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Bubbles, Bach and the Blues

The 20th Century in Review

Raihala, Ross. "Bubbles, Bach and the Blues." Forum, 16 May 1999, sec. E-2.


Lawrence Welk, a native of Strasburg, N.D., helped many other artists get their start in the music business. His television program enjoyed a 27-year run.
Where to begin when compiling a list of the region's musicians who went on to national prominence? It's as easy as ah-one and ah-two ...

A North Dakota farm boy named Lawrence Welk never forgot his roots, even after he became the nation's king of "champagne music."

Born March 11, 1903, on a wheat farm near Strasburg, 60 miles southeast of Bismarck, Welk taught himself the accordion at the age of 12. Forty years later, Welk made his ABC television debut and forged his place in American history.

As a teen, Welk earned money for his family playing barn dances, but vowed to stay home until he was 21. By 1927, Welk formed his own band and spent several years performing on the Yankton, South Dakota radio station WNAX by day and touring the region's ballrooms by night.

In 1938, Welk landed his first major concert at the St. Paul Hotel in Pittsburgh. His band spent the next 10 years headquartered in Chicago, hitting the road whenever and wherever he was called.

A gig in Santa Monica, California eventually led to Welk's job at ABC. His hour-long Saturday evening show hit the air as a summer replacement in 1955 to mixed reviews -- TV Guide groused that the show lacked "sparkle and verve."

The American public, however, disagreed and turned "The Lawrence Welk Show" into what "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" called "one of the major musical success stories in all of television history."

Lawrence Welk named his band the "Hotsy Totsy Boys" in the early 1930s. By 1938 he came up with "The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk."
Welk's formula for success was simple. He presented an hour's worth of music aimed squarely at the wholesome American family. He never attempted to hide his heavy German accent, either, and grew to accept those who poked fun at his stiff demeanor and "wunnerful, wunnerful" proclamations.

"We try to please our audience," Welk once said. "We try to bring it some joy, happiness, relaxation and always in good taste -- the kind of entertainment that should come into the home."

Welk launched many future stars, including Lynn Anderson, a Grand Forks native who won a Grammy for "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" and former WDAY musical director Frank Scott who wrote more than 2,000 of the arrangements showcased on Welk's show.

In 1971, ABC let Welk go because the network felt his audience, however large, was too old for its target demographic. Undaunted, Welk continued a successful run in syndication, with his last original episode airing in 1982.

During his television career, Welk also published several books and amassed a fortune in the millions. But he always returned to North Dakota, either to perform for his longtime fans or to collect numerous accolades, including an honorary doctor of music degree from North Dakota State University in 1965.

Welk died in 1992 at age 89.

Today, Welk's grandson is vice president and general manager of the Welk Resort Center in Branson, Missouri a complex that includes a 2,300-seat theater, a 158-room resort and a 400-seat restaurant. Welk's homestead has been converted into a museum and a stretch of Highway 83 in Emmons County is now known as "Lawrence Welk Highway."

Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.

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