SANTA MONICA, Calif. ( UPI) -- Bandleader Lawrence Welk, whose bubbly champagne dance music took him from one night stands during the Depression into millions of living rooms and made him a millionaire, has died at his home, a spokeswoman said Monday. He was 89.
Spokeswoman Margaret Herron said Welk died about 7:30 p.m. Sunday of pneumonia. His wife of 61 years, Fern Welk, was at his side, as were his son son Larry, and daughter Shirley Fredricks.
The homey, strait-laced Welk style was called corny by some critics and musicians, but of all the big name bands, only Welk's closely knit 'family' ever made it big on television and endured through the years. He kept many musicians playing in his conservative, well-scrubbed band by simply paying more than they could make with hipper, more innovative ensembles.
Welk, an accomplished accordionist, had one of the most popular shows on network TV for 16 years. After ABC canceled his program following the 1970-71 season, he was syndicated on more than 180 stations for more than a decade.
Welk's signature 'uh one, and uh two,' conducting style, his praise of his 'wunnerful' performers, and his grinning on-stage polkas with matrons from the audience as the 'bubblemachine' cranked away made him a household name.
His audiences of middle-aged and older viewers took his performers to heart -- especially a quartet of fresh-faced young women named the Lennon Sisters he introduced on his Christmas Eve, 1955, show.
Welk was born on March 11, 1903, on a farm near Strasburg, N.D., one of eight children of immigrants who left the Alsace-Lorraine region of what is now northern France in 1878.
By the time he was 13, he was playing at community dances and church socials on an heirloom accordion his father brought from the old country.
He promised to remain on the farm until he was 21 if his father would buy him a new $400 accordion, and to turn over to his father every penny he made until the debt was repaid.
At 21, he launched his musical career, an accordion soloist who couldn't read music and never had a formal lesson. He formed his first orchestra in Aberdeen, S.D., and played on radio station WNAX in Yankton, S.D.
The station was the group's headquarters for the next six years as they did one-night stands through the Midwest and eventually long-term engagements in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Boston and Pittsburgh.
During the 1940s Welk and his band played regularly at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.
In 1951 the orchestra was signed for a six-week engagement at the Aragon Ballroom at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica, Calif. It lasted 10 years.
'The TV started one night when a local television station came to us at the Aragon and said, 'Do you mind if we pick you up tonight,'' Welk recalled at one time.
'I didn't know about those things -- or that we should have smoothed things out. So I said, 'Sure, go ahead.' Therefore we weren't as rehearsed or stilted as other band shows. I think that helped us. If you make mistakes, the audience feels you're human.'
Welk's sometimes fumbling stage manner and his heavy Germanic accent endeared him to his fans.
In 1955, he and his band were named the No. 1 dance band in the country by the National Ballroom Operators of America, and the program was selected as the musical show of the year by the Nation's Radio and Television editors.
Welk won a Gold Record for his 'Calcutta,' released in 1961.
Among the many ventures that added to his wealth was the Welk Group, which included a resort, a TV production company, a syndication division and a record group.
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Welk is survived by another daughter, Donna Mack, of Boise, Idaho, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandaughter. The funeral will be private.