Bob Ralston is definitely the King of the Keyboards of America - Lawrence Welk
Home Biography
Shop Lawrence Welk Info Links Contact Us

Lawrence Welk Info

Lawrence Welk and Relatives*

Lawrence Welk 03-11-1903 – 05-17-1992

< back to Welk main page

Lawrence Welk's parents (Ludwig and Christina Welk) left the Odessa region of Russia in 1892, and settled in the Strasburg area of North Dakota, just after statehood had been achieved. Their first house was made of sod. Four siblings were born in the sod house - John (1893), Barbara, Ann Mary, and Louie. A second, more modern house was built, and Agatha was the first sibling born in the second house. Lawrence was born March 11, 1903, and Mike and Eva were born later.

In 1914, Lawrence suffered a ruptured appendix. He was hospitalized for 7 weeks, and full recovery took over a year. During his recovery, he played instruments while he was too weak to work on the family farm. He eventually returned to farm chore duty, and although he never liked any of the chores, at age 15 he set a wheat-threshing record.

When his brother John got married, Lawrence volunteered to stay home and do the necessary chores. He did the chores as quickly as he could, then he spent the rest of his time alone playing John's accordion. Shortly afterward, a visiting musician named Tom Gutenberg entertained in the area, playing the new piano-type accordion. Lawrence was entranced with both the music and the accordion. This finalized Lawrence's desire to be a musician instead of a farmer. Just before his 16th birthday, he finally worked up his courage and asked his father for $400 to buy his own accordion. He promised to work on the family farm for 4 more years, and to turn over all the money he made from playing the accordion. His father thought about it for a week, then agreed. For the next five years, Lawrence earned money playing for local weddings and parties. In 1923, he had his first self-promoted dance in Hague. He earned over $100 from that one dance.

On March 11, 1924 (his 21st birthday), Lawrence left the family farm to seek his fortune. He moved to Aberdeen ND and stayed with the Faith family, earning little more than his room and board expenses. He went to Bismark (capital of ND) a few weeks later, but had even less success there. He returned to Aberdeen, and teamed up with Frank Schalk, who had a car and played drums.

In the fall of 1924, Lawrence & Frank joined the Lincoln Boulds orchestra at Watertown, SD. Lawrence improved his music reading ability, and he quickly learned how NOT to run a band. Boulds frequently "forgot" to pay the band members, and Lawrence finally left the band.

In the summer of 1925, Lawrence took a vacation at Lake Okaboji, Iowa. There were pavilions for several bands on the property, and Lawrence soon saw vivid proof that the popular bands were the ones that played what the people liked. On his way back to Aberdeen, Lawrence frequently played for his supper, and often played for pay (whatever deal he could make with the owner) at theaters.

Back in Aberdeen, Lawrence and Frank again formed their own band. They had fairly regular work, but Lawrence's old car consumed most of the profits. Lawrence traded his old car in on a new $700.00 Chevrolet for accelerated payments plus advertising. On July 4, 1925, Lawrence rented a pavilion at Scatterwood Lake, and hired several local musicians for the day. When his dance started, he was dismayed to learn that his small audience was due to competition from the county championship ball game. Fortunately for Lawrence, the game was soon rained out, and people came to his place to dry off as well as dance. Lawrence paid the musicians, paid off his car, and had a respectable sum left over.

In September 1925, Lawrence met George and Anna Kelly at a fair in Selby, South Dakota. George hired Lawrence for his own group, the Peerless Entertainers. George was an excellent mentor for Lawrence, both professionally and personally. The Peerless Entertainers had an extensive, successful tour in their established locations, but had more and more troubles as they tried to travel south to New Orleans. George and Anna called an early end to the tour and returned to their home in Poplar, Montana, until the next tour. During the hiatus of summer 1926, Lawrence led a West Texas band. In the fall of 1926 he rejoined the Peerless Entertainers. In the spring of 1927, the Peerless Entertainers tour was again disrupted when George Kelly became too ill to perform.

Lawrence and two other Peerless Entertainers, Johnny and Howard, wound up in Bismarck, North Dakota, where they added Art Beal to their group. Deciding to travel south toward warmer weather, they stopped at a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota. Lawrence went to observe the WNAX radio studio there, and managed to get an audition for his group, now called "Lawrence Welk and his Novelty Orchestra". The first few weekly contracts soon grew to a long-term contract, and Lawrence was amazed at how quickly the band became known from the radio publicity. The band enjoyed prosperity there in 1928 and 1929.

While performing at WNAX, Lawrence met Fern Renner, a student nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital, and the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Their first date was a double date at Fern's insistence. After a long-distance romance, Lawrence and Fern became engaged in Denver, Colorado, in 1931. They were married on April 19, 1931.

Lawrence and Fern moved to Chicago, Illinois, and lived there for a while, but eventually moved back to Yankton SD. Lured by an unscrupulous agent, the whole band walks out on Lawrence. As perseverant as ever, he forms a new band and keeps on going. Shortly afterward, Lawrence and his new band perform at Twin Lakes, where they encounter some of the worst accommodations they have ever seen. Fern cries over the disreputable condition of the Welk's room, and a few days later tells Lawrence that she was so moody because she was pregnant with their first child. The band goes to Phoenix, Arizona, only to find the El Mirador Ballroom closed in bankruptcy. Lawrence gets the creditors to reopen the ballroom by promising to cover any losses himself. The band enjoys a 3-month run there before moving on to the Broadmoor in Denver, Colorado. While the band was in Denver, Shirley Welk was born April 28 or 29, 1932.

Afterwards, the band played in Estes Park (near Denver) and went to Texas for a series of one-night stands. In Dallas, Texas, Lawrence bought the Maine Peak hotel in an attempt to give Fern and Shirley a stable location. He was unable to stay from his music for long, and due to Fern's good work in managing the hotel; they sold it for a $1700 profit.

The magnetic pull of station WNAX once again returned Lawrence and the band to Yankton. Lawrence found a better sideline business by selling Honolulu Fruit Gum. The band was renamed Lawrence Welk and His Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, and they acquired a sleeper bus for their tours. Local Miss Honolulu Fruit Gum contests enhanced both the musical and sales income of the band.

A friend recommended that Lawrence move to a bigger city, so he moved to Omaha, Nebraska. What the friend had failed to tell him was that he had to have a union card to work there, and that there was a six-month waiting period. Lawrence and Fern raised chickens, and the band again resorted to one-night stands hither thither and yon. When he applied for a union card, he was denied, because the local musicians feared he would take away their own business. The best event of the Omaha period was the birth of Donna Welk on February 13, 1937.

Later in 1937, Lawrence got the band an engagement at the St. Paul hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota. They had a radio broadcast from the hotel on station KTSP. They were still performing there when Lawrence received word that his father had passed away.

The band subsequently moved to the William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opening on New Year's Eve 1938. They had a radio program there on station WCAE, with Phil David as their announcer. Shortly after their opening, Phil noticed that some fan letters described the band's music as sparkling, light, effervescent, bubbly, gay, and happy. In a moment of inspiration, Phil told Lawrence that the band played "Champagne Music", thereby providing the slogan that they had been looking for. The next engagement was at the Normandy Ballroom in Boston, Massachusetts, where Lois Best became the first Champagne Lady. Then they returned to the William Penn hotel. This engagement was in the Chatterbox Room, and they were even more successful than they had been in the Italian Terrace Room.

The next engagement was the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. The Edgewater was one of the nation's top hotels, and Lawrence was thrilled to be there. His fame soon made him a target for song-pluggers, and he was too kind to turn them down. His charity resulted in a decline in his popularity. He finally asked a critic in one audience for advice, and discovered that he was failing to follow a rule he already knew. He wasn't playing enough of what the audience wanted to hear. He promptly began playing more popular tones, and invited the critic to lead the band as a token of his gratitude. The critic went away converted, and the band regained their success playing favorites. The Edgewater engagement was followed by the Chicago Theater engagement.

The next engagement, the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was where Lawrence began to do his own announcements consistently. He was fortunate to have the good personal and professional advice of Eddie Weisfeldt, the theater manager, who helped him improve both his speaking and his clothing. The band continued to enjoy successful runs at many hotels around the country, and while at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas, Lawrence became a father again. Larry Welk was born on March 11, 1940, in the same hospital where Shirley Welk had been born years earlier.

Following the birth of his son Larry, Lawrence finally was able to settle down for an extended period. The band played at the Trianon Ballroom and the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for most of the 1940's. Jayne Walton was the Champagne Lady at that time.

On Friday, May 2, 1951, the band made its local television debut on station KTLA in Los Angeles, California. On July 2, 1955, the band made its national television debut on ABC. The Lawrence Welk Show ran on ABC until 1971, when it changed to syndication. The syndicated shows continued into the early 1980's. The Oklahoma Network began repackaging episodes with various Welk stars as hosts in the late 1980's, and several 'new' PBS episodes continue to appear each year.

Lawrence Welk died of pneumonia in the early 1990's. He was survived by his wife Fern, his son Larry, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

< back to top

* Thanks to and Debbie Eifler for providing this information.


Home | Bio | Shop | Lawrence Welk Info | Links | Contact Us
© Copyright 2005 Bob Ralston       Site Design by Clever Pup