Welk had many ties to South Dakota

By Jeff Bahr

Aberdeen American News, 17 May 2014

Even though he was born in North Dakota, residents of both Dakotas take justifiable pride in the success of Lawrence Welk.

Welk’s longtime second-in-command, Myron Floren, was from Roslyn.

Those familiar with Welk know he gave a lot of credit for his rise to Yankton radio station WNAX. Welk met his wife, Fern, in Yankton.

On his way to stardom, the young accordion player traveled the roads of South Dakota extensively. Buildings all over this area — some of them still standing — hosted performances by the champagne music maker. A sign on a building in Mansfield, for instance, notes with pride that Welk played there.

For a while, in the 1920s, Welk used Aberdeen as his base of operations. He talks about the Hub City in his autobiography, “Wunnerful, Wunnerful!” 

“I had gone to Aberdeen, South Dakota, the day I left the farm, partly because we had friends living there, and partly because I had only enough money to buy a ticket that far,” wrote Welk, who left his Strasburg, N.D., home in 1924, when he was 21.

In Aberdeen, Welk stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Faith and their two sons, John and Frank, who played the violin and piano. The Faiths helped Welk get engagements around town.

“Most of them were at St. Mary’s Hall on the north side of town, the German-speaking side, and I began to play for weddings and dances there, much as I had in Strasburg,” Welk wrote.

But he had trouble paying his room and board. So he joined a children’s band called the Jazzy Junior Five. 

“I was two feet taller and 10 years older than anybody else in the group, but I didn’t care.” He was earning money and gaining experience.

“Wunnerful, Wunnerful!”, published in 1971, includes memories of a fair in Selby and a dance pavilion at Scatterwood Lake.

Before he even moved to Aberdeen, Welk played a community dance in Ipswich.

“Ipswich was nearly 100 miles from Strasburg, and my parents had allowed me to go only because my brother, John, and his wife, Theresa, lived there and had promised to keep an eye on me.”

The trip was a disaster, though. The next morning at Mass, the local priest criticized Welk’s show. In the book, Welk recalls playing golf in Aberdeen in 1970. Three women mentioned the experience to Welk, more than 45 years later.

Welk spent more than one stretch in Aberdeen. Although he left for various musical adventures, he mentions several times in the book that he returned to Aberdeen.

After forming his own band, Welk visited a Chevrolet dealer, where he had his eye on a $700 car. He persuaded the dealer to take his old car as a down payment. Welk told the dealer that “my orchestra and I play at all of these small towns around Aberdeen.” He promised to promote the car dealer at those appearances.

In later years, Welk’s orchestra included South Dakotans. One of them was Aberdeen’s Wayne Marsh, who played with Welk from 1942 to 1944.

A trumpeter and singer, he graduated from Aberdeen Central in 1939. Marsh died in 2012 at age 90. His wife of 54 years, Marlene, still lives in Aberdeen.

A Time-Life collection of hit songs from 1944 includes “Don’t Sweetheart Me”; by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra. Marsh did the vocal on that song.

Marlene owns a copy of the Time-Life cassette of 1944 songs. An Eden native, the former Marlene Schuster graduated from Grenville High School.

Other South Dakotans were part of Welk’s musical family. In his autobiography, Welk mentions that his group included Leo Fortin, a fine trumpet player who was a “dark-eyed hot-tempered Frenchman from Waubay.” 

Welk wasn’t the only North Dakotan on his TV show. Musician and arranger Frank Scott, a Fargo native, worked with Welk. So, briefly, did singer Lynn Anderson, a Grand Forks native.

Actually, it’s not just Dakotans who feel a sense of ownership in Welk’s accomplishments.

Neighboring states also felt a kinship. Singer Tom Netherton grew up in Bloomington, Minn. Nebraskans basked in the glow of Irish tenor Joe Feeney, a native of Grand Island.

People all over the Midwest taught Welk how important it is to keep a song in your heart.

Permission of Aberdeen American News and Jeff Bahr, columnist.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller