Lawrence Welk, one of the nation’s foremost band leaders and early TV personalities, brought his “champagne music” to Cedar Rapids four times during his long career.
Welk was born in 1903 in Strasburg, a German-speaking community in North Dakota. He left school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm and made extra money by playing his accordion at local events.
At age 21, he learned to speak English, organized a quartet and set out for New Orleans. He got as far as Yankton, S.D., where he signed a contract to play for a local radio station.
His band played all over the Midwest under a variety of names for the next 10 years. In 1937, the group moved to Omaha and expanded to 10 members and played at big-band venues. The band was at Pittsburgh in 1938, where a fan said the light, bubbly music was like champagne. From then on, Welk called his sound “champagne music.”
When he arrived at Danceland in Cedar Rapids for a September 1939 show, the ads touted the “Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.”
The band’s popularity grew over the next 15 years across the Midwest, then on the West Coast, where Welk first appeared on regional television.
In 1955, ABC decided to give the show a national airing. The TV show, sponsored by the Dodge division of the Chrysler Corp., became very popular, giving a phenomenal boost to his tour dates, which were limited by then to a few weeks a year.
At The Armar
Welk’s 1955 tour included three dates at Tom Archer ballrooms, including the Armar ballroom in Cedar Rapids. The September show sold out.
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“Back in the old days — when I was eating lots of hamburgers — I had a four-piece orchestra and Tom Archer had ballrooms in Sioux Falls and Sioux City and gave me a lot of dates,” Welk told a reporter before the Cedar Rapids show. “In appreciation for that help, I wanted to play for him now.”
By 1956, “The Lawrence Welk Show” on ABC was one of the most watched programs on television.
A newspaper reported Welk didn’t drink champagne. “I have a health condition, and I’m not allowed any alcoholic beverage at all,” he said. “Even champagne.”
Champagne on Ice
In 1956, Welk’s orchestra toured five Midwest cities, including Cedar Rapids. At each stop, local women competed in a Miss Champagne Music contest. The Cedar Rapids winner was Betty Kremenak, 18, a freshman at Coe College, who greeted Welk at the airport and rode with him in a convertible tour of the downtown.
The Welk orchestra flew into the Cedar Rapids airport at 4:20 p.m. Sept. 6, little knowing the chilly evening that awaited them. After the motorcade tour of the city, a champagne press party was held at the Roosevelt Hotel.
The concert was held outdoors at Hawkeye Downs, starting at 8:30 p.m. Reserved seating cost between $2 and $5.
More than 9,000 people gathered for the concert, and the temperature kept dropping. The wind picked up.
“It was cold out there,” Gazette reporter Nadine Subotnik wrote. “The fans came and they stuck, the lucky ones wearing winter coats and huddled in blankets.”
The local Dodge representatives rented topcoats for Welk’s performers from a secondhand shop before the concert started, but the performers took them off when they mounted the stage.
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The Lennon Sisters hopped in and out of a heated car parked nearby. Spectators probably wished they could have done the same.
The concert had been scheduled to last two-and-a-half hours, but it was cut to two, given the weather.
Still, it included appearances by “champagne lady” Alice Lon, accordionist Myron Floren, organist Jerry Burke and guitarist Buddy Merrill. Welk and Lon danced a waltz and a polka.
Evashevski & Welk
As 1956 was ending, Welk had University of Iowa football Coach Forest Evashevski and Oregon State Coach Tommy Prothro on his Christmas Eve TV show. The coaches were in Los Angeles where their teams were playing in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
Welk returned once more to Cedar Rapids to play at the Five Seasons Center in June 1980, one stop in a 12-city tour. He promoted his “Musical Family” that year instead of champagne music. More than 6,500 fans attended the two-and-a-half-hour show that received a glowing review from The Gazette’s Dick Hogan.
Welk retired a few years later. He died May 17, 1992, in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 89.
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