BY JAMES DETAR
Investor’s Business Daily
Section: LEADERS & SUCCESS
Publication Date: May 23, 2011
** Created the longest-running musical variety show on TV, “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
** “All my life I have believed in the power of work. Now, at the age of 78, I believe in it more strongly than ever.”
Lawrence Welk was no one-note wonder.
He made his most memorable mark in entertainment with “The Lawrence Welk Show,” one of the most watched programs on TV.
But his business didn’t stop there.
After his advisers suggested he find investments to shelter some of his income from the tax collector, he figured out a lucrative way.
Welk lived near Los Angeles, and they took him on a tour of avocado groves and orange orchards.
Welk wasn’t having any of it. He had his heart set on buying a tiny mobile home park halfway between L.A. and San Diego.
“He certainly wasn’t a trained businessman. But he had wonderful gut feelings for certain things,” his son Larry Welk told IBD.
Land And Band
Lawrence Welk was an avid golfer and had seen an ad about the mobile home park and nine-hole golf course next to it, in Escondido. “He ended up buying that and building there, and that was the beginning of one of the most successful businesses we still run — the Lawrence Welk resorts,” his son said.
Lawrence Welk was only starting. He built a restaurant, theater and timeshare condos there, and expanded the golf course — all part of the anchor for the Welk Resorts chain. It winds all the way to Mexico, with Welk Resorts Sirena Del Mar in Cabo San Lucas landing the No. 11 spot on TripAdvisor.com’s 2011 list of the world’s top hotels.
That business harmony came from a man who excelled as a band leader and TV star because he loved music and people.
It was a long journey for Welk (1903-92) from his humble beginnings on a small farm in the upper Midwest to the top in television.
Welk’s parents were German immigrants who settled in Strasburg, N.D. His father built their house out of sod, and the family of 10 worked the land as farmers.
In his memoirs, “Wunnerful, Wunnerful,” Welk wrote: “My earliest clear memory is of crawling toward my father who was holding his accordion. I can still recall the wonder and delight I felt when he let me press my fingers on the keys and squeeze out a few wavering notes.”
When Welk was 13 he started earning money for the family playing that instrument. Four years later he asked for his own accordion. His father said OK, but made him promise to stay on the farm until he was 21 and give the money he made playing gigs to his dad to help the family. He agreed.
Music To His Ears
“On March 11, 1924, I woke up early in the morning,” Welk wrote. “I was 21 years old. . . . My father and I had a bargain, and we had each kept to the letter of the spirit of agreement. He had kept his word and I was free to go. Now it was up to me to prove that my dreams were more than dreams.”
Welk didn’t have any money and didn’t speak English very well. His family had mainly spoken German at home. Now language was just another challenge to whip.
“He was always a persevering kind of guy. I remember him saying, “From every adversity comes an achievement,’ ” said Adrian Edwards, director of guest services and special events at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido.
Welk liked people and they liked him. Edwards says she started working for Welk as a waitress in 1965 and rose to her current spot.
On The Road
Welk put a band together for parties, playing jazz at first and later focusing on the music he knew best, German polkas and popular music standards. Sensing that people longed for wholesome entertainment, he tried to make the music and the show family-friendly.
By 1938, Welk’s band had grown to 10 pieces, playing in Pittsburgh at the William Penn Hotel and using the tag line “The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.”
Two years later the band landed at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago and turned it into a 10-year stay.
But by then, post-World War II, the popularity of big bands, including Welk’s, was fading. He agonized over his musicians’ future, says Edwards.
“I used to just have to worry about my family,” he told her. “Now I have all these people working for me with families and they have to make a living.”
Welk decided to keep the band together, landing gigs all the way to the West Coast. In 1951 his agent arranged a late-night appearance on KTLA, a Los Angeles TV station.
That turned into a variety show, and in 1955 the ABC network picked it up for national viewing.
Ralna English, a singer on Welk’s show, recalls talking with him about their tough times and his upbeat attitude. “He had a career long before he came on TV and so did I. I started singing at 13. He came up playing in dives and so did I, and we worked hard,” she said. “But he was always positive. I never knew him to be negative. He always looked to the bright side.”
Welk was a serious musician, but he liked to clown around on the show. He was teasing singer Jo Ann Castle once and pulled on her ponytail, Ralna said, not realizing it was a detachable accessory. It came off in his hand. That got a big laugh from the audience, so he and Castle did that bit regularly.
Welk knew viewers wanted to see top talent, so he hired musicians such as clarinetist Pete Fountain and the Lennon Sisters, all of whom got their start with him.
Despite his easy manner with the show’s stars and production people, Welk could be a tough businessman. When ABC canceled the show in 1971, he went right to its sponsors and asked for their support. “They said, “We’ll stay with you,’ ” Ralna recalled.
Now shed of the network, Welk took the show into syndication, and it soon aired on TV stations coast to coast again.
In addition to Welk Resorts, he made other successful real estate investments. One of the earliest was a site near his L.A. home.
Welk looked for bargains, but also saw potential where others saw none. The site faced the ocean and had a gas station. He asked a friend to see if the owner would sell it. The pal returned with: “It’s probably too much money for that location, Lawrence.”
“Dad said, “You know, let’s not take every dollar off the table. It’s a fair price; let’s buy it,’ ” his son said.
He did and soon built a 21-story business building there, with beautiful ocean views. Today it’s called 100 Wilshire and it’s a landmark, the tallest building in Santa Monica. But that was just the start.
“He ended up buying all the property in the entire block between Wilshire and Arizona Avenue and built a 120-unit apartment house and the Wilshire Palisades building,” his son said.
Welk also was in tune with music publishing, stocking up on melodies. “He owned some phenomenal songs, including the Jerome Kern catalog,” Larry Welk said.
Kern wrote over 700 songs, including classics like “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Welk used the songs on his show while amassing a fortune that made him, says one source, the second-wealthiest performer after Bob Hope.
After changing networks several times, “The Lawrence Welk Show” airs weekly on public TV stations as reruns, with new commentary by the original stars.
Sixty years after it hit KTLA, it’s considered the longest-running musical variety show on TV.
Although he had an affinity for business, Welk focused on what he loved and knew best — making champagne music, as he called it.
“He did this from the heart. This was not to make money or to create an empire, but something he did for his audience. He wanted to please them,” English said.