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Beacon Senior News

Lawrence Welk: no bare knees, please

Jun 01, 2020 03:54PM ● By Randal C. Hill

Lawrence Welk and the “Champagne Lady” Alice Lon.

To “hip” teenagers of the 1950s, his old-style dance music was strictly from Squaresville. But to the generations who grew up on big band music, he offered a musical oasis—a brief respite from that annoying rock ‘n’ roll noise—to millions of TV viewers every Saturday night.

The sixth of nine children, Lawrence Welk was born in 1903 to immigrant parents in German-speaking Strasberg, North Dakota. He loved music and learned to play the accordion from his father.

Welk left school after the fourth grade and promised to stay and work on the family farm until he turned 21—if, in return, his parents would buy him a new mail-order accordion. They agreed to his terms, and Welk rolled up his sleeves and set to work. As a result, he learned little English before he grew up and left home.

He played polkas and waltzes on weekends at local weddings and barn dances until 1924, when he moved to Bismark, North Dakota, and put together a dance-music group called the Hotsy Totsy Boys. Later, he earned a regular slot on radio station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, where he became a local music sensation.

Welk eventually hit the national tour road with America’s Biggest Little Band, his newest assemblage that included a musician who played two trumpets at once and a trombonist who worked the slide with his right foot. Eventually, the outfit morphed into the more dignified-sounding Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music Makers. Welk had created the name after noticing a Miller High Life billboard that proclaimed the drink to be “the Champagne of Bottled Beers.”

He and his troupe moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and became regulars at the Aragon Ballroom in nearby Venice Beach. He was soon performing on KTLA, an independent Los Angeles TV station. Four years later, “The Lawrence Welk Show” debuted nationally on ABC-TV as a replacement for “The Saturday Night Fights.”

Lawrence Welk and the Champagne Lady Alice Lon

Lawrence Welk and the “Champagne Lady” Alice Lon.

The stubborn-as-a-mule Welk always insisted on controlling every aspect of his career. When sponsors suggested adding chorus girls or a racy comedian, he threatened to walk out. He was always tuned in to his viewing audience and thoroughly studied all his fan mail. When one lady complained of being offended by the maestro’s knees—he had appeared in lederhosen on one show—Welk never again exposed them.

No position on his TV show was more exalted than that of the Champagne Lady, an attractive female sidekick who sang and danced onstage with Welk. Hired in 1955, Alice Lon reigned as the Champagne Lady until one fateful day in 1959 when she sat on stage, crossed her legs and revealed a bare knee to the TV camera. “Cheesecake does not fit our show,” Welk grumbled afterward as he showed her the door.

When ABC-TV dropped his weekly show in 1971, he arranged a syndication deal that kept him on the air until 1982. That, along with real estate and music publishing investments, made Lawrence Welk one of the wealthiest entertainers in American history.

Read more from author Randal Hill.