Ceremony Puts Welk Back in N.D. Spotlight

Lawrence Welk Highway

Melhus, G. Troy. "Ceremony Puts Welk Back in N.D. Spotlight." Bismarck Tribune, 6 June 1995, 1.

And Yes, by trademark, there were bubbles.

The champagne wishes for more than three generations of Lawrence Welk fans came true Monday, when North Dakotans kicked off the first-ever Lawrence Welk Week, renaming the U.S. highway to the Welk family homestead near Strasburg in honor of the North Dakotan native.

The sign was unveiled at a reception for family, friends and fans of the Welk family Monday night, renaming U.S. Highway 83 in Emmons County as the “Lawrence Welk Highway.”

The ceremony kicked off a week honoring the Dakota-born, world-renowned musician, made famous by the bubbly “champagne music” he began playing for the country shortly after World War II.

Among those who made a special trip for the ceremony included Welk’s longtime syndication manager Margaret Heron, Welk’s first “champagne lady” Jayne Walton Rosen, and his daughter, Donna Welk Mack.

“He was always proud to be a North Dakotan, and always made us feel like we shared part of his fame,” said John Beecher, director of the North Dakota State University library which houses an extensive Welk memorabilia collection.

The push to officially proclaim a week in Welk’s honor came last year through the help of both North Dakota State University and Pioneer Heritage Inc., a group formed in Welk’s honor.

Lawrence Welk was born March 11, 1903, in a farmhouse just northwest of Strasburg, where he remained until he was 21 years old.

He fell into music shortly after his 17th birthday, when he asked his father to buy him an accordion at the local music shop.

His father reluctantly agreed, only giving in when his son promised he would work off the instrument’s cost by remaining on the farm until he turned 21.

Welk married shortly thereafter, and worked the Midwest big band circuit until a lucky break with a television shot came in 1951. Viewer response was so great that within three years ABC offered him a contract.

Fame came as a shock.

Mack was 15 at that time.

“We didn’t realize how big this was,” she said. “I don’t think even he knew what to expect.”

Even now Strasburg receives frequent visits from wandering tourists, straggling past to see a part of the musical legend.

And that, said collection expert Charlotte Cox, is something Strasburg – and the rest of the North Dakota fans – doesn’t want to forget now.

“The more recognition Lawrence Welk receives as a native, the more people will realize we still have a nice collection and can take pride in the state,” Cox said.

The Welk collection includes everything from former accordions to photographs to a bubble machine.

Welk’s legacy – from his musical papers to his memoirs – continues to generate fame even today. In 1990, in conjunction with the state’s centennial, fans and members of Pioneer Heritage Inc. restored Welk’s birth home.

The Welk children – operation as “The Welk Group” – now owns two resorts, one in Branson, Mo., and one in Escondido, Calif., featuring their father’s musical memories.

Welk died May 17, 1992.

“He touched so many people,” said Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage Inc. “Everyone just loved him for his morals, his good, clean performances and his good character.

“A lot of people always said it was the shortest hour on the television because it always went by so fast,” Schaefbauer said.

These days it doesn’t go by quite as fast, with past episodes now remixed with current commentary.

Welk boasts one of the longest running television programs, with his first broadcast in 1951, said syndication manager Heron. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Welk being televised nationwide; it now regularly appears on 272 different stations.

“It was a type of family entertainment,” Heron said. “A lot of children grew up listening to Lawrence Welk. We’re on our fourth and fifth generation of fans now.

“The young children respect him. Where do you find a show like that? Where do you find a person like that? He stayed a North Dakota farm boy to the end.”

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