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Lawrence Welk: “It Hurts When People Laugh At You”

Are they laughing at me?” Lawrence Welk stared at his own image on the television srreen—the program had been filmed this week so he could appear at a benefit. Now he could see himself exactly as people all across the country were seeing him.

“Sure they are laughing,” he said out loud. “Listen to that accent . . . and just look at me. Who could blame them for laughing. Maybe I still don’t belong up there in front of a band.”

Fern Welk dropped the pink sweater she was knitting for their grandchild and walked over to the flower-patterned couch where her husband sat hunched over. “Lawrence,” she said softly, putting her arms around him, “don’t feel that way. Let’s not go back . . .”



But Lawrence Welk’s mind was already racing back through the years, racing back till he heard again the awful laughter of that night in Dallas, South Dakota.

“Look at that clown!”

“Get him!”

“Why doesn’t he go back to the farm?”

The lonely man sat there on the edge of the wooden bandstand, his hands pressing against his ears to shut out the cruel echoes of those sounds. He began pacing the polished floor of the empty ballroom in a panic. Where, he asked himself, where could he go to get away from those sounds?

He sank down again on the edge of the bandstand. Except for a few torn strips of red and white crepe paper—these and the figure of this lonely man—the hall was bare. There weren’t even any instrument cases standing around. The members of his own band had deserted him, walked out on him, refusing to work for a man who didn’t even know how to speak properly and who acted, they taunted, as if he still had overalls on.

It all began just after intermission. Lawrence Welk thought he had hit on a new idea. Standing there, pumping out of the accordion the music he’d first learned from his German-born father, he suddenly thought how much he himself would like to dance. Why not? he wondered. It might even be good showmanship. He put his accordion aside and started down into the audience.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked, smiling warmly at the woman he had selected and trying not to hear his own accent.

“With you?” the surprised woman blurted out. There he stood, his open hand extended while a deep purple blush spread over his face, blotting out the warm freckles. Then it began—the laughter, the terrible laughter, the laughter he had heard all his life and knew he would never escape.

And afterwards there was still more laughter. “This is it!” the drummer announced “We’ve had enough of this hick routine. What ever made you think that woman would want to dance with you? You’re not much of a musician, but as a dancer . . .” The drummer signaled to the others with an abrupt motion. And, one by one, the entire band walked right out the door of the ballroom. They left Lawrence Welk there, alone, white-faced and stunned, with nothing to say because he was too hurt and nothing to do because he was too discouraged.

“Well,” he thought, slumping forward. “They’re right. I’m a hick. I’ve got an accent. I’m nothing much to look at . . . and . . . I guess I even have to admit I’m no great shakes as a musician either. I never even learned to read music.”

As a young boy, he’d worked in the fields, helping his father to harvest the crops. Then, after sundown, Ludwig Welk would teach his son to play the cheap pearl-buttoned squeeze box he’d brought from the old country. Then, when a ruptured appendix had almost cost Lawrence his life and had put him a full year behind the other kids at school, the accordion was the only thing that could cheer him up. When he finally returned to school, he was ashamed at being bigger and older than anybody in the class.

Once, when Lawrence was fourteen years old, the teacher of the country school he attended near Strasburg, North Dakota, let him go outside to play. He had finished his work, and she had to listen to the other pupils recite.

It was a mild spring day with new grass popping up all around the building, a perfect day to be outdoors. Inside this farm boy the love for music he had felt since he was a toddler began to grow and swell until he thought it would burst unless he let it out. Around in back of the schoolhouse he saw an old broomstick propped up against the building. He didn’t want to make any noise that would bother the students inside; he couldn’t sing. Still, he could dance. So, grabbing the broom in his plump, freckled hands, he began to polka around the yard, turning and twirling, hopping, leaping, skipping around and around, fast and still taster until his head began to swim with dizziness.

“Lawrence!” The teacher was standing in the door of the schoolhouse with a look he knew she used only when she had to punish someone. “I’m surprised at you!” she said. “I thought you were a more considerate boy. What on earth made you think we wanted to listen to you sing all morning? You’ll have to come inside right now.”

“Sing? Sing?” He didn’t think he was making any noise. The music must have just popped out of him—and he didn’t even know it was happening or how it happened.

Red-faced, he walked back into the classroom. “Get a load of the nightingale!” one of the sixth-graders yelled. A girl pointed at him, shaking her head and laughing. “Quiet!” Miss Randolph ordered. But her face too grew red when she saw the lines someone had scrawled on the blackboard while she was out of the room:

“Larry Welk went out to play, Sang and drove the birds away.”

What hurt most was that even his father thought it was funny. When he saw the expression on Lawrence’s face, though, Ludwig Welk’s voice took on a kindlier tone. “They laughed—no? Well, what should I say? That’s what you got to expect. For you to be a musician—that I don’t approve anyway But you got to be—how do you say it—prepared! That’s it. This you haven’t got, Lawrence. They laugh at me. I got an accent. No education. I’m just a farmer. They laugh at me. I’m afraid they will laugh at you too. But, I know, it always hurts when people laugh.”

Ludwig Welk didn’t want people laughing at his son and he didn’t want his son leaving their good rich lands to go into the evil world that he pictured show business must be. And when Lawrence opened the mail-order catalogue to show him the shining new accordion he had his heart set on, Ludwig shook his head in protest. It cost four hundred dollars, much more money than he had. He would have to pay for it in installments and Ludwig had never bought anything on time payments in his life.

Lawrence pleaded. He was determined to have that accordion and, finally, he struck a bargain with his father. “I’ll pay back every cent of the money,” he promised, “and I’ll stay on the farm until I’m twenty-one.”

Ludwig agreed and Lawrence kept his promise. But when he was twenty-one, he left his father’s farm and tried to build a band of his own. Each year of hard work made him more and more certain his father had been right. People did laugh. They laughed when he flopped as an actor with a vaudeville troupe; they laughed when his accent popped out; they laughed every time he went down into the audience to dance. They even laughed at him, at the way he looked.

There was only one thing about Lawrence Welk that people did not laugh at—his sense of rhythm, his ability to know what songs people wanted to hear, the gift of music which he could bring them. They did not make fun of this.

After his own band had walked out on him, another orchestra leader offered him control of a band he’d organized. Lawrence turned down the offer, but it gave him back enough of his confidence to organize a new band of his own.

His first band had shared in the profits cooperatively, but while the men had been willing to take the good, they had balked at the bad times. Now, Lawrence paid his men a straight salary and began to learn how to talk to his men and how to be their leader. Before, he had set up the music stands and carried all the instruments for the boys himself. He was used to heavy work from the farm and he thought nothing of it until his new boys looked at him in surprise and explained that lugging and carting were not a leader’s job.

For a moment, Lawrence was embarrassed and felt they must be laughing at him. But then he told himself they were just being friendly and, on this new basis, the band grew and Lawrence Welk became better known and more and more popular in the Midwest. He even had a radio show.

Among the crowd jamming the WNAX studio one day in Yankton, South Dakota, was a group of nurses. But for Lawrence Welk, there was only one person in the whole studio. Her dark brown eyes, the straight way she sat with her white-gloved hands in her lap, her attentive air of listening with her head cocked just a little to one side, attracted him. She’s pretty, he thought, and a lady too. But she’ll never go out with a homely bumpkin like me. Through the rest of the broadcast, he couldn’t keep his eyes from constantly turning in her direction.

Fern Renner was embarrassed. At first she tried not to look back at him. One of her friends leaned over and whispered excitedly, “Lawrence Welk certainly has his eye on you! You lucky girl! What’ll you do if he asks you to go out?”

“Oh, Annie, keep still!” Fern answered. “He does have a nice appearance though. Don’t you think so? But he doesn’t intend to look at me. Besides, who’d want to go out with an orchestra leader? They’re so unstable. I bet he has a girlfriend in every town.”

“Well, he seems to think you’re awfully pretty,” Annie replied. “And he looks so nice! Not at all sophisticated or dangerous!”

Annie was right. The minute the engineer waved the show off the air, Lawrence cut a path straight toward Fern. He hurried. Otherwise, he might have become too afraid to talk to her at all. “Hello,” he said. “Are you girls enjoying the show? That’s a pretty hat you have on,” he continued, turning toward Fern. “In fact, it’s too pretty to be put away in a box right after the show.”

“Thank you, Mr. Welk. I enjoyed the show very much. But don’t worry about my hat being put away. My friends and I are going out to dinner.”

“That’s disappointing! I thought maybe you’d have dinner with me.” On closer sight, Fern was even prettier than he thought. Everything she said made him want to know her better. “Is it all right if I call you?” he asked. “Maybe we could go out some other night.” That accent again! he thought. But she didn’t seem to notice it.

Fern hesitated. She was trying to decide how she could tell him it was his profession she didn’t like, not him “I might as well be frank,” she began, “I’m just not used to going out with musicians. My family wouldn’t approve—and, well, I’d rather not.”

“So that’s it!” he said. But inside, he wondered. Maybe she just didn’t like him. Even so, he liked her well enough to take the chance of being refused again. “I don’t know how I can convince you—wait a minute! Tell you what I’ll do; I’ll invite one of your friends to go along with us.”

“All right,” Fern laughed. “There can’t be any harm in that.”

Over the next few months, Lawrence and Fern had several dates, but gradually they drifted apart. Lawrence went to Lake Placid, New York, where he had a booking, and Fern accepted a job as a laboratory technician in Dallas. Months later, she went to Denver for a vacation.

While she was in Denver, she noticed an ad in the paper—“Elitch’s Gardens—Outdoor Dancing to the Music of Lawrence Welk.” “Should I call?” she wondered. “I’d like to, but—but—he’s a musician Still, it’d be fun to see him. I will call him!”

Three hours later she was lunching with him, and that night she was at Elitch’s Something deep inside her began to tell her that Lawrence’s fine qualities as a man were more important than the fact that he was a musician. How surprised she would have been if she could have known Lawrence still thought she just didn’t like him well enough to marry him.

“Having you here means a lot to me, Fern,” he whispered as they moved over the polished ballroom floor together.

“I like being with you more than I’ve ever told you,” she answered, turning her pretty face up to his.

“I know I’m not much of a prize, Fern. I’m a backwoods hick. But . . .” He was cut off by the sound of her laughter. He stopped dancing, his body too stiff to move. He stared at her, his mouth open. And at the back of his mind, he heard the old taunt: “Larry Welk went out to play, Sang and drove the birds away.”

“Oh, Lawrence!” she continued laughing. She had to put her hand over her mouth in order to stop. “Lawrence, what’s wrong?” She saw the look on his face and became frightened. “What’s the matter?” she repeated.

“I’ve gotten used to most people laughing,” he said, shaking his head from side to side in disbelief. “But I can’t stand to have you laugh at me. Fern!”

“Laugh at you?” she echoed “I’d never laugh at you! There’s no reason to laugh at you! Oh—is that what you thought? You’re so wrong! The idea that you’re someone who should be laughed at—that’s what’s funny. There must be hundreds of women who’d jump at a chance to marry you. Whether you know it or not, you’re a very attractive person.”

“Don’t kid me, Fern,” he answered stubbornly.

“Kid you? What can I do to prove I mean everything I said.”

“Do you mean it enough to marry me?”

She was quiet for a few seconds, remembering that despite the things she had said, Lawrence was still a musician. Quickly—she prayed. And a decision came. “Yes. Yes, Lawrence, I will marry you. I know now that you’re strong and reliable. I think I can accept your profession too.”

A few months later Fern Renner and Lawrence Welk were married at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sioux City, Iowa. With the morning sun shining down on them through the brilliant, stained- glass windows, they took each others hands and made a pledge, a pledge to be together through good times and bad ones, through one-night stands, through separations, through the years and over the miles—in fact, forever.

Sometimes keeping the pledge was hard work. It took patience and determination, a sense of humor and, perhaps most important, the courage to shut out the laughter which still followed them. On their wedding night, they went to a hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“You’ll have to sign the book,” the clerk said to Lawrence as he looked them over.

“Oh, sure.” Lawrence took the pen and confidently wrote down: “Fern Renner and Lawrence Welk.”

The clerk looked at the book and then winked at Lawrence. “You’d better try again,” he said.

“Okay.” When Lawrence saw what he had written, he could hardly control his confusion. The accent he’d picked up during his Dakota childhood came out stronger than ever as he tried to explain, “We . . . well, you see . . . we were just married this morning.”

“Oh, a foreigner,” the clerk laughed scornfully as he handed him the key.

But Lawrence and Fern were learning. Together, they were learning how to shut out the laughter. The next few years were good ones. Lawrence Welk grew in many ways. He and Fern had their first child, Shirley. And gradually Lawrence’s band obtained better and better bookings. Then came the Depression years, and, like everyone else, Lawrence suffered as an entertainer. Bookings got smaller and smaller, less and less frequent.

Somehow, they got through the bad times. The worst were the separations, the being apart, like the time when baby Shirley had been born. After that they stayed together through as much of the touring musician’s life as they could. When Donna and Lawrence Jr. were born, they joined the Welk caravan, which now traveled only during the day so that the children would have a reasonable place to sleep at night. Later, when they were of school age, the children traveled with him only during the summer.

When fall came, they would go protestingly back to school and Lawrence would continue his touring alone. (All the places they visited, though, must have given Larry Jr. a good idea of what people like in music. Larry’s become his father’s unofficial talent scout and it was he who first heard the Lennon Sisters and told Lawrence Sr. about them.)

And meanwhile, the champagne music of Lawrence Welk was catching on. People were beginning to come from long distances to see him and his warmth and smile as well as his music were becoming known. Lawrence Welk was at last starting to know the feeling of being accepted and being liked, although he still dreaded the laughter he thought might be behind his back. Even with his very popular television shows, his recording sessions and his regular engagement at the famous Aragon Ballroom, he just couldn’t stop wondering whether he ought to be “up there in front of a band.”

It wasn’t so bad any longer when he was actually “up there.” He knew the boys in the band were his friends and he could look out at the audience and see by the way they were smiling and dancing that they liked his music. But when he was sitting there at home, staring at his own image on the television set, he’d shake his head and think, “I’m making such a fool of myself. They can’t really like me, not honestly. Not like I am.” And when he’d hear himself trip up in his speech, he would groan aloud.

“Lawrence.” Fern was actually shaking him to make him understand. “All those people all over the country who are watching, they could just click the dial if they wanted to. And the people who come to the Aragon Ballroom or who buy your records, nobody’s forcing them to that, either. Lawrence,” she smiled at him with tenderness, “Oh, Lawrence, you’re right. Nobody likes you at all . . . nobody at all . . . just people.”