Tuesday, June 22, 2010

(empo-caallii) California music? Lawrence Welk.

When people try to place the "wunnerful" Lawrence Welk geographically, the first place that comes to mind is North Dakota, the state where Welk was born in 1903. But the midwesterner Welk, like the midwesterner Johnny Carson before him, was determined to be successful, and to do that he'd have to leave North Dakota.

Initially, he didn't make it very far:

In 1927 the band decided to relocate to New Orleans to escape the early and harsh winters of North Dakota. The band never made it farther than Yankton, North Dakota, however. The quartet auditioned for local radio station WNAX, and the success of the audition's live broadcast netted them a contract for a regular radio program featuring the orchestra's music and commercials for hog tonic and other agricultural products.

Hog tonic paid the bills, so Welk and his band stayed put for a while, although they toured extensively. They did eventually move their base of operations southward, to Omaha Nebraska, but eventually played a decade-long engagement in Chicago. But that changed in 1951:

The waning popularity of big bands subsequently forced Welk to go back on tour to make ends meet. In 1951, he made a successful appearance on a late-night TV show in Los Angeles. The idea of working in television captured his imagination, and led him to move to L.A....

Welk definitely ended up working in television, creating "The Lawrence Welk Show" for local TV station KTLA. The results were wunnerful:

Meanwhile, the ABC television network was starting to gain steam, partially because of a 1954 show called "Disneyland." (The Wikipedia author noted that this was "the beginning of a relationship between the [Disney] studio and the [ABC] network which would eventually, four decades later, transform them both.") Other emerging shows at the time included The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It To Beaver.

By 1955, ABC aired Lawrence Welk in a summer replacement slot, eventually giving him a permanent slot. The show appeared under several names, but the format was recognizable to anyone who had seen the old KTLA local show - accordions, bubbles, and the like. Still produced in California, which was emerging as a national television production center, Welk and ABC remained together for over a decade. But ABC itself was changing:

Broadcasting in color from the mid-1960s, ABC started using the new science of demographics to tweak its programming and ad sales. ABC invested heavily in shows with wide appeal, especially situation comedies such as Happy Days, Barney Miller, Three's Company and Taxi. Programming head Fred Silverman was credited with reversing the network's fortunes by spinning off shows such as Laverne & Shirley and Mork and Mindy. He also commissioned series from Aaron Spelling such as Charlie's Angels.

While this youth surge proved wildly successful for ABC, it left little room at the network for the likes of Lawrence Welk, and ABC canceled Welk's show in 1971. This didn't hurt Welk, however, who not only arranged a syndication network to air new shows for another decade, but also branched out into a variety of other businesses. For example, if you remember when I discussed Vanguard Records and Sugar Hill Records, you may have noted that both labels are affiliated with the Welk Music Group. (And if you don't understand the latter link's reference "tried to push a song called "Grasser's Delight" on a fledgling record label," perhaps this fake radio transcript may jog your memory.)

So while Welk traveled all over the country, in a sense his best success came as a California musician, reaching massive popularity just a few years before the Beach Boys and the Byrds.

And if you need any further proof that Welk is a California guy, consider that he was not buried in the Dakotas, but in Culver City.
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