Growing up as the sixth of eight children in rustic Strasburg, North Dakota, Lawrence Welk‘s dream was to make a living as a musician. He persuaded his German-Russian immigrant father to buy him an accordion for $400 and promised to pay him back by working on the family farm until he was 21.
Then he went on to become America’s most beloved bandleader. “He left the farm with the clothes on his back and an accordion, with no money and he didn’t speak English,” the star’s grandson Lawrence “Larry” Welk III exclusively revealed to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “He was the American dream.”
Even after he became a household name by hosting his own TV variety show starting in 1951, Lawrence remained humble and proud of his roots. “He didn’t care about fame,” said Larry. “He cared about entertaining and connecting with people.”
Through his own show and appearing as a guest on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, Lawrence developed an image as an unintentionally funny rube, but it was all an act. “People who watched him on TV thought he was a cornball and talked funny,” his daughter-in-law Tanya Welk Roberts exclusively admitted to Closer. “But he was the best showman I’ve ever seen.”
If he started to get a big head, Fern — his wife of 61 years — would bring him back down to Earth. “She was the best woman I ever met, and very strong,” gushed Tanya. “She was the rock of the family,” Larry agreed. “Fern was a nurse, so she really cared for people. And she kept him in check.”
Lawrence became famous for his catchphrases — “A-one and a-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful” — as well as gimmicks like his trademark bubble machine. A passionate golfer, he tooled around courses in a cart that blew bubbles. “He had an extraordinary passion for golf and swimming,” Larry stated.
Although he lived in sunny Pacific Palisades, California, “he had an indoor pool, and he swam every day. When you’re from North Dakota, you keep it indoors.” He lived on the same street as Ronald Reagan’s and Henry Fonda’s families, but Lawrence “wasn’t famous to me,” said Larry. “He was just my grandfather with a really cool house.”
His dedication to his fans was unwavering. “He would wait after the end of every show and talk to everyone who wanted to see him,” Larry recalled. “He would just sit there and talk to people for five hours.” A teetotaler, Lawrence ate ice and cornflakes after every show. He was raised Roman Catholic and remained devout throughout his life. “He went to church every single day before he went to work,” marveled Tanya. “Lawrence was a really nice guy.”
Before he died at age 89 in 1992, he instilled his most deeply held beliefs in his children and grandchildren. “He was most proud of being an American who was successful,” said Larry. “There’s not a child or a grandchild in my family who believes they’re something special because they’re a Welk. They believe they have the ability to go out and chase the American dream because my grandfather did.”
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