Question: For years my dad was so impressed that his hero, Lawrence Welk got rich off of music even though he couldn't read it. Is that true? Shirley P., Norwalk, Iowa
Televisionary: Not for the time the TV bandleader made the bulk of his money, Shirley, but it was true for a period early in his career and TV Guide helped spread the rumor by getting the facts wrong in a 1956 profile. (Two months later, a follow-up story explained Welk said that early on he lost several accordian gigs with bands because he played by ear, but then took a correspondence course to learn how to read music.)
Truth is, it was easy to sell Welk short because he was extremely self-effacing and well-mannered, almost to a fault. "I am not," he said in 1956, "what you call a personality kid. I just play good dance music, and I think that is what the people like." It certainly was. Sure, the tame "champagne music" he featured exclusively was savaged by critics and hipsters all throughout The Lawrence Welk Show's long run (July 1955-September 1971 on ABC and another 11 years in first-run syndication). And yes, his fans tended to skew old (and towards the end, really old), a demographic sin to media execs. But Welk sold millions of records, pulled in millions of viewers and made millions of dollars. Not bad for a guy who never made it past the fourth grade, didn't pick up English until he was 21 (he grew up in a small German farm community in North Dakota) and failed at several efforts (chicken farming, appliance sales, hamburgers, hotel management and chewing gum) before going into the band biz.
How'd he do it? Slavish devotion to fan feedback and a strict, "clean" formula from which he almost never varied. "What we play is what 26 years' worth of constant experience tells me the great majority of the audience wants to hear," Welk said in 1958. "My mail, all of it, is gone over very carefully. You know, some people in this business are shielded. Their staff won't let them see the bad letters, the critical ones. Well those are the ones that get put on my desk first.... We are just as interested in what people don't like as we are in what they do like."
When fans didn't like something or, more importantly, Welk didn't like it it disappeared from the routine but fast. Folks tuned in for the familiar, comforting routine (the show was often described as the only one you could watch while reading the paper and that came from people who liked it) and if Welk threw a curveball, they voiced their displeasure. Letter writers complained that the Lennon Sisters, who debuted on the show and stayed on it for 13 years, shook their hands when they sang. That stopped. When one of the sisters, a girl of 14, wore a pair of shorts (not even a bathing suit, mind you) in a beach scene, fans were appalled, surprising even the strait-laced bandleader.
And Welk was plenty strait-laced on his own. When popular "Champagne Lady" Alice Lon showed too much knee, she got a lecture. "Cheesecake does not fit our show," Welk said. "All I did was sit on a desk and cross my legs," Lon countered. "That is the way a lady sits down." The combination of low wages (Welk paid his performers only union scale), the knee incident and disagreements over what songs she could sing drove Lon from the show. "Alice is a peach of a girl, but she tried to be too sexy," the bandleader said after her departure. (He later regretted letting her go after fans buried him with disapproving letters, but when he tried to bring her back she refused his offers.)
All of that aside, however, you've got to give Welk credit for figuring out what worked and sticking with it. (After all, he was a constant for all those years while other musical trends waxed and waned.) And keeping it clean worked. "We've had the mothers and fathers so long, we don't want to do anything to displease them," he said in 1969. "We want them to depend upon the fact that we're not going to use any swear words or do anything that would be inappropriate, in the moral sense, to carry into the home."
And all the insults were easier to weather once Welk had enjoyed a long career. ABC dropped his show? Fine. Welk packaged it himself, attracted an even larger audience in syndication and kept a fatter share of the revenues. Jokes about the man, his heavy accent ("wunnerful, wunnerful") and his music one of Henny Youngman's gags involved a contest with a prize of 1,000 Welk records and a hammer didn't sting as much, either, after a long while. "All of us have a certain sensitivity," he said. "But fortunately, with age comes a little more understanding. A mellowness breaks through the wall of hurt feelings we build up through the years.... It's a bad hurt when you're first brought up to face the fact that you're being held up to ridicule. But those hardships are wonderful for us. They make us grow strong."