Polkas, Waltzes, and Champagne Music Gift of the Lawrence Welk Collection to NDSU

Miller, Michael M. "Polkas, Waltzes and Champagne Music Gift of the Lawrence Welk Collection to NDSU." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1994.


Don't be too surprised if, when you visit Reineke Fine Arts Center at North Dakota State University or watch a Bison football game in the new Fargodome, you hear the familiar strains of the Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.

In July of 1992 North Dakota State University became the repository for the Lawrence Welk Collection, an anthology of some 15,000 musical arrangements of the famous bandleader, whose celebrated career spanned more than half a century. Much of the music was used on the "Lawrence Welk Show," and we now have the privilege of housing this fine collection here in Welk's beloved home state.

University archivist John Bye (l) and author Mike Miller (r) explore the treasures of the Lawrence Welk collection at NDSU.

I remember watching the first broadcast of the "Lawrence Welk Show" back in 1955 in Strasburg, North Dakota, where I began my life-long friendship with the Welk family. I remember visiting Mr. Welk's sisters, Anna Mary and Agatha, who were my neighbors. When a letter would arrive from their famous brother, I would read it to them, since their first language was German and they were unable to read much English. I also recall the many times when Lawrence Welk would come home and just be one of us in this close-knit German Russian community.

Perhaps this bond with the Welk family was an important factor in their deciding to bring the collection to North Dakota State University. Shirley Welk Fredricks, Executive Director of the Lawrence Welk Foundation and Welk's oldest daughter, was concerned that her father's materials be preserved and available to musicians and scholars. With this goal in mind, our initial discussion in January of 1991 about bringing the Lawrence Welk Collection to NDSU led to its becoming a reality two short years later.

(Left) A young Mr. Welk beams with an early, personalized accordion and one of his first records on the Gennett label. (Right) A 1941 publicity photo shows the young maestro with "champagne lady" Jayne Walton and pianist-comic Tommy Sheridan.

Speaking on behalf of the family and the Welk Group, Inc., Mrs. Fredricks entrusted her late father's memorabilia to NDSU for "safe-keeping and preservation."

"There simply is no better place for this collection than in this state and at this institution, which, like our father, has roots so deeply planted in its culture and heritage. We wanted a permanent site for it and NDSU recognizes the significance of his contributions to the state and the music world."

Don Stowell, Director of Fine Arts at NDSU states, "The Welk music is a national resource and music that should be preserved, played, and made available to scholars and musicians in perpetuity." NDSU Director of Libraries John Beecher said the collection represents valuable resources for the state, region, and nation.

The Grand Forks Herald, in a July 9, 1992 editorial entitled "Welk Collection is `Wunnerful, Wunnerful,'" stated, "The collection adds depth to our higher education holdings. By donating the collection to the NDSU library the Welk family ensures for future generations processing, preservation, and public access. All North Dakotans should feel honored that one of their own has come home, not just in spirit but in words and deeds. In this case, in music and more music."

Delivering the eulogy at her father's funeral on May 20, 1992, Mrs. Fredricks said, in part, "The hardships of his boyhood with deprivations of every kind provided a major strength when he struck out on his own as a self-taught musician. No matter that he had to sleep in cornfields or in cars. A life of music, which had found its express in his accordion, seems like a miracle. Into that music he poured his immense sense of wonder, joy, and zest of life. And people listened, and are still listening."

Arrival of the collection

When the Lawrence Welk collection arrived on campus in February, 1993 we were pleased to discover one of Mr. Welk's accordions. The collection also contains scores of scrapbooks. The pages are filled with news clippings and advertisements from newspapers from North Dakota to Peoria and Chicago, to New York and Dallas that date back to the late 1920s when he started to perform.

Those scrapbooks and the musical arrangements provide a unique historical record of the life and career of one of the most famous people from North Dakota. Lawrence Welk died on May 17, 1992, at the age of 89.

NDSU officials hope that the collection someday will become the centerpiece of a North Dakota cultural archives. Speaking at the arrival of the Welk collection, Tom Isern, Director of the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, said the collection will attract scholars from around the nation and the world. "It's a thing that feels right," he said. "Lawrence Welk was America's music maker....He was America's product. He was America's pride."

"Through the preservation of his collection we will keep the spirit alive for generations to come," stated president of NDSU Jim Ozbun, "Scholars will study his history, musicians will play his songs, and people will dance."

University archivist John Bye states, "This collection of musical scores will provide a unique challenge to the archival staff. The collection offers a different type of historical record more easily accessible to a type of researcher not usually associated with archival records. It will also heighten our awareness regarding copyright implications, preservation concerns, specialized finding aids which meet the needs of musicians, and reply to user requests from across the country."

Additional materials for the collection

It is anticipated that videotapes of the 1,700 television programs and thousands of color slides and photographs will be added to the collection. The Lawrence Welk Show appeared on national television for 27 years. Beginning in 1951 on a local Los Angeles station, ABC carried the program for 17 years. The show continued in national syndication until 1982. Since 1987 the show has aired every week on 272 public television stations. Today it continues to be the number one program on PBS based on the number of viewers. According to Margaret Heron, Executive Producer of Lawrence Welk Syndication, the March, 1993 television special was one of the top money raisers for PBS.

History of television broadcasting includes the audience, the show reached, the advertising featured, and the culture it brought to America's homes, important in popular music study. The collection offers opportunities to study the legend of a man who became a household name in American music.

Lawrence Welk's heritage and musical career

Having reviewed the significance and the plans for the Lawrence Welk Collection, I would like to reflect briefly on his life and his youth on the Dakota prairies.

Lawrence Welk was a son of German Russian pioneers who immigrated from Catholic Black Sea German villages of the Ukraine in 1893 and homesteaded in south-central North Dakota. His great-grandparents, Moritz and Magdalena Welk, immigrated in 1808 from a village in Alsace, France to the Ukraine. Lawrence's parents were Ludwig and Christina (Schwahn) Welk. Besides being a farmer, Ludwig Welk became a blacksmith like his father in the Ukraine. Eight children were born in the sodhouse which is still standing on the homestead. Still living today is Lawrence's youngest sister, Eva, who has generously contributed some of her cherished memorabilia from her brother to the Lawrence Welk Collection at NDSU.

The poor farm boy, whose love of music motivated him to leave home and follow his dream, built both his orchestra and the "Musical Family" which attracted and held the largest and most loyal audience in television history.

By the age of 17 he knew he wanted to make music his life's work. He talked his father into buying him a $400 accordion in return for a promise to stay on the farm for the next four years and turn over all the money he made playing at barn dances. In 1924, on his 21st birthday, Lawrence Welk was ready to leave home. He had little money and couldn't speak English, having been raised in the German-speaking community of Strasburg. Talent, an overwhelming desire to succeed and the values instilled in him by his strict German-Catholic upbringing were more than enough.

His first break came when George T. Kelly tapped him for "The Peerless Entertainers", a touring company of musicians and actors. From there, Lawrence went on to play on WNAX radio in Yankton, South Dakota in the 1930's. Welk's "Novelty Orchestra" became the "Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra", and then, in its final incarnation, became the now legendary "The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk."

As one of the big bands of the 1940's the orchestra played for ten years at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago. In 1951 the band appeared on television station KTLA in Los Angeles after a late-night movie. The response was tremendous! For the next four years, the band amassed a huge following in southern California.

In 1955 the Lawrence Welk Show began its run on ABC television, where it remained for sixteen years, until 1971. The show was then syndicated to more stations. Audiences all over America recognized what local audiences had know for years. The Welk band played the kind of music many Americans loved.

And the country loved Lawrence! His shyness, his smile, his delight in his performance, and his sometimes quaint English endeared him to viewers. "Wunnerful, wunnerful" and "Ah-one and ah-two" became part of America's vocabulary.

In October, 1987 The Lawrence Welk Show debuted on PBS and has since received the highest ratings of any PBS program. In March of 1993 PBS presented, "From the Heart: A Tribute to Lawrence Welk and the American Dream".

Reflections from his children

Shirley Welk Fredricks stated in her father's eulogy, "His was one of the first shows to display the talents of performers of all races, to play the music of many religions, and to show the joyous contributions they were making to America's culture. He was the first entertainer to institute a profit-sharing policy in his corporation and with his orchestra, a policy that continues in place today."

Lawrence Welk always spoke fondly of his birthplace and his home state. Son Larry Welk, speaking at the June 1992 at the dedication of the Welk homestead near Strasburg, said "All his life, the mention of the word Strasburg would put a light in his eyes and fill his memory with the people and scenes from his childhood. My dad was the son of immigrants, the first generation in this country who had to struggle with the tensions between an old-world culture from rules and tradition and a new-world culture of curiosity, independence, and diverse values. His life reflected the competing forces of these two worlds. Few men or women of his generation integrated these two worlds so successfully into their lives and work."

Lawrence Welk birthplace

Today the homestead where Lawrence Welk was born has been carefully restored to its 1920 condition. Both the heritage of the Welks as a German-Russian family and their pioneer life play an integral role in the development of the homestead as a National Historic Site. The restoration of this homestead is of interest and value to Americans of every ethnic extraction whose forefathers pioneered and settled the great plains of our country. The view it gives into the past cannot fail to engender an understanding and appreciation of those courageous, hard-working people who laid the groundwork for our present-day quality of life.

The culture of the Germans from Russia is an important aspect in the study of heritage of the Welk family. The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University is one of the major resources in North America. Future plans include exhibiting materials from the Lawrence Welk Collection at the Welk homestead as well as interpretative displays on the life of the Germans from Russia on the northern plains.

Building the Lawrence Welk Collection

North Dakota State University will actively seek to acquire additional Welk-related materials such as photographs, artifacts, oral interviews, personal papers, and other items. Persons who have Welk materials are encouraged to consider donating them to the permanent collection.

The Lawrence Welk Collection Committee was established at the University in 1992. John W. Beecher, Director of Libraries, serves as committee chair. Other members include Dean Thomas Isern, Director, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies; John E. Bye, University Archivist; Dr. Donald Stowell, Director, Division of Fine Arts; Rik Ekstrom Department of Architecture; David Wahlberg, University Relations; and Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer.

Dr. Robert W. Groves, Professor of Music at NDSU, received a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council to complete oral interview with members of the Lawrence Welk Musical Family. In visiting with members of the show,including JoAnn Castle and Johnny Klein, a native of Strasburg, North Dakota, Dr. Groves found that working for Lawrence Welk was highly respected and he surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians. "Lawrence Welk was a genius at communicating with his audience and his musical family, states Dr. Groves, "He was best when he could perform live." Welk performed not what he thought would be good but what he thought his audience preferred".

There are plans to re-publish Welk's autobiography, Wunnerful, Wunnerful. William K. Schwienher's dissertation, A Descriptive Analysis of the Lawrence Welk Show as a Unique Sociological Phenomenon, has been published as a book, one of the best of its kind, entitled Lawrence Welk: An American Institution.

Champagne Music Coming to Branson, Missouri

Beginning in May, 1994, the wonderful sound of Lawrence Welk and his Musical Family will once again delight people of all ages. Welk Group, Inc. has announced the development of the $20 million Lawrence Welk Theatre and Resort in Branson, Missouri, America's newest entertainment mecca. Plans call for the project to include a 2,300-seat theater, a deluxe 160-room hotel and a 500-seat restaurant.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Larry Welk stated, "Nothing thrilled my dad more than the times when he could come back to the midwest and entertain his many loyal fans. In those moments, he felt that he was truly home among the people whom he cherished and whose values he shared and celebrated. Dad always believed in listening to his fans to understand what kind of music and what kind of entertainment they enjoyed the most and then doing his utmost to give them the finest quality that he could. In a very real sense, his fans, and the midwest culture of which they were a part, shaped his show and the long popularity that he and his band enjoyed. While his show was born and nutured in the cradle of the midwest, it grew beyond those borders and was embraced by the whole nation."

Lawrence Welk's contributions to American music will be enhanced with the new theatre in Branson, the Lawrence Welk Resort near Escondido, California, and the show on public television. This will be important while North Dakota State University continues to build the Lawrence Welk Collection.

With such a large and growing collection, many challenges lie ahead. Lawrence Welk loved and believed in his home state, and it is a tremendous honor to know that his family feels the same way. Bringing the Lawrence Welk Collection home to North Dakota is truly a dream-come-true, and NDSU will strive to preserve this fine collection with the same respect and dedication Mr. Welk applied to every facet of his long and fulfilling life.

To donate materials, contact the Lawrence Welk Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599 (Tel: 701-237-8914).

Significant Dates in the Life of Lawrence Welk

  • March 11. 1924: Started Career - 21st Birthday.
  • 1925 - 1927: With George T. Kelly and the Peerless Entertainers.
  • 1927 - mid-1930s: Band performed regularly over WNAX, South Dakota.
  • April 18, 1931: Married Fern Renner - three children: Shirley, Donna and Larry. Ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
  • December 31, 1938: Debut at William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Adopted name of "Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk."
  • 1940 - 1950: Played the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.
  • 1951 - 1955: KTLA - local television station in Los Angeles broadcasted "The Lawrence Welk Show" from the Aragon Ballroom.
  • 1955 - 1984: National television - 16 years on ABC, 13 years in syndication.
  • October/November, 1984: National television: a Lawrence Welk Special "On Tour with Lawrence Welk," part 1 and 2.
  • December, 1984: Christmas Special on national television.
  • December, 1985: "Musical Family" Christmas Reunion Special on national television.
  • October, 1987: "The Lawrence Welk Show" debuts on public television.
  • July, 1992: On behalf of Lawrence Welk family, Shirley Welk Fredricks announces gift of The Lawrence Welk Collection to North Dakota State University, Fargo.
  • February, 1993: The Lawrence Welk Collection arrives at North Dakota State University.
  • March, 1993: Public television special premieres, "From the Heart: Lawrence Welk and the American Dream."
  • May, 1994: Lawrence Welk Theatre and Resort opens in Branson, Missouri.

Books about Lawrence Welk and his Musical Family

Christenson, Boyd. Boyd Christenson Interviews. Bismarck, N.D.: Prairie House, 1983.

Coakley, Mary Lewis. Mister Music Maker, Lawrence Welk. With a foreword by Lawrence Welk. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

Floren, Myron and Randee Floren. With a foreword by Lawrence Welk. Accordion Man. Brattleboro, Vt.: S. Greene Press, 1981.

Govoni, Albert. The Lawrence Welk Story. New York.: Pocket Books, 1966.

Katz, Susan. The Lawrence Welk Scrapbook. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.

Lennon, Diane, Peggy, Kathy and Janet. Same Song - Separate Voices: The Collective Memories of the Lennon Sisters. Santa Monica, CA.: Roundtable Publ. Inc., 1985.

Miller, Michael Martin, ed. Moments to Remember. Strasburg, N.D.: Strasburg Schools Alumni Association, 1976.

Parr, Adolph Henry. The Lennon Sisters: Sweethearts of Song. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Sanders, Coyne Steven and Ginny Weissman. Champagne Music: The Lawrence Welk Show. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Schwienher, William K. Lawrence Welk: An American Institution. Chicago: Nelson- Hall, 1980.

Redman, Cindy Goold and Jo Berry. Recipes For Remembrance: A Cookbook Featuring Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show. North Hollywood, CA: Harmony House, 1985.

Welk, Lawrence. Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life With My Musical Family. With Bernice McGeehan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Welk, Lawrence. Lawrence Welk's Musical Family Album. With Bernice McGeehan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Welk, Lawrence. My America, Your America. With Bernice McGeehan. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Welk, Lawrence. This I Believe. With Bernice McGeehan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Welk, Lawrence. Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. With Bernice McGeehan. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Welk, Lawrence. You're Never Too Young. With Bernice McGeehan. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Zehnpfennig, Gladys. Lawrence Welk, Champagne Music Man. Minneapolis, Mn.: T.S. Dennison, 1968.

Zimmer, Norma. Norma. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1976. Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Welk, Lawrence. Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. With Bernice McGeehan. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Welk, Lawrence. You're Never Too Young. With Bernice McGeehan. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Zehnpfennig, Gladys. Lawrence Welk, Champagne Music Man. Minneapolis, Mn.: T.S. Dennison, 1968.

Zimmer, Norma. Norma. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1976.

(Most books are out-of-print. Consult your local library.)

Michael M. Miller

A native of Strasburg, North Dakota, Michael M. Miller grew up in the German Russian community when it most famous native son, Lawrence Welk, was playing champagne music to America's audiences. Miller's German Russian grandparents immigrated to south central North Dakota in the 1890's from Bessarabia and Black Sea, Ukraine. He has been at NDSU since 1967 as Assistant Professor and Germans from Russia Bibliographer at NDSU. Miller has worked closely in the development of the Ludwig and Christina (Schwahn) Welk homestead near Strasburg.

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