Lawrence Welk’s TV Debut
After ten years playing at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, Lawrence Welk, native of Strasburg, North Dakota, realized that his days in the Windy City were drawing to a close. The big band craze of the 1930s and ’40s was ending, Welk’s crowds were dwindling, and the Trianon’s manager had refused repeated requests from the band for salary increases. And so, in 1950, Welk decided to pack up his orchestra and go on tour, hoping for more lucrative engagements.
Midway through the tour, Sam Lutz, the band’s manager, secured Welk his first big break. Lutz contacted KTLA, a Los Angeles television station, about airing Welk’s orchestra. The station manager was hesitant, having been burned by bands before. He finally agreed, but there was a catch. KTLA refused to pay any expenses, and even asked that Welk put up three hundred dollars to pay for shooting costs! Welk agreed, and his orchestra made its television debut on May 2 of 1951.
Fortunately, Welk’s on-air appearance was a complete success. The next morning while playing golf, he received many compliments and congratulations from complete strangers who had seen him on their television sets the night before. As for KTLA, it received numerous calls and letters asking to see more of Lawrence Welk. The station manager quickly informed Welk that he’d be happy to air his band the following week, and would even pay the band for its trouble.
The Lawrence Welk show grew into a successful weekly program in Los Angeles, attracting the interest of the Dodge Motor Company, which was looking for a local show to sponsor. The company sent a representative to discuss a sponsorship, but Welk rebuffed the overture, informing the Dodge agent that he was currently sponsored by Chevrolet. To this, the Dodge employee simply replied, “Oh, I think we just may get you in a Dodge one of these days.” One month later, the Dodge Motor Company and Mr. Welk signed an agreement giving Dodge exclusive sponsoring rights.
As the months passed, Welk’s show became even more successful. His ratings were high, and local Los Angeles Dodge dealerships were enjoying increased business. Welk’s success encouraged Dodge to reconsider its arrangement. Instead of appearing only on local television, Dodge offered Welk a national show. ABC snatched up the program, and on this date in 1955, the first national broadcast of the Lawrence Welk show aired coast to coast. After a 27 years on national TV, Welk retired, but the show lived on, with re-runs becoming one of the most popular programs on PBS.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
“50 Years on National Television: The Lawrence Welk Show,” North Dakota State University http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/grhc/history_culture/lawrence_welk/fifty_years.html (accessed June 11, 2008).
“Lawrence Welk”, Oklahoma Educational Television Authority http://www.oeta.onenet.net/welk/welk.htm (accessed June 11, 2008).
Welk, Lawrence, and Bernice McGeehan. Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.