‘Lawrence Welk Show’ to (finally) bow out on South Dakota Public Broadcasting


North Dakota conductor Lawrence Welk with accordionists and the baton and an hour-long TV show, could finally retire after nearly a century on the Dakota radio and television airwaves from the South.

That’s because South Dakota Public Broadcasting, which has aired reruns of “The Lawrence Welk Show” since 1986, chose not to renew another two-year run of the program, citing declining viewership.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” said Fritz Miller, SDPB’s chief marketing officer, who informed Forum News Service of the decision last month, noting that the show’s renewal had triggered a session all the two years among the staff. “August 7th is the last.”

Meaning Welk, whose smooth and easy (and sometimes polka-laden) big band music has been playing almost continuously in one form or another since before the Dust Bowl, has left the building.

And that left some people scratching their heads.

“I wonder why they won’t renew the contract here in South Dakota?” asked Clarence Shoemaker, 82, of Gregory, South Dakota, when the news broke earlier this week. “I know some people, especially in Yankton, are always listening.”

Other public television stations in neighboring states still air the show, such as Nebraska and North Dakota.

“Iowa PBS continues to air ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ every Saturday night, as it has since September 1987,” said Susan Ramsey, spokesperson for Iowa PBS.

And a publicist linked to Welk of the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, who has produced the show since the 1980s, also does not accept the drop in ratings.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” quipped Susie Dowdy on a phone call last week. “We are all over the country.”

Yet there is also a feeling in South Dakota that, for some reason, viewers – still at the top of the over-65 demographic – are simply not there anymore.

Just a few years ago, Welk was attracting a large following to the public station that was not used to blockbusters, Miller says. But station officials say that number has declined over the past five years, especially over the past year, as the pandemic has sent more viewers to digital spaces.

“What we’ve seen in the odds is a downtrend line,” Miller acknowledged.

While Welk was from North Dakota (born in Strasbourg), the famous maker of “champagne music” cut his chops from a state to the south, according to his 1971 memoir. In the 1920s, the ambitious son and Lucid German immigrant descended from Bismarck on a frosty night in search of New Orleans, but fled with his ice group to a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota.

The next morning, it first broadcast on WNAX, a massive radio station spanning the eastern width of the state.

Since then, for nearly a century, Welk has aired in one form or another – on a national radio show in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and then, from 1955, on ABC in Los Angeles. Since 1986, Welk’s variety show, starring the Lennon Sisters, Irish tenor Joe Feeney and accordionist Myron Floren, has performed on South Dakota Public Broadcasting via syndication.

Meanwhile, Welk – who died in 1992 at the age of 89 – stopped by the (world’s only) Corn Palace in Mitchell and visited his favorite correspondent, Edna Stoner, in Beresford, Dakota. South.

And his legacy still sings in Rushmore State.

A performance program for the 1969 Corn Palace Festival featuring Lawrence Welk's orchestra, which performed 15 shows over a week.  (Carnegie Resource Center)

A performance program for the 1969 Corn Palace Festival featuring Lawrence Welk’s orchestra, which performed 15 shows over a week. (Carnegie Resource Center)

While Welk was the first recipient (along with actress Dorothy Stickney) of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the Strasburg Svengali had pivotal moments in a South Dakota, including his first Far From Home (Ipswich) show, his many years in Yankton, and this time his group abandoned him (in Dallas, South Dakota).

The Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen can show an accordion belonging to Welk’s third cousin and tell you about Welk’s residence in the area.

Of course, Welk always encouraged viewers to “keep a song in their hearts,” so it’s not like he’s going anywhere, at least for true believers.

He will live in the memories.

“When Lawrence Welk was on TV, you know,” said Shoemaker, who writes for the Gregory Times Advocate, “it was a program where you had everything organized so that there was no interruptions during this hour when he was. “

Or – given a large bunch of cables – it can still live on your TV.

Earlier this summer, a North Dakota TV station honored him on the 70th anniversary of his TV debut in 1951. And across the border in Minnesota, they also come from renew the program.

“We aired ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ on tptLife since September 1994, “wrote Sherry Meek, Director of Programming for Twin Cities PBS, in an email.” We know he has a dedicated and passionate audience who look forward to him on tptLife. “

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