Popular TV Host Born, Raised in North Dakota

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 Dakota.

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 and uh-two.

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.

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