He didn't speak English at until he was 21, and even then, he spoke it with a thick German accent. The music he played was considered corny and outdated even at its peak. But Lawrence Welk, whose 103rd birthday we celebrate today, remains one of the unlikeliest -- and most popular -- of all television stars.
Welk was born on a rural North Dakota farm, but longed to become a musician. He assured his father that he would work on the farm until he was 21 if the elder Welk would spend $400 on an accordion. Thus armed, young Lawrence set out on his 21st birthday for such metropolises as Yankton, SD to follow his dream.
The music industry of the mid-1920s was different from today's. Sure, kids with bands traveled around, trying to get recording contracts, but those bands had names like "The Hotsy Totsy Boys" or "The Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra," and played hot fox-trots and quicksteps -- or even waltzes -- on trombones, trumpets, and saxophones. Welk was able to parlay his North Dakota fame into work as far afield as Pittsburgh. There, his music was described "as light and bubbly as champagne," leading Welk to call his band's tunes "champagne music." It was a brand some listeners found to be sticky sweet (lacking the swing and drive of other bands), but others found it just right.
By the 1940s, Welk's orchestra had a regular gig at Chicago's Trianon Ballroom, but following World War II, the popularity of big bands began to fade, so Welk moved his organization to Los Angeles, where a local television station gave them airtime. The show caught on, and the Welk program was soon picked up by ABC, where it remained for the next 16 years. When ABC cancelled the show in 1971, Welk syndicated it for another eleven.
Welk was a savvy businessman who died as one of the wealthiest men in show business. His influence is enduring -- reruns of his syndicated show are still one of the most popular attractions on public television, and the Welk resort in Branson, MO is one of that town's most visited, both for those looking to mock its corniness or to revel in its old-fashioned charms.