A German Immigrant Musician Born in Ukraine, Lawrence Welk Built Santa Monica's Tallest Tower
A musician, accordionist, bandleader, Welk hosted "The Lawrence Welk Show." From 1951 to 1982, still one of the longest runs ever on TV
September 16, 2021
A few of you in my generation may remember your parents watching a certain musical variety show back in the day. A musician, accordionist and bandleader, Welk hosted "The Lawrence Welk Show" from 1951 to 1982. The show is still one of the longest runs ever on TV. Fewer folks know that Welk was also responsible for the One Wilshire Building.
Known as a skillful businessman, Welk had investments in real estate and music publishing. He was the general partner in a commercial real estate development at 100 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, says Wikipedia.
The 21-story white tower, located on the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Bay at Ocean Avenue, is the tallest building in Santa Monica. It was a joint venture with the engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall. Its largest original tenant was GTE, now Verizon.
Welk also owned the adjacent 16-story luxury apartment building at 1221 Ocean Avenue-the "Lawrence Welk Champagne Towers", and Welk made his personal residence in the complex. He built the adjacent 11-story Wilshire Palisades office building at 1299 Ocean Avenue at Arizona Street, says Wikipedia.
Designed to resemble a white ocean liner, it has a wedge-shaped "bow" edge, receding "decks" with railings, and air conditioner covers that look like smokestacks. Its shape creates a landscaped plaza on the corner, and the result is a landmark, says Wikipedia.
Welk was born in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota. He was sixth of the eight children of Ludwig and Christiana (née Schwahn) Welk, Roman Catholic ethnic Germans who emigrated in 1892 from Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). An immigrant, he always spoke with an accent.
Welk's big band performed across the country, but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of several thousand. His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City during the late 1940s. In 1944 and 1945, Welk led his orchestra in many motion picture "Soundies," considered to be the early pioneers of music videos.
Welk collaborated with Western artist Red Foley to record a version of Spade Cooley's "Shame on You" in 1945. The record was number 4 to Cooley's number 5 on Billboard's September 15 "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" listing. From 1949 through 1951, the band had radio programming on ABC, sponsored by Miller High Life, "The Champagne of Bottle Beer".
In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. The show became a local hit and was picked up by ABC in June 1955.
During its first year on the air, the Welk hour instituted several regular features. To make Welk's "Champagne Music" tagline visual, the production crew engineered a "bubble machine" that spouted streams of large bubbles across the bandstand. While the bubble machine was originally engineered to produce soap bubbles, complaints from the band members about soapy build-ups on their instruments led to the machine being re-worked to produce glycerine bubbles instead. Whenever the orchestra played a polka or waltz, Welk himself would dance with the band's female vocalist, the "Champagne Lady".
His first Champagne Lady was Jayne Walton Rosen (real name: Dorothy Jayne Flanagan), who left the show after her marriage. After Welk and his band went on television, she appeared as a guest on the show, where she sang Latin American songs and favorites that were popular when she was traveling with the Welk band. Novelty numbers would usually be sung by Rocky Rockwell (1923–2013), originally from St. Joseph, Missouri. Welk also reserved one number for himself to solo on his accordion.
He died in 1992, age 89.