Lawrence Welk Dies he was Simply 'Wunnerful,' Fans Recall

Nelson, Todd. "Lawrence Welk Dies he was Simply 'Wunnerful,' Fans Recall." Argus Leader, 19 May 1992, sec. 1A.

Beloved bandleader Lawrence Welk, who "helped South Dakotans dance their way through the dust bowl days" of the Depression before the nation got a taste of his champagne music, was mourned Monday as an adopted native son.

Welk, who died Sunday evening at age 89, barnstormed the Dakotas and upper Midwest with his Hotsy Totsy Boys band and Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra during a nine year stint as a performer on WNAX- AM radio in Yankton beginning in 1928, said historian Bob Karolevitz of Mission Hill.

"Talking about Lawrence Welk arriving in South Dakotais a little like saying 'George Washington slept here,'" said Karolevitz, whose contribution to Welk lore is a fishing trip he made as a 12 year old with the bandleader on the James River in Yankton. "Everybody remembers some story about him. If you talk to people who are past 65, they all remember dancing to his music somewhere."

"Those were in the days of real depression in South Dakota, in the '30s," said the Rev. James Doyle, who met Welk during his stops in Mitchell. "He helped South Dakotans dance their way through the dust bowl days, through the Depression."

Welk was popular both for his effervescent music and the wholesome image the bubble popping accordion player from North Dakota projected.

"He was a great, he was one of the boys, the people liked him," said Paul Jones, 80, of Mitchell, who saw Welk perform during two of his five Corn Palace appearances. "He was a down to earth guy. When he came back and played at the Corn Palace, he just seemed to be a hometown boy made good."

What fans saw of Welk on stage or on television was the same person off stage, Doyle said. Welk and his band stayed at the historic Lawler Hotel in Mitchell, which burned down in March, and he attended Mass at Holy Family Church.

"He projected traditional and family values that he carried with him from the Midwest, "Doyle said. "He carried those with him to Hollywood."

One day at Mitchell Country Club in the early 1960s, Doyle hit a fairway shot over a fence and out of bounds, and Welk scampered over a ladder to retrieve the ball.

"I was really kind of embarrassed about it," Doyle said. "When he got back, I said, 'Mr. Welk, I'm sorry to have you chase after my golf ball.' He said, 'Well, Father, I always played golf with a lot of priests and it seems they're not very good golfers because they're used to looking up all the time.' I've never forgotten that."

Gladys Williams, 76, of Watertown remembers the days when Welk played at Stony Point on the shores of Lake Kampeska.

"He went there in the '20s and played his old time music," Williams said. "It is said that he wasn't getting the crowds like he would like, so Bill William Sr. (who owned Stony Point) said 'Why don't you change your music to more modern music?' So Welk stayed there for a week or so and that is where they came up with their bubble.. the champagne music."

Myron Floren, a Roslyn native and accordion player in Welk's band for 32 years, said Welk was "probably the biggest thing that ever happened to the music business."

Floren, speaking from a Newark, Del., motel after Monday night preformance, said audiences were comfortable with Welk because he worked hard to entertain without offending and never outgrew his Midwetern roots.

Reprinted with permission from the Argus Leader

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