By Dennis McLellan,
Times Staff Writer
Myron Floren, the accordion virtuoso who came to fame in the mid-1950s as a regular on "The Lawrence Welk Show," the long-running weekly musical program that brought "champagne music" into millions of American homes, has died. He was 85.
Floren, who continued performing until the last few months, died of cancer Saturday at his home in Rolling Hills Estates, according to Margaret Heron, syndication manager for the Welk show.
Dubbed "The Happy Norwegian" for his perpetual grin, Floren joined Welk's orchestra on the road in 1950. A year later, the orchestra made its first appearance on KTLA-TV Channel 5, broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica.
Highly popular locally, the Welk program began its 27-year national run on Saturday nights in 1955, first on ABC-TV for 16 years and then, after the network deemed the show's audience "too old" and canceled it, in syndication on more than 250 stations around the country — more than had aired the show on ABC.
The wavy-haired, quiet-mannered Floren, the band's assistant conductor, was one of the most popular members of Welk's large musical "family," which included regulars such as singer-pianist Larry Hooper, singer Joe Feeney, violinist Aladdin, honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle, dancers Bobby Burgess and Barbara Boylan, the Lennon Sisters and Champagne Lady Norma Zimmer.
The show, whose early years coincided with the rise of rock 'n' roll, was ridiculed by some at the time for being corny and square. And the strait-laced Welk's German accent, "wunnerful, wunnerful" catch phrase and bubble machine became comic fodder.
But the headline on a 1957 Look magazine cover story on the former North Dakota farm boy proclaimed, "Nobody Loves Him Except the Public." In fact, about 50 million Americans were tuning in to "The Lawrence Welk Show" each week at the time.
"Lawrence knew what his audience wanted," Floren told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1997. "He said, 'Our show has to be so that mothers all over the country will invite us into their homes.' "
The key to the show's remarkable staying power, Floren said, was that it offered continual music played by highly skilled musicians.
"Lawrence had the sense to hire fine musicians in every chair," he said. "It wasn't the corny band that people sometimes think."
At least not to polka lovers.
"I guess we did one practically every week," Floren once recalled. "I even remember an instance where we were saluting Duke Ellington and Lawrence added a polka just in case."
"The Lawrence Welk Show" ended in 1982; Welk died 10 years later at age 89. But the old programs were repackaged and premiered on public television in 1987. "The Lawrence Welk Show" continues to be seen on 280 public television stations a week.
After the show ceased production, Floren continued to travel 150,000 miles a year, playing special engagements and making appearances with other Welk show performers.
The son of a grain farmer and the eldest of seven children, Floren was born Nov. 5, 1919, in Webster, S.D. He fell in love with music at age 6.
"All the neighboring families would get together on Saturday nights, roll back the rugs and do a little dancing," he recalled in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "The thing that intrigued me was this one neighbor who played a little button-box accordion. He played Scandinavian and German waltzes and polkas, and I just sat there watching him … completely fascinated."
His father bought him his first accordion a year later for $19.95. By age 8, the self-taught Floren was entertaining at the Bay County Fair in Webster.
After high school, he moved to Sioux Falls to attend Augustana College. Although he wanted to major in music, he couldn't afford the $25-a-semester piano rental, so he settled for an English major and music minor. To help pay for room and board, he taught music part time and played accordion on the local radio station.
Turned down for military service during World War II because of childhood bouts with rheumatic fever that damaged his heart, Floren joined the USO in 1944 and entertained American troops in Europe.
Back home in 1945, he married his wife, Berdyne, a former accordion pupil. They moved to St. Louis, where Floren joined a country group called the Buckeye Four, which performed on the Mutual Radio Network and on local TV.
Floren was still with the group in 1950 when he and his wife celebrated her birthday by going to a St. Louis ballroom where the Welk orchestra was playing. Floren had met the accordion-playing bandleader in South Dakota, and Welk invited him on stage to play.
He played a few numbers, including "Twelfth Street Rag" and "Lady of Spain," and the crowd response was so enthusiastic that Welk offered him a job at intermission.
As Floren frequently recalled, Welk's manager at the time told the bandleader, "Lawrence, this is a bad idea to hire an accordion player, especially one that plays better than you."
"And Lawrence, God bless him, says, 'Sam, that's the only kind of people I hire — the ones that play better than I do,' " Floren recalled.
In the 1997 Times interview, Floren remembered the time the Lawrence Welk Orchestra played for a crowd of 21,000 people at Madison Square Garden in the '70s.
"You could feel the electricity in the air," he recalled. "Lawrence and I were looking out at this crowd from the stage, and he leans over to me and says, 'Isn't it wonderful what can happen in this country to a couple of farmers from the Dakotas?' "
Floren never tired of playing the accordion for an audience.
"I'm going to keep squeezing this thing," he once said, "until nobody calls anymore."
Floren is survived by his wife, five daughters and seven grandchildren.
arrangements are pending. (SEE BELOW)
An emotional memorial tribute "In loving remembrance of Myron Floren" took place on August 6, at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, where the family has worshipped since the mid-60s. Myron died at home on July 23, 2005 at age of 85.
A near life-size picture of Myron, youthful grin on his face and accordion in his arms stood near the pulpit, looking out at family and friends who had assembled for this final farewell. Remembering the biblical enjoinder to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," the Rev. Dr. Jan L. Womer told the congregants that this had been Myron's lifetime work.
Floren's personal warmth, humility and gentleness were eulogized by his daughter Holly Floren; his son-in-law Bobby Burgess; Herb Skoog of the New Braunsfels, Texas festival where Myron was an annual attraction for the past 34 years; and his longtime friend and agent Warren Bills.
Myron himself provided the music for the memorial from among the hundreds of titles he recorded over the years: Fughetta, Sentimental Journey, How Great Thou Art, The Lost Chord, and Battle Hymn of the Republic. Each song was a poignant punctuation to prayers, scriptures and blessings in the touching service. Rev. Womer spoke of Myron's lifetime spent in delighting audiences, noting that "His name brings a smile to people's faces. The heavenly choir sings even more beautifully today because there is a new musician in their ranks."
As it was throughout Myron's lifetime, his accordion was predominant in the memorial service, capturing the essence of the consummate musician cited by Rev. Womer for his "Life with purpose."
When the service concluded, Floren's youngest daughter Heidi gathered several necklaces of beautiful purple orchids, the traditional Hawaiian lei. She put one on her mother, Berdyne, on each of her four sisters, Randee, Kristie, Robin and Holly, and herself, to wear as a symbol of farewell to their loved one, in the style of the Islands where the family frequently vacationed.
A repast for family and friends followed in the church's anteroom. Here, the walls were covered with lifetime photos - Myron with the Welk Orchestra and in appearances during an iconic career as an entertainer, which spanned more than six decades - with the familiar accordion in his arms. The background music was Myron playing, while family and friends reminisced about this always-modest gentle man who was bigger than life. In the words of Rev. Womer, "We shall not look upon his like again."