As days go, this has to be one of my favorites of the year. March 11th. It is my sister’s birthday. Being the youngest of seven children, I like the days, of the birthdays, of my sibs. So yes. This is one of them. My sister Sue.
But looky who’s here! Today is Lawrence Welk’s birthday too. A bandleader, of sorts. Most of the newer generations will have never heard of this guy. But I sure did know him while I was growing up. My Mom & Dad loved to tune into his program on TV, The Lawrence Welk Show.
He was an odd bird, I always thought. First, there was his choice in music. While I love to crush out a mean polka, I cannot take a steady diet of it. And he served up quite a bit of the Polka-Dish.
It is no wonder he was a little off. He had some tough beginnings. Welk was born in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota. He was the 6th of 8 kids, there. His Mom & Dad were Catholic Germans who immigrated in 1892 from Odessa, Russian Empire. That is now known as the Ukraine.
When the family moved to North Dakota, they got off to a bit of a rough start. They spent their first winter inside an upturned wagon covered in sod. That’s tough on a bunch of people in an overturned cart, I’ll tell you. Packed in sod.
But little Lawrence had the music in his heart already then. He grew up speaking both German and English. And. Larry, (do you think it is okay to call him Larry?) left school during fourth grade to work full-time on the family farm.
Back to the music in his heart. Welk decided on a career in music, at a very young age. As such, he persuaded his father to buy a mail-order accordion for $400. That was a lot of money back then. He promised his father that he would work on the farm until he was 21, in repayment for the accordion. That’s right. An accordion. I sure hope they had bigger living quarters by the time the thing arrived in the mail. Otherwise, he may have been wearing that accordion, instead of playing it.
But that wasn’t the case. No. The family must have loved his little bit of squeaky music.
Then. On his 21st birthday, he made good on his promise. Lawrence packed up his bags, his little accordion, and he left the family farm to pursue a career in music. During the 1920s, he performed with various bands before starting his own orchestra. Mostly around the Dakotas. That guy!
During the 1930s, Old Larry led a traveling big band that specialized in dance tunes. They went all around the blessed place, mostly living out of a car. Welk’s big band performed across the country but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. He scored lots of other big gigs too. He was gaining his accordion steam.
Then in 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, and he never looked back.
I became very familiar with the show, for as long as I can remember. As kids, all my siblings (the ones with the birthdays), and I, would plead our cases to Mom & Dad. Pllllleeeeaaasssse, can we watch Get Smart? Puuuuhhhhlllleeeeaaassse.
Agent 99 would have to wait. Instead, we sat and watched the powder blue leisure suits, the hair-jelly on the guys, and the bouffants on the gals, as they swirled across the ballroom floor, spinning circles, and dodging bubbles. Again. And again. And Again.
And then old Larry would pull out that North Dakota accordion and really light it up. Full contact spinning, whooting, and bubble-dodging ensued.
It was simply too much for a 4-year-old with the boogie in her beat. It left an indelible mark on me. And now, I am a white girl with very little ability to dance, and an extreme aversion to the accordion. And when a Polka breaks out, I’ve been known to dive under the nearest table for cover.
Welk completely retired from all public appearances in 1992 at the age of 89. He died that year on May 17, in his Santa Monica apartment, surrounded by his family. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, California.
But the music didn’t end there. His show syndicated. My Mom loved to watch it when I would be with her at the nursing home. So watch, we did. She thought it was airing live, and it made her so happy. She would sing. I would sing with her. I will forever cherish those moments with Mom, and Larry, and me.
So yeah. Happy Birthday, Lawrence Welk. That little accordion of yours wasn’t so bad after all.
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”
― Victor Hugo
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
― Aldous Huxley, Music at Night and Other Essays
“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances. ”
― Maya Angelou