Welk Comes Home: Bandleader’s Memorabilia Finds Resting Place at NDSU

Bonham, Kevin. "Welk Comes Home: Bandleader's Memorabilia Finds Resting Place at NDSU." Grand Forks Herald, 18 February 1993, 13.

FARGO – Champagne music and bountiful bubbles filled the Festival Concert Hall Wednesday mornings as North Dakota State University welcomed the Lawrence Welk Collection.

The collection consists of more than 15,000 pieces of sheet music of musical arrangements that the famous band leader used during a music career that spanned more than a half century.

It also includes an accordion and a bubble-making machine that was so much a part of his television show.

Don Stowell, director of NDSU’s Division of Fine Arts, puts on an accordion played by Lawrence Welk

It also contains scores of scrapbooks with portraits of Welk, his band members and his dancers at different stages of their careers. The pages also are filled with news clippings and advertisements from newspapers from North Dakota to Peoria and Chicago, to New York and Los Angeles 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 North Dakota’s most famous people. Welk died May 18, 1992, at the age of 89.

“We welcome home Lawrence Welk. We are proud to have this collection of his memorabilia,” NDSU President Jim Ozbun told a crowd of about 50 people who attended the event.

NDSU officials hope the collection someday will become the centerpiece of a North Dakota cultural archives, a building that would provide a cultural history and preserve and display artifacts of some of North Dakota’s most famous people, according to Don Stowell, NDSU’s director of fine arts.

On Wednesday, the crowd listened to the NDSU Oompah Band perform some of Welk’s favorite songs. They listened to the NDSU Opus One Singers, a quartet of women who sang Scarlet Ribbons, a song performed by the Lennon Sisters on the Lawrence Welk Show.

The crowd also listened to Victor Welk, a second cousin to Lawrence Welk, play a few songs on his own accordion.

Victor Welk, who lives in Fargo, looks more like a younger brother than a cousin of the late musical maestro. He also has a touch of the thick German-Russian accent that became so famous for his musical cousin. But, he said, the resemblance stops there.

“You wouldn’t mistake me for him if you heard me play the accordion,” he said.

Victor Welk and Myra Mattern Collette, a niece who lives in Grand Forks, examined a few of the hundreds of boxes of musical scores. And they paged through some scrapbooks, many of which were donated by Jayne Walton, Lawrence Welk’s first television dancing partner, or champagne lady. She lives in Texas now.

The boxes of sheet music are labeled, and sorted alphabetically. One of them contains everything Welk’s band played between “A Fool Never Leaves” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Each song has separate arrangements for each instrument, from accordion to drums, from cello to trombone.

“The Welk family is so generous. That it can come back to North Dakota is just tremendous,” Collette said of the collection.

“It’s lovely. It’s precious,” Victor Welk said. “I just hope we can have a place some day to put all of this out on display.”

That may take a while.

For now, the collection is being stored and protected in the Music Building at NDSU. Over the next several months, the sheet music will be placed in special envelopes or folders and that will help preserve it. And it all will be re-catalogued, according to John Bye, NDSU archivist.

Lawrence Welk’s original bubble-making machine.

A small collection probably will be put on display by early summer, according to Stowell. But university officials don’t know yet where the display will be, because the school doesn’t have enough space to show the collection, which is expected to grow as more artifacts are donated or loaned.

“I’m sure we’ll learn a lot about Lawrence Welk through processing these,” Bye said.

Tom Isern, dean of humanities and social sciences, 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.”

“From the Heart: A Tribute to Lawrence Welk and the American Dream” is a public television special production that will air March 7 at 7 p.m. on Prairie Public TV. The special, hosted by singer Barbara Mandrell, was filmed in the Strasburg, N.D., area and in Nashville, Tenn., last fall before a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry in November.

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