With his
driver's license a fairly new acquisition, he had gone out
on a certain afternoon in his father's black and white
Dodge convertible. He was traveling along the highway,
just a few miles an hour above the speed limit, but no
faster than the cars on either side or in back of him. There
was no passing at the time. Then he heard the traffic cop's
siren, and the next thing he knew he was being ordered
"Home, Sweet Home" 265
to pull to the side of the road. A few minutes later lie held
a traffic summons.
The poor kid was crushed, and he was scared. How
could he tell his father? A couple of days later he screwed
up courage and blurted out the story. For a moment Law
rence said nothing, then he asked: "You were over the
"But only a few miles over, honest, Pop. And everybody
else on the highway was going along at the same clip. I
think the cop spotted me, 'cause I'm a teen-ager. Bet he
thought I didn't have a license."
"I'm sorry," said Lawrence. "I know how awful bad you
must feel. But after all you did do wrong. You broke the
law. That's what counts. Of course lots of people try to use
that excuse of yours: 'Everybody's doing it/ but it's not a
real excuse. We shouldn't let other folks decide for us. And
we can do right no matter how tough it is. God helps those
who help themselves."
"But what about the summons?" Larry asked woefully.
"What if they revoke my license?"
"Oh, Daddy, do something," wailed Donna, all sympa
thy for her brother.
If she meant: Please, Daddy, use "pull," Lawrence
didn't understand the plea. He just laid a comforting hand
on her shoulder, and murmured: "Now, Donna."
The next day Larry went down to the traffic court to
take whatever medicine was measured out for him. Hap
pily, the magistrate did not revoke the license; he simply
forbade the boy to use a car on dates or on personal busi
ness for one month. Since Larry had a summer job as band
boy, he was permitted to drive on errands for his father.
While I was staying with the Welks, Lawrence gave him
266 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
properly official instructions to drive me on all my book-
connected expeditions. The boy's wisecracks and jokes en
livened every trip. I didn't repay him very well, for I kept
him waiting many a time, as I interviewed some Holly-
wooder about Mr. Music Maker. Larry's patience and
politeness were evidence enough of excellent parental
And that training certainly tells a great deal about Law
rence and his alter ego, the girl he married.
"With Lawrence away so much, I had to be both Mother
and Father," Fern explained to me. "Only of late years has
he been home regularly, but we certainly couldn't wait that
long to begin training our children. In fact, I believe that
you have to start training a child in the crib. If you pick
up a baby every single time he whimpers, he will get the
idea that his own wishes are all that matter, and ever after
he'll make 'I wanna' his guiding star."
Fern's definite notions which she stated so matter-of-
factly were backed up by Lawrence. He sat there nodding
agreement as she spoke.
"You can love a baby just as much while you're teaching
him that there are rules to follow," she said, adding after
a moment's reflection, "Maybe you love him more because
you make it easier for him later when he is on his own."
"Fern's own life is lived right," Lawrence remarked.
"Our kids have her to go by."
"I've found that kids take your regulations in stride if
you put over while they're little that what you ask them to
do isn't just a crazy whim; it's the right thing, it's what
we're all trying to live up to."
"And we love our kids an awful lot," added Lawrence.
"Home, Sweet Home" 267
"They knew we wouldn't ask them to do something which
wasn't real good for them."
"With plenty of love, we didn't have to use stiff punish
ments. Good thing, too!" Fern smiled toward her husband.
"Lawrence couldn't have stood them. I guess youVe heard
about the time when Donna and Larry were little . . ."
It seems that Donna and Larry were squabbling. Law
rence's repeated "Be quiet" did not stop them. He told each
child to hold out a hand on which he duly administered a
slap. Instantly he was greeted with howls of distress.
He began to wonder if he had hit harder than he
intended. Screams and sobs continued and each rever
berated painfully in Lawrence's nervous system. Finally,
about to break down himself, he put his arms around the
children and drew them toward him. "I'm real sorry I had
to punish you," he said. "Do you think it might make you
feel better if I gave you each fifty cents?"
He produced the coins, and tears and howls ceased like
The next morning Fern was in the kitchen preparing
breakfast when little Larry came in and told her about the
incident, commenting: "You know, Mom, we like Daddy
to punish us." Then, lest his mother miss the full implica
tion of his words, he added: "It's worth fifty cents/*
Perhaps I should append the footnote: there are no more
spats between Donna and Larry today, and none with
Shirley, however, will admit that there were times years
ago when a younger sister and brother proved a nuisance.
She tells about one of her first dates: "This boy was call
ing to take me to a prom, and Donna, who was peering
through the window, saw him coming, so she rushed to
268 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
open the front door, and yelled over her shoulder: 'Gee,
Mom, he's just as good-looking as Shirley said he was/ Talk
about being embarrassed! I couldn't look him straight in
the face all evening/*
But today Shirley says about Donna: "Isn't she refresh
ing? She's so spontaneous!"
And about Larry she says: "A generous kid if I ever saw
one, and such a lot of fun/'
Then the two younger children say about Shirley: "She's
tops. Mom thinks she's the one that's most like Daddy/'
For Lawrence a single word, "wonderful,'* fits all his off
"He's a sentimentalist about the kids," Fern declared,
though she quickly admitted: "He can be firm when he
really should. We both want our children to accept respon
sibility for what they do. From the time they were little
we've tried to train them so that when they grow up they
can stand on their own two feet/'
When Shirley was leaving home for Marquette Univer
sity, she asked: "Any last-minute instructions, Mother?"
"None whatever," Fern answered. "Your father and I
have taught you what's right for seventeen years. Now it's
time for you to prove that you've learned something."
"Of course you've taught her 'what's right' and, as Law
rence says, 'the law of God/ but let me ask next: How do
you apply that law to money and strictly material things?*'
I turned to Fern with the question.
"We've tried to use the heads God gave us, and buy the
kids what's best for them, not just anything in sight," she
replied. "For instance, one time Shirley saw a formal she
wanted in a shop in Milwaukee's Schroeder Hotel. It was
seventy-five dollars. I thought that was too much for a
"Home, Sweet Home" 269
young girl to pay for a dress, though we could afford it. I
told her: 'Find something else you like for less money/
Some parents don t seem to think of what's good for the
child; they think about themselves, and they have the idea
that they can buy their children's affection with extrava
gance. I ask you: does that make sense?"
"All I know is that they certainly love you, Fern," I an
swered. Then to Lawrence I added: "Maybe you don't rate
too badly either. When I first met Donna I asked her to
give me a word picture of her dad. I remember how her
face lit up, and she exclaimed: 'Oh, isn't he terrific? And
he's so much fun, too. He's always pulling jokes. We never
know what he'll think of next.' Not many young sophisti
cates talk like that."
"Donna's a great kid," Lawrence beamed. "Did I tell you
about her horse?"
"Before you teU that story, let me explain that Donna
simply dotes on horses," Fern put in. "She always has.
When she was a little girl, I remember her saying to me:
'Mommie, when I grow up, do I have to have babies? 7 I
answered: Well, darling, I hope you will have babies.
Don't you want them?' She came back with: 'Babies are
OK, but I'd rather have horses/"
Lawrence chuckled: "Yes, Donna sure loves horses! And
she can ride weU. You've seen that trophy in the recreation
room. She's won it at a horse show. A few years ago she
begged me to buy her a horse of her own. I wouldn't say
straight yes or no. But she didn't keep asking. I guess she
figured that if I thought it was good for her to have, she
would get it.
"I was busy, so I put off doing anything about it. Fact
is, I almost forgot all about it, and a lot of time went by-
2/O MISTEK MUSIC MAKER, LAWBENCE WELK
a couple of years, maybe. Then one afternoon I was home
with a few hours free, and I remembered the horse. I
picked up the phone and called a lady who had a mare
"She came right over to the house, and we sat down in
the living room to talk business. I could see Donna through
the doorway into the next room. She was walking up and
down, wringing her hands, and moving her lips like she
"When I gave the lady a check for the horse and she
left, I went in to tell Donna the news. And do you know
what? She threw herself into my arms and burst into tears.
She cried harder than I have ever seen her cry in my whole
life. She said to me: 'Oh, Daddy, I think I would have died
if you hadn't bought it/
"That was the way she felt, but she never pestered me
to buy that horse for her."
"Yes, despite her natural impulsiveness, she can use self-
discipline," Fern commented.
"I've heard about that self -discipline," I said. "Sam Lutz
tells of taking your children to a ball game some years ago,
when they were tiny, and having them decline ice-cream
cones, because they thought he shouldn't be spending
money on them. But," I added, "that shows that you've
also taught your children the value of money, which re
minds me to ask: Do you consider wealth an obstacle in
bringing up children to be godly people?"
Lawrence answered thoughtfully: "Almost anything we
have we can use for either good or bad. Maybe it's harder
for a rich man not to be selfish than it is for a poor man
not to be envious ... I don't know. But I do know that
goodness has nothing to do with how much or how little
"Home, Sweet Home" 271
we have. It's the way we think about it, how much we let
it mean to us. We shouldn't let it come ahead of more im
As he spoke I recalled some comments of Shirley's. She
had said: "Mother and Daddy are so unworldly. Of course
Daddy never thought of himself as lacking so-called ad
vantages or being comparatively poor as a boy; and he
doesn't often think of his high tax bracket now. He taught
us not to waste, but at the same time he never bothered to
explain much about money matters to us. While I was at
school, I had a joint checking account with Mother. I was
supposed to pay all my expenses, including board and tui
tion. Once in a while, I'd overdraw the account, and I'd
get a little note from Mother, chiding me gently: 'Now,
dear, you must be more careful/ but neither she nor I ever
knew what the balance was. And when my canceled checks
came, I didn't know what to make of them. Bob has been
laughing ever since the day I told him that I used to won
der why the bank sent me those old things. I figured that
they didn't have enough scrap baskets."
But Lawrence does realize to an extent that handling
money is power and responsibility, and he is definite, as
Shirley says, about waste. "We don't want our children to
grow up thinking: Easy it comes, easy it goes/* he declares.
Apparently they have learned that lesson. When
Donna finished at St. Monica High a few years ago, Law
rence told her that she could take a trip East as a gradua
tion gift. She went by coach, explaining: "I'm young, and
maybe it would be foolish to pay extra for a Pullman."
Though when I heard it I called that the story of the
year, there is one to match. Lawrence mentioned: "I told
Donna I'd pay her a salary this summer to handle some
2/2 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
fan mail, and to help around the house,* Donna did her
job real fine, but when I got ready to give her the first
pay check, she said: 'No, Daddy, I shouldn't take it. You're
paying my way through college/ *"
That story almost broke up our session for the dayl I
nearly fell over backwards like a comic-strip character.
However, I managed to compose myself in time to ask
a couple more questions: "You pay Larry a salary for be
ing band boy, and running errands?'*
"Oh yes," Lawrence answered, "but he puts half of it by
for his college education. He can't touch that part."
"What happens if he runs short of spending money? Or
has that ever happened?" I pumped.
"It happened," Fern admitted. "Just the other day he
asked for a five-dollar loan, and I told him: If you borrow
now when things are easy for you, you'll probably borrow
kter in life when maybe things won't be so easy. This may
be a good lesson. It may save you lots of future headaches
and heartaches, if you learn to buy only what you can pay
"Folks have to learn self-control and independence, even
if they do have money," Lawrence commented.
I am sure that the Welk children have learned it. When
Shirley married Bob (then an intern on a slim salary) in
September 1954, she and he furnished their home only with
necessities. Of course, these did not include a TV set. How
ever, when Lawrence was scheduled to appear on the net
work the following July, Shirley did want a TV "to see
Daddy's show." Now all she would have had to do was say
* The Welles keep no regular maid. Incredible as it may seem, they
employ domestically only a gardener, and a weekly cleaning woman.
Fern, truly a homebody, prefers taking care of the house herself.
"Home, Sweet Home" 273
so loudly enough and a dozen TV manufacturers, seeing
the publicity value of the gesture, would have vied with
one another in delivering the desideratum. Instead she
kept mum and bought her own set, a secondhand one she
"But it's not only about money that our kids are inde
pendent," Lawrence assured me. "They're independent
all the way down the line," and he added: "To be inde
pendentindependent of men, that is you have to de
pend on God. My kids know that when they have God
behind them, then they can have faith in themselves/*
Have they acquired that attitude from their father? And
has that attitude had an effect on the Lawrence Welk suc
Tm Forever Blowing Bubbles"
It was a Sunday morning, and I was about to say "Auf
Wiedersehen" to the Welks and leave California for home
and the East Coast.
As I closed my suitcase, I was running over in my mind
the words I had originally scribbled down in my notebook
as a beginning for this book: "Unbelievable is the word for
him. Lawrence Welk is a wonder in gaudy and giddy
No change. I still held that opinion. Talk about your Pu
ritan in Babylon, or your Connecticut Yankee in King Ar
thur's Court, if you will, Lawrence Welk is no less an
anomaly in show business. Yet his special Welk way has
paid off. Even though he disregards many sacred canons of
the business, he has vaulted to the top of the heap. "How
has he done it? What has he got? What makes the man
Those were the questions I started with. Well, I figured
by that Sunday morning I had the answers. Now, it is about
time for me to set them down on paper.
It should not be so very difficult to find words to answer
the first question about his means to success. His life has
been unraveled, and the clues brought to light and built
"I'm Forever Bloiving Bubbles 9 275
up into a body of evidence. His hard work, his boundless
energy, his drive, his enterprising spirit, his persistence, his
concentration, his singleness of purpose, his sincere love of
people and his earnest desire to please them, his musical
talent, and his enthusiasm for music, which makes his job
a joy all of these are factors. Also, there is his sharp eye
to see and his strong hand to grasp the name of every pass
ing opportunity; there is his willingness to go, as he says,
"one step further than is necessary, or that I'm paid for";
there's his business acumen coupled with a flare for show
manship; there's his patient striving to make every tiny de
tail precisely perfect. There's his keenness to sense popular
reaction which amounts almost to identification with "the
folks"; there's his Geiger-counter ability to spot talent and
his patience and skill in developing it; there's his power
to inspire loyalty and yes, love among the "boys" with
whom he so gladly shares the spotlight.
Add it all up and does it equal success with a capital S?
Not quite necessarily and inevitably. How about the over
riding intangible of personality? The mystery of Lawrence
Welk's career triumph cannot be fully explained till there
is a solution to the puzzle of the man himself, and answers
found to the questions "What's he got?" and "What makes
the guy tick?"
These are tricky questions, since Lawrence Welk is a
somewhat contradictory son of Adam. On one hand, he is
a canny businessman, with the calculating powers of a
statistician and the caution of a banker; on the other he is
a naive romanticist, ever ready to ride off on a quixotic
quest. He is deliberate, slow-moving as a tortoise some
times; at others impulsive, precipitous, a man who gladly
takes a leap in the dark. Ordinarily he possesses a limitless
276 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
patience, but look out for the once~in-a-while; when a fuse
is lit by some unexpected circumstance, he can flare up
with amazing suddenness. And although Lawrence is self-
conscious about his speech and accent, the minute he
begins to play or to direct, he is the most completely self-
forgetting and most other-fellow-conscious person imagi
nable. From then on he is concerned only about what he
can do to give happiness to everybody else; never, never
does he think about what kind of an impression he is mak
ing in order to gratify his own ego. Certainly he is shy,
but it is also true that he has a species of assurance and
confidence that no power on earth can shake. Finally, I
might add that, although Lawrence Welk is as predictable
as sunrise in many of his reactions, I understand what
Shirley means when she says: "I think I know my own fa
ther, but I still find him full of surprises/*
I was sifting these ideas on that last morning, and for
mulating my final answer to the Lawrence Welk puzzle,
when he spoke to me: "Before you leave/' he said, picking
up my bags and moving toward the front door, "are there
any last-minute questions?"
So, with my coat and hat on, ready to step over the
threshold, I put to Mr. Music Maker himself the questions
I was turning over in my mind: "How would you sum up
your own character? And what is there about you as a
man, as an individual person, which makes for success?"
He turned so that his eyes met mine, and then deliber
ately he set down my suitcases. We stood facing one an
other a long minute, before he spoke.
"Back on the farm, we kids learned what makes for real
success," he began. "You know, people talk a lot nowadays
about giving kids advantages, and usually they're talking
Tm Forever Blowing Bubbles' 9 277
about things money can buy. We had better kind of advan
tages, and more security, too. We were taught that there
was an Almighty God, we could look to for strength, when
the going was tough. That's worth more than anything.
It's with you even if the bank fails, the crop's ruined, and
you're hungry for a meal that's not in sight.
"Then we had lots of love in our family among our
selves, and we believed in a loving God, too, Who would
listen to our troubles. We were never alone, like the poor
folks who don't have any faith.
"You know, years ago I found out that this music busi
ness I am in can have some very hard and hectic condi
tions. One time when I was in the dithers with a thousand
details somebody real wise told me: "Young man, don't try
to do it alone.' He meant I should ask God's help. If I
have any secret, that's it. Religion isn't just going to
church on Sundays. It's something you have to try to live
every day of the week, every minute of the day. Lots of
times, when a whole crowd of people rush up to me for
autographs and pull at my clothes, and hem me in so I
feel like I can't breathe, I want to rim away and hide. But
then I look to God, and I offer my uncomfortable condi
tion up to Him, as a thank-you prayer for all He's done
for me. Whenever the going is specially tough, that's the
only thing that helps me through.
"And turning to God makes me strong in lots of other
ways. In our business, we don't have much chance to go
off and think quietly, but the more fussed and confused
I am, the more I need to keep a little quiet spot inside me,
where I can talk to God, and think about religion.
"When religion shows me that a thing is right, that
makes it easier for me to stand up against different kinds
2j8 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
of pressure. Besides that, prayer and trying to look at our
selves as God must see us keeps a person on a better level.
It stops us from getting too puffed out with pride. And
of course, it helps too because it makes us work on our
selves to grow better. If I don't work on myself, I find that
I go backwards.
"As a kid, and even later, I had a bad temper. It showed
that time I used my whip on the lazy plow horse, and that
way broke my arm, That temper could have been the
ruin of my career. When tilings didn't go smooth, I used
to scowl something awful, but folks in an audience don't
come to see frowns. Without religion to show me that I
should have better self-control I would probably never be
able to hold my temper in. Trying to smile just to please
customers doesn't work every time. What works is reli
gion, teaching us that God wants us to do the right thing
and be nice and kind always.
"Then I'd say that religion helped me take bad disap
pointments. I've had plenty of them along the way. Be
cause I could trust in God, I could go on anyhow, knowing
that if I did my very best, I'd get success provided I was
meant to have it; but if I wasn't meant to have it, I'd be
given the grace to take the awful bad trial of failure. That
kind of thinking which comes in prayer kept me from
going off deep ends, lots of times."
As he finished speaking, I could only murmur: "Thanks,
Lawrence. You've thrown a great deal of light on the rid
dle of yourself."
And so he had! In fact I'd say that he had turned a
veritable floodlight on the Lawrence Welk puzzle.
Before he gave his little dissertation, I was considering
naming, as my prime hint to the solution, the quality of
*Tm Forever Blowing Bubbles* 279
simplicity and unworldliness. After he spoke, I heavily
underlined those two words in my notebook.
Now, by simplicity I do not mean that Lawrence, with
his contradictory traits and personality quirks, is devoid
of complexity. I do mean that Lawrence Welk is a crea
ture who walks amid a world, peopled by its own admis
sion with many a phony, yet he himself seems to be
encased in a kind of armor of innocence and wholesome-
ness, and deep spiritual faith.
Amid the glitter, the glory, the guff, and the gags sur
rounding him he remains plain Lawrence Welk, sans
make-up against the bombastic stage set of the twentieth
Indeed he is almost unbelievable! He is a strange crea
ture, impervious to the very atmosphere itself. Its amoral-
ity does not affect Lawrence Welk as it affects or infects
most of us, glazing us over with a monotonous, brittle
shell of quasi-sophistication.
He holds to his original ideas. They go back to his boy
hood on the farm, back to the roots of life. They are not
overlaid or confused by superficialities, which parade as
the last word or the latest wrinkle.
Moreover, he belongs to that rarest of all human spe
cies: he is the creature who does not put up a front, who
does not play-act, who does not resort to sham or pre
tense, who does not take the expedient way, varying
chameleon-wise to fit the occasion. Without contrivance
he is what he is. Result: a genuine 14-karat man natural,
unique, or, I repeat, a simple, unworldly person, possess
ing the wonderful, untarnished, childlike wisdom which
believes in truth, in love, in decency, in toil, in individual
effort, in home, and in country.
280 MISTER MUSIC MAKER, LAWRENCE WELK
Some people condescendingly include his kind of wis
dom when they use the epithet "corny." Call it anything
you like. When the personality of the man of that wisdom
was presented over the air waves, the public welcomed it
like a fresh breeze from the tilled fields. They loved it.
Surprising how much they did love it or is it?
Maybe there is something under the pancake make-up
of all of us which wants to believe too, which wants to
accept ancient and ageless values, and maybe that some
thing accounts in the final analysis for Lawrence Welk's
fabulous success career-wise. Positively and no maybe
about it his own simple, unworldly belief in ageless
values, and his endeavor to live by them, accounts for his
success as a man.
In the flicker of show business popularity can disappear
overnight, making Lawrence Welk, the TV idol, a Holly
wood has-been, but Lawrence Welk will remain a success
as a man for one reason. Bill Lennon puts it into these
words: "Lawrence lives with God."
There, "Ladies and Gemamin," you have it: the key to
the puzzle, the master clue to Mr. Music Maker, Lawrence
CUBEENT MEMBERS OF THE LAWBENCE WELK ORCHESTRA
Tiny Little, Jr.
The Lennon Sisters: Diane, Peggy, Kathy, and Janet