(KX News) – The entertainment industry looked a lot different in the 1950s. Names like Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Red Skelton were household names, not because of social media but by way of families sitting and watching their favorite programs together. Not just watching though but also listening.
Though he wouldn’t hit the national airwaves until 1955, a son of North Dakota went on the air in California in 1951 with what would become known as his champagne music. That music and the man leading it would eventually capture the eyes and ears of the nation, not to mention its feet. Although now only seen in re-runs, 70 years later, in this two-part series, we’ll hear from those who knew Lawrence Welk best, to find out why he’s still seen on television, which fans consider “Wunnerful.”
That signature accent, the way he swung his baton and of course the sounds and steps of his brightly outfitted musical family. For these reasons and more, once upon a time, the studio audience and now the home audience tap their toes watching The Lawrence Welk Show.
Before being in millions of homes across the nation, however, Lawrence Welk could be seen with his family at his home in Strasburg. In March of 1903, Lawrence was born to German parents who came from Russia.
He would leave the fourth grade and work full-time on the farm. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was 21.
Growing up, Lawrence decided he wanted to become a musician and asked his father to buy him the instrument he would play for the rest of his life.
“I wanted a good accordion because the reeds kept breaking on those cheap accordions all the time,” Lawrence Welk said in a television interview in 1980. “And I told my father if he would buy me the real good accordion, the best accordion that’s available, I would stay on the farm until I was 21 years of age.
And I waited four years for that day to come up,” Welk said.
He would then begin working to make a name for himself, as future Welk show star Bobby Burgess explained.
“For years and years, he was a territorial band. He would tour right down the center of America, back in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and found out what people liked and their reflection of what they were interested in,” Burgess said.
They were interested in the sound of his champagne music and in 1951, Lawrence Welk appeared on local California television station (Nexstar affiliate) KTLA and would become a hit. But despite gaining attention and eventually debuting on nationwide TV in 1955, Lawrence would never forget his North Dakota roots.
“We love the people that we get from here and I have hopes that in the future if we continue our show if we will be so lucky, that we can always include a few people from North Dakota,” Welk said.
“This is still where they have the best people.”
“He came out and he wanted to walk and wanted to see everything,” Edna Schwab, one of Lawrence Welk’s nieces said, sitting behind the Welk Homestead.
“One thing I remember, he’d make it a point when he came out here, he’d climb the steps to the upstairs.
That’s where the bedroom was,” Evelyn Schwab, one of Lawrence Welk’s nieces said.
Helping to preserve those stairs and the entire Welk homestead history is the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “We and Pioneer Heritage before us have put in a lot of work, to try and maintain it as close to 1924 as we can,” Robert Hanna, the Historic Site Manager for the State Historical Society of North Dakota said.
Aside from the house, there are some things original to the site, like the outhouse and somewhat original is the barn. While Welk Homestead Site Supervisor Brian Grove said it’s important to maintain this property, he said it also reflects the qualities of families like the Welks and so many others.
“I think he really stresses North Dakotan’s view of the world. We are true. We don’t tell you false stuff. We show you what you’re going to get. We aren’t going to dance around the subject. You’re going to get what we want and that is the ethics, that’s the morals, that’s religious. We are who we are and I think he really brought that throughout his show,” Grove said.
Welk’s nieces said he’d try to return home as much as he could and show his gratitude to his home state.
On one return home (featured in the video) in June 1958, Welk made it a point to bring some family and friends with him, including his son Lawrence Welk, Jr. and Irish tenor Joe Feeney.
But Welk couldn’t stay at home for long.
He would have to get back to his show and entertain a nation.
If you ask anyone who’s seen Lawrence Welk on television what they remember most, you’re sure to get a variety of answers. But, for those who knew and worked for Lawrence Welk, the memories are a bit more vivid, especially for those who became a part of the Lawrence Welk family and television history.
The Lennon Sisters are a part of that history. They auditioned for Lawrence Welk at his home.
“As we walked through the gates and opened the door, Mrs. Welk was there,” Kathy Lennon Daris, of The Lennon Sisters said.” Mr. Welk came out and he indeed was sick. He had on a maroon, satin smoking jacket and velvet slippers. I mean it was like out of a movie somewhere. And he came, sat down on the couch, looked at us and said: ‘Sing, just like that,’ Daris said. “So, we went over and hit the key on the piano and we sang ‘He can turn the tide and calm the angry sea,’ which was popular by the McGuire Sisters. And he said: ‘Wow. My son right. Would you be on my Christmas show?’ And that was Christmas Eve 1955 and we were on every Saturday and we were on every Saturday night after that for 13 years,” Daris said.
Bobby Burgess, one of the original Mouseketeers would join the Lawrence Welk Show as a dancer in 1961.
Burgess would have three dance partners. “Barbara Boylan, Cissy King and Elaine Balden and they were all great in their own way and they all specialized in certain things,” Bobby Burgess said. “When they came to me as a partner, they helped me grow because I would teach them my things and then they would bring in their new steps in all. So, we created new things each time,” Burgess said. And now, after years of dancing into hearts, Burgess is finally able to sit back and enjoy his work. “I just love to watch the show now, because I was so focused on my dance routines that I never really got to sit down and enjoy it. Now, I turn on the re-runs and enjoy Norma Zimmer or Guy and Ralna.”
Burgess is referring to the first then-husband and wife duo to perform on the show: Guy and Ralna. At first, it was only Ralna, but not for long. “I went to everybody. I went to the musical director, George Cates. “No. We don’t have husbands and wives, only the children on the Christmas show. No husbands and wives.’ So, I came home dejected,” Ralna English said. “I told Guy and I said: ‘You know what? Let’s go down tomorrow.
We’re going to be doing the show, recording it on Tuesday and during the day and you bring your guitar and let’s sing Little Toy Trains’ for Lawrence,” English said. It was the ultimate Christmas gift for the couple.
English says after the Christmas show performance, they received more fan-mail than Welk himself.
We were on the show together then for 13 I was on for 13, we were on for 12 together,” English said.
Another singer put on the spot was Mary Lou Metzger, who at the time was performing in Arthur Godfrey’s All-American College Show. “He handed me a microphone and said: ‘Sing something. So, with no accompaniment, I sang How are things in Glocca Morra, which was the song I was doing on the college show that week,” Mary Lou Metzger said. “And after the show, he invited me back to his dressing room and I was sure I was going to get an autographed picture to take home to my parents. I thought that would thrill them and instead, he invited me down to the Palladium to sing with the band that Saturday night. My mom flew out for that one,” Metzger said laughing.
Metzger, along with some other Welk show stars, can now be seen introducing shows from years ago.
And although a new show hasn’t been taped since 1982, there’s a reason why those I spoke with say Lawrence Welk and his show are still popular to this day.
“It was all beautiful music, beautiful sets, beautiful costumes and if you didn’t like something, wait a second.
Maybe you’ll like this. It was like entertainment,” English said.
“We still have something to maybe make people feel happy for a while,” Daris said.
“He knew what his audience liked. That’s why he was so successful and he played to that strength,” Burgess said.
“I think it brings back that sense of what we’re all longing for and what we can create if we make that choice,” Metzger said.
“I can’t think of a person who was more humble and more compassionate than he was,” Evelyn Schwab, one of Lawrence Welk’s nieces, said.
Humble, compassionate, a talented musician native North Dakotan named Lawrence Welk, whose wish of “Keep a song in your heart” can still be heard to this day.
Lawrence Welk left his world in May 1992. But he and all the Lawrence Welk Show stars are still seen and heard on television stations all over the country. For example, he can be seen locally on Prairie Public.
In addition to the people you’ve heard from, thanks to Mr. Larry Welk, Margaret Heron Letterman, Susie Dowdy, Bob Allen, Jeff Morava, Anne Loos, Troy Davis, Michael Miller and Nexstar affiliate KTLA.