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Episode 71: North Dakota: The Wunnerful Lawrence Welk with Sharon McMahon

podcast Dec 30, 2021

In this solo episode, Sharon shares the prolific life and career of vintage musical icon Lawrence Welk. Welk, a household name, and host of his own show (that you probably only watched at your grandma’s house), was one of the wealthiest entertainers in the U.S before his death in the early 1990s. He came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm in North Dakota with his German immigrant parents and several siblings. Over the course of his long musical career, Welk became the sound of a generation; his “champagne music” stirring nostalgia in a generation who socialized at public dance halls and waltzed the night away.

Links to Full Episode:

This Episode Will Teach You:

  • Lawrence Welk’s humble beginnings
  • His deal with his parents to work the farm for a loan to buy an accordion
  • How Welk began his own orchestra and where they began their career
  • Welk’s advertisers over the years
  • The meaning of “champagne music”
  • The short-lived invention of Soundies
  • Lawrence Welk’s TV deal
  • How Welk tailored his show to appeal to his older audience
  • How Welk kept his show on the air after it was canceled

3 Biggest Takeaways:

  • Lawrence Welk was born in 1903 to German immigrant parents. Growing up in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota, Welk did not need to learn English until he was in his 20s. He had a heavy accent his whole life which became an iconic part of his entertainer personality. At 17, Welk asked his parents for a 400-dollar loan to buy a professional-quality accordion and, in exchange, he would work on the family farm until he was 21. 
  • During the 1920s, Welk traveled around the Midwest with his accordion, getting to know other musicians and making connections with performers. He eventually settled for a time in Yankton, South Dakota and his band became the station band for popular radio programming on WNAX. Throughout the next two decades, Welk and his orchestra band became increasingly popular, playing in dance halls and ballrooms around the country. It was during this time that Welk began to call his sound “champagne music”: light, effervescent, and with a melodic beat that was easy to dance to.
  • Lawrence Welk began his TV debut in 1955 after moving to LA. The show was a hit, and catered to older audiences who enjoyed the nostalgia of hearing the conservative sounds of yesteryear; Dixieland, show tunes, polkas and waltzes, and family-friendly novelty acts. The Lawrence Welk Show ran on ABC until 1971. When it was dropped by the network, Welk started his own production company and ran The Lawrence Welk Show on ABC affiliate stations for another 11 years, until 1982. In many states, you can still watch The Lawrence Welk Show in syndication on PBS.

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