Lawrence Welk was a firm taskmaster and consummate businessman whose "Champagne music" was welcomed into the living rooms of Middle America on Saturday nights for an unprecedented 27 years — the longest-running prime-time musical program in television history.
Welk, whose bubbling music makers were a television staple for 40 years, made his debut in an era when Arthur Godfrey; Groucho Marx; George Burns and Gracie Allen; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; and Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners" were at the top of the Nielsen ratings. And he outlasted them all. Welk to this day can be heard cuing his band with his "uh-one and uh-two" signature countdown on weekly rebroadcasts of his television shows on PBS outlets throughout the country.
Welk was never an innovator. His criterion for success was to keep it sweet and simple: Play the proven standards the people want to hear, in the simplest of arrangements, and in less than three minutes just in case someone did not like a particular song. It was safe-and-sane TV entertainment, predictable and stable and wholesome.
Welk was an unlikely candidate for national fame, but parlayed the German accent he picked up from his immigrant parents, charisma and a keen discernment of Middle America's musical taste into a business empire founded on television, records and music publishing. At first uneasy as a television personality, fearful that his fourth-grade education would betray him, he soon enough developed a love affair with his audiences.
At age 17, he struck a deal with his father, Ludwig. He agreed to work on the family farm until he was 21, and turn over all the money he made by performing at social functions, playing his own prized $400 accordion.
On his 21st birthday, Welk left home and spent the next year or so living in motel rooms and in the back of touring cars as he and other itinerant musicians formed pickup groups to play in town squares and social halls.
In 1925, Welk joined a group called George T. Kelly's Peerless Entertainers and was billed as the "world's greatest accordionist." Two years later, he formed his own band and began playing on the radio in Yankton, S.D.
During the 1930s, Welk's band grew to 10 pieces and was known for a time as the Hotsy Totsy Boys. They began settling into hotel ballroom work. It was in Pittsburgh, where his shows were played on the radio, that Welk's music was described as light and frothy — like Champagne.
In 1956, ABC-TV broadcast Welk from coast to coast, and over 16 years the Welk show missed only one week — in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
ABC dropped the show in 1971, deciding Welk's audience was too old to attract sponsors looking for a more youthful and affluent market. His sponsors at the time reflected Welk's demographics: Geritol and Sominex.
Welk responded by syndicating his show, which ultimately was picked up by more than 250 stations around the country — more than had aired his show on ABC.
The program did not miss a week of air time until weekly production ended in 1982.