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Lawrence Welk Spent Last Years with Wife of 61 Years at 'Champagne Towers' & Was 'In Control' of His Co-stars

Stephen Thompson
Mar 12, 2022
09:40 P.M.
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Lawrence Welk was only interested in one woman while he lived, and she remained by his side till his demise. He had unique relationships with his co-stars behind the scenes and even turned his haters into fans — here are details on the life he lived.

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Lawrence Welk found love before fame found him, a sequence that came in handy because it meant his wife was there to keep him grounded even as his stardom grew.

The talented musician was married to Fern Renner for more than six decades until his demise. She was born August 26, 1903, and died February 13, 2002, and the couple had three kids together. 

[Left] American accordionist, bandleader and television presenter Lawrence Welk (1903 - 1992), circa 1960. (; [Right] Picture of performers at the Lawrence Welk Show; circa 1970; New York | Source: Getty Images

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Lawrence was born the sixth of eight kids in Strasburg, North Dakota, and he dreamed of making a living as a musician. This is why he petitioned his father, a German-Russian immigrant, to buy him an accordion.

It would cost $400, but Lawrence had promised to pay it back by working on the family farm until he clocked 21. After that, he left his home to find a way for himself. 

US musician and band leader, Lawrence Welk,playing the accordion with sisters Dianne Lennon (left) and Janet Lennon, both of the 'Lennon Sisters', singing beside him, circa 1955 | Source: Getty Images

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Speaking about him, his grandson Lawrence Welk III said: "He left the farm with the clothes on his back and an accordion, with no money, and he didn't speak English. He was the American dream."

He worked hard, and by 1951, Lawrence had become a household name as the host of his TV variety show. Despite that, Lawrence stayed humble and proud of his beginnings. 

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Between his show and his numerous appearances as a guest on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show," Lawrence looked like "unintentionally funny rube." Still, it was all a ruse because he turned out to be one of the greatest showmen.

Fortunately, his fame never went to his head because he had a solid check and balance system with his wife. She was constantly monitoring him, and when she saw that he was starting to get carried away, she would ground him

Lawrence Welk, US musician and band leader, smiling while posing with an accordian, circa 1955 | Source:Getty Images

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Renner, who worked as a nurse, had been the anchor of their family. She cared about everyone, and paying particular attention to her hubby was not difficult for her to do.

Thanks to her, he was able to keep his head straight, and his career was all the more successful. His grandson's ex-wife, Tanya, described him as a "really nice guy" who never missed going to church before heading to work.

He shared three kids, Shirley, Larry, and Donna, with his wife. Lawrence never joked with his responsibility as a parent, and he was there for many of his children's major milestones. The singer was the one who walked his daughter Donna Welk down the aisle when she got married to James Mack. 

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Studio portrait of Lawrence Welk, circa 1941 | Source: Getty Images

WELK'S PERSONALITY AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH CO-STARS

Armed with an accordion courtesy of his father, Lawrence had set out at 21 to make a living for himself, and he did.

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His crew members knew that something was very wrong when he started hitting his baton on his leg.

Lawrence and the band he put together dominated TV for more than three decades and created a loyal fan base who looked forward to their performances. 

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Lawrence's recipe for success was to keep things simple and conventional; get up there and give the people what they want to hear in the most straightforward arrangements.

He preferred performances not to exceed three minutes in case someone did not enjoy a specific song. He just wanted to play things safe, which made it all predictable yet wholesome.

Norma Zimmer, Lawrence Welk appearing on 'The Lawrence Welk Show' | Source: Getty Images

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Despite the predictability, his audience loved him and were often impatient to have their weekly taste of Lawrence's talent galvanized by a succession of Champagne Ladies, accordionists, and talented instrumentalists.

Lawrence, his orchestra, and performers, including Norma Zimmer and the Lennon Sisters, once played at the new Baltimore Civic Center on March 31, 1963, and were swamped at the airport by fans.

That day, the crew's performance was a sellout, raking in more than $50,000, the largest gross in his history. After some time, dissent entered Lawrence's band as they got frustrated by his methods, which required him to have total control over the music content and even costume selection.

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Studio portrait of Lawrence Welk, circa 1950 | Source: Getty Images

Many like Alice Lon and the Lennon Sisters quit when they couldn't take it anymore. Lon, Lawrence's "Champagne Lady," was in a feud with him in 1959 because she wanted more diversity on her musical menu.

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The two also had many disagreements over the length of her attire, which kept inching upwards in concerts to Lawrence's chagrin. Eventually, he fired her, but after protest from his fans, he tried to hire her back, but she wasn't interested.

Lawrence Welk dancing with an unidentified woman, circa 1960 | Source: Getty Images

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The Lennon Sisters wanted to do more modern performances, but Lawrence was bent on his ways and wanted to play things safe. To his dismay, they left his band in 1968 and never returned. Other crew members left him because of monetary issues. He had been a miser when it came to wages.

They worked for ten years on a group scale for $110 a week, after which it was increased to $210. The other performers tried to get it to go higher, but Lawrence would not budge, costing him his workers.

Lawrence Welk performing on 'The Lawrence Welk Show', circa 1968 | Source: Getty Images

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The talented showman was also very strict with his Catholic beliefs — so strict that he once fired a man who decided to marry another woman after his divorce.

Of course, he gave him his job back after others advised that he let the man run his romantic affairs while he remained in charge of his musical performances.

Lawrence was known to be very cool-tempered and was said never to lose control. However, his crew members knew that something was very wrong when he started hitting his baton on his leg. 

Lawrence Welk attends Seventh Annual Dinah Shore Winner Circle Golf Championship on March 29, 1978 at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California | Source: Getty Images

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WELK'S FINAL YEARS AND DEATH

Lawrence passed away from pneumonia, but his spokesperson, Bernice McGeehan, revealed that family surrounded him and that it happened at his Santa Monica home on a Sunday evening at 89. In the years before his death, the performer had retired and spent quality time with his longtime wife.

Most of that time was spent primarily at their "Champagne Towers" in Santa Monica. The pair also frequented their second home near Escondido, where he transformed yet another small trailer park into an upscale mobile home park and vacation resort. 

Banlender Lawrence Welk autographs his book Wunnerful; Wunnerful at Sherway Gardens, Canada on September 24, 1971 | Source: Getty Images

Lawrence was lucky enough to witness the birth of his kids, their children, and even one great-grandchild before his death, and even though he died decades ago, his impact has never been forgotten. 

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