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Coakley^ Mary Lems/190?- 

Mister Music Ma^er, Lawrence 
Welk. With a foreword by 

58 -lC%8 


Coakley, Mary 

a foreword by 

28 0p. 


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DEC 12 I960,;. --"/'' 

Mister Music Maker, 

by Mary Lewis Coakley 



Music Maker, 



With a Foreword by Lawrence Welk 


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 

First Edition 


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 

10 Contents 

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, 

Santa Ana 
A Fan Club picnic 

Lawrence Welk with the Lennon Sisters 
Lawrence Welk, 1957 

Mister Music Maker, 

Chapter i 


"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 


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. 


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. 

Chapter 2 


"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. 


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 


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? 

Chapter 3 

"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 


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 
reminds me. 

"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 
about it." 

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 


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 ? 

Chapter 4 


"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," 


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 
for anything! 

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, 
bashful smile. 

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. 


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 
lived it. 

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 
garded entirely. 

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 
our peace/' 

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. 

Chapter 5 


"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 


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. 
Welk, maybe?" 

"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 sleuth. 

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." 


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 
the free/' 

"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 


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- 
faced settlers. 

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- 


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 
shoeing horses." 

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 


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. 

Chapter 6 


"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 


taught us our prayers and told us stories from the Gospels 
in German/' 

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: 


"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 
childhood period. 

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 
himself inconspicuous? 

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 


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. 

Chapter 7 


'True Love" 

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. 


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 
upon him. 

"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 


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 
pays off. 

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 


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- 


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 
found out. 

"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- 


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." 

Chapter 8 


"Don't Fence Me In" 

"/a go ahead. Order the accordion you want." Ludwig 
Welk, paterfamilias, had spoken. Lawrence was to have 
the desideratum. 

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, 


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- 


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. 


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 
keep straight." 

"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. 

Chapter 9 

"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 
"music business." 

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 


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 


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 
happy future." 

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. 


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- 
making idea. 

"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 
for himself. 

"In all my life, I'd never made that much money at 


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 
the car/' 

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 

Chapter 10 

"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 
way again. 

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 


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 
strike you?" 

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 
of yours/' 

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 
dence dwindled. 

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 


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 


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 
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 


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. 

Chapter 11 

"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 
to sleep. 

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 
radio station." 

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 


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 
of before. 

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 


that I met Fern/' and he adds: "Yankton was a good spot 
for me." 

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 
as possible. 

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 
ever since. 

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 


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 
going on," 

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!" 


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 
to stop/' 

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 


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 


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 
ing love. 

But the fantasy wasn't getting him anywhere. If only he 
could spend more time with her! Inevitably he ended on 
that note. 

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 


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 
rence's invitations. 

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 
fide patient. 

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 


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 

Eastward ho! 

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- 


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 


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? 

Chapter 13 

"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 


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 
scheduled engagement. 

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 
thing's wrong!" 

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 


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 
a tot" 

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 
stretched ahead. 

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. 


"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 
steadier income. 

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. 

Chapter 14 

"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 
taught her. 

"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 


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 
twenty-four hours. 

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 


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 
matter what/' 

"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. 

Chapter 25 

"Rock-a-bye Baby" 

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 
disappearance act. 

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, 


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 
makes believing." 

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 
mother died." 

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, 


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 
ting there. 

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 
than hurt/' 

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 
ing responsibility. 

"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. 


"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. 

Chapter 16 


"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 
of minutes. 

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 
a while." 

Apparently there were times when the practical Fern 


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 
tempted suicide! 

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 
ing again." 

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 


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 


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 
the band. 

Chapter 17 

"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 


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 


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 
the bottle." 

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 
was devastating. 

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 
rence asked. 

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." 


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, 
"women trouble." 

"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? 

Chapter 18 


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 
dollars down. 

"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- 


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 


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 
arrest you." 

"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 
he did. 

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 
doing right." 

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 
for you." 

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 


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 
have you. 

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 
Stock Exchange. 

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- 


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? 

Chapter ig 

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 


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 
traveling orchestras." 

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: 


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 
ter paid." 

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. 

Cfiapter 2,0 


"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 
monotonous pattern. 

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 


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 
pretty ears." 

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, 

"WhatttlDoP" 157 

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- 


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 
change into. 

"We must have looked funny," Lawrence admits. "And 
there were Band-Aids and even big bandages on some of 
the fellows." 

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 


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 
next morning. 

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 
last destination. 


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 
then that. 

Chapter 2,1 

"See-Saw >: 

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 

"See-Saw" 165 

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. 


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 
with it?" 

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. 

"See-Saw" 167 

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 


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 

"See-Saw" 169 

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 
for 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 
and gemamin." 

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 
the doorways. 

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, 


not even one of bis musicians or a stray waiter, remained 
in sight. 

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 
would go. 

"See-Saw" 171 

"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 
man's wife. 

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. 


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. 

Chapter 22 


"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 
ment there."* 

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. 


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 
derstand me/' 

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 


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"? 

Chapter 23 


"Smflin Through" 

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 
sea picture.** 

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 


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 


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 


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. 

Chapter 24 


"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 


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 


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, 
and Illinois. 

"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 


hut. He found it locked, so he called: "Honey, let me in." 

No response. 

"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. 


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 
the crash. 

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 
Maker was. 

Meanwhile, from New York it was back to Chicago for 
the band. 

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. 

Chapter 25 


"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 
and rainy. 

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- 


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 
walk again. 

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," 
Donna sobbed. 

"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. 


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 
be patient. 

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 


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 

Chapter 26 


"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 
Lawrence's nerves? 

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 
ous progress. 


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 
and tempos." 

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 


"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 
the stage. 

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: 

Cf ., 

I quit. 
As though those two words were a signal, the orchestra 


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 
did see." 

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. 


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. 

Chapter 2.7 

"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 
cocktail party." 

Enough said? 

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 


"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 


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 
the kids." 

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 
nationwide business. 

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 


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. 

Chapter 28 


"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 


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- 


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 
of that. 

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 


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 


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. 

Chapter 29 


"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 


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 
nationwide hookup. 

"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 
points out. 

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 
tional show. 

"I could only hope they'd be willing to wait the year," 
Lawrence says. 

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 


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 
by Lawrence. 

"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 
this is?" 

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 


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. 

Chapter 30 


'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 
rence admits. 

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 


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 
vision set. 

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. 

So soon! 

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 


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!" 

Chapter 31 


"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 
else knows. 

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 
tol Hill. 

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 
Lennon Sisters. 

"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 


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 
of finds" 

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- 


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 
show/ 7 

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 
real devotion. 

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 
to me." 

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 


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 
ing surrounded/' 

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. 

Chapter 32, 


"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. 


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 
cian's description. 

"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. 


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 
and treatment/* 

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." 


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 
pagne Music. 

"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 


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- 
Life beer." 

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 
her grief. 

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 
Welk portrait. 

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 
ture window. 

"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, 


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 


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, 
don't I? 

Chapter 33 

"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 


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 
for me?" 

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 


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 
speed limit?" 

"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 


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, either. 

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 


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- 


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 
for sale. 

"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 
was praying. 

"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 
portant things." 

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 


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 
could afford. 

"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 
cess story? 

Chapter 34 


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 


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 


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. 


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 


Larry Hooper 

Tiny Little, Jr. 

Myron Floren 

Jerry Burke 

Buddy Merrill 

Buddy Hayes 

Johnny Klein 

Jack Imel 


Bob Lido 

Dick Kesner 

Billy Wright 

Alice Lon 

Jim Roberts 

Maurice Pearson 

Joe Feeney 

The Lennon Sisters: Diane, Peggy, Kathy, and Janet 

One Amodeo 

Russ Klein 

Jack Martin 

Bill Page 

Dick Dale 

Pete Fountain 

Norman Bailey 

Art Depew 

George Thow 

Rocky Rockwell 

Jimmy Henderson 

Barney Liddell 

Kenny Trimble 

Pete Lofthouse 

Alvan Ashby 

Larry Dean 

Curt Ramsey