Popular TV Host Born, Raised in North
Eriksmoen,Curtis. "Popular TV Host Born, Raised in North Dakota." Forum, 28 October 2007.
The most enduring musical television show of all
time was hosted and fronted by a man born and raised in North
The Lawrence Welk Show began on television in fall
1955 and was carried for 17 years every Saturday night. When it
was canceled by ABC in spring 1971, it was immediately picked
up for syndication and remained on the air until 1982. Public
television purchased repeats of the shows after 1982, and it has
remained on the air ever since.
Lawrence Welk was born March 11, 1903, one of nine
children, to Ludwig and Christina (Schwahn) Welk on a farm near
Strasburg, N.D. His parents were Germans from Russia who immigrated
to the U.S. in 1892 and homesteaded in Emmons County. The family
was poor and supper was often a bowl of bread and milk. But the
house was filled with music. Ludwig saved enough money to buy
a pump organ and Lawrences oldest brother, John, had an accordion.
As a youth, Welk devoted his spare time to music.
He later wrote, Music was my joy, my home, the one place I felt
happy and secure.
Welk walked three miles to a parochial school run
by nuns. The center for activities in Strasburg was the small
clapboard church, St. Peters and Pauls. Music at the school and
church was under the direction of Max Fichtner. Fichtner gave
Welk permission to perform music at weddings.
Welk practiced on his brothers accordion, but wanted
one of his own. He earned extra money by trapping squirrels, weasels,
muskrats and skunks and selling the hides. When he saved $15,
he sent for an accordion through a mail-order house. It soon fell
apart. He saved for one that cost $20, but it broke. Then he ordered
two for $35, and they also fell apart.
In 1919, Tom Gutenberg performed at a concert in
Strasburg, playing a piano-type accordion. Welk wanted one, but
it cost $400. Welk proposed a deal with his dad. If his father
bought him a new piano-type accordion, Welk promised to stay on
the farm for the next four years and devote all of his earnings
to the Welk family budget. Ludwig Welk agreed.
Welk got up early most mornings and went to the
barn to practice. He performed at local barn dances and weddings.
His first booking was at a community dance in Ipswich, S.D. His
second out-of-town engagement was in 1923 for the Assumption Day
Festival in nearby Hague, N.D. Welk performed the concert, did
all the promotions and prompted students who wanted to learn to
dance. It was here that he first called out the cadence uh-one
After fulfilling his promise to help on the farm
for four years, Welk was determined to take his music out on the
road. He left Strasburg on March 11, 1924, his 21st birthday.
His going-away present was cash for train fare and three $1 bills
pinned to the inside of his suit coat.
Welk journeyed to Aberdeen, S.D., looking for work
as a musician. The only paying position he could find was with
a childrens band called the Jazzy Junior Five. He went to Bismarck
in hopes of finding more fulfilling engagements, but after a few
weeks with little success, returned to Aberdeen where he teamed
up with drummer Frank Schalk.
In fall 1924, he met Chicago bandleader Lincoln
Boulds at a concert in Watertown, S.D. The two musicians were
hired for $35 a week each. In September 1925, he met vaudevillian
actor George T. Kelly, who persuaded Welk to join his traveling
group, the Peerless Entertainers. Welk played the accordion, posted
handbills, sold candy between acts and was a Spanish corpse in
a comedy murder sketch.
When Kelly became too ill to perform in spring 1927,
Welk enlisted two other Peerless entertainers, drummer Johnny
Higgins and saxophonist Howard Kieser, to go to Bismarck. In the
capital city, they added pianist Art Beal and formed Lawrence
Welk and his Novelty Orchestra. They performed at dances in southwestern
North Dakota, but an early snowstorm forced them to travel south.
They stopped at Yankton, S.D., and persuaded the radio station
owner at WNAX to audition the band. Soon they were given a long-term
contract, and, for the first time, Lawrence Welk believed his
career as a band leader was on the right track.
Next week, we will look at Welks phenomenal career
and what rival bandleader Woody Herman called the most successful
band in America.
Reprinted with permission of The Forum.