June 01, 1992 12:00 PM

LAWRENCE WELK’S “CHAMPAGNE MUSIC” was the sweet, harmonious song of the Eisenhower generation. For nearly three decades (1955-82) The Lawrence Welk Show poured a carefully orchestrated froth of musical bubbles into the living rooms of middle-aged viewers who preferred polkas and predictability to rock’s threatening thunder.

His show was straitlaced stuff, ground from pure American corn. Women performers dared not show a hint of cleavage, and while hemlines rose everywhere else, on Welk they stayed primly put. “If we would want to try out a song, he would always say it would only work if the woman in Minnesota doing the dishes could hum it afterward,” recalls Kathy Lennon, 48, of the Lennon Sisters, a Welk-show staple for more than 12 years.

For the 89-year-old bandleader, the gentle beat stopped last week when he died suddenly of pneumonia at the elegant Santa Monica beachfront condo he shared with Fern, his wife of 61 years. Says Bernice McGeehan, who coauthored Welk’s autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful: “He was not in any pain; he just went to sleep. He had a lovely, long, full life, and we’re grateful he didn’t suffer.”

That long life began on a farm near Strasburg, N.Dak., where Welk grew up the sixth of eight children born to a German immigrant couple. A fourth-grade dropout who was taught the accordion by his father, he formed his first serious professional band—the Hotsy-Totsy Boys—at 24 and soon after began barnstorming big-band dance halls. Then in 1955, ABC gambled that his bouncy beat would play on national TV.

Welk’s old-hat style and stilted accent were often mocked by comics and critics, and his reputation for thrift rivaled Jack Benny’s. (Instead of tipping, he handed out penknives inscribed with his name.) But he touched heartland heartstrings, becoming one of the most popular and enduring entertainers (not to mention one of the richest) this side of Bob Hope. Eventually he would amass a personal fortune worth an estimated $100 million. Included was a second home in Escondido, Calif., real estate and resorts in Southern California and even his own TV production company.

Though slowed by age in recent years, he never faded from the public eye. He had several Christmas reunions with his band, and his old shows still appear in reruns on public TV. To his aging but loyal fans, he remained…well, wunnerful, eternally wunnerful.

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