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In Strasburg, N.D., They Remember Lawrence Welk, When he was Leader of the Hotsy Totsy Boys

Condon, Maurice. "In Strasburg, N.D., They Remember Lawrence Welk, When he was Leader of the Hotsy Totsy Boys." TV Guide, 29 April 1967, 20-23.


With Hotsy Totsy Boys’ car. Group’s later
name: Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.

It sounds improbable but there are those who stoutly aver that the gerontologists, those physicians specializing in the health problems of the senior citizen, start the day by bowing in the direction of Strasburg, N.D.

For it was in Strasburg, on March 11, 1903, that Lawrence Welk was born, the man credited with rocketing the elderly from their rocking chairs onto the dance floors.

Strasburg is a modest huddle of houses off North Dakota State Route 83, and while no one has been sufficiently alert to identify it as the birth-place of Lawrence Welk, other evidences abound.

There is a sign-“Welk Dam.” This directs the motorist to a WPA-sponsored project for water conservation, subsequently named to honor the originator of Champagne Music.

On the main street is the Lawrence Welk Swimming Pool and Picnic Park, both brought into being by a handsome donation from the bandleader, and dedicated to his neighbors.

In the Strasburg Post Office the bulletin boasts photographs of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lawrence Welk.

Postmaster Mike Voller said, “We’re all very proud of Lawrence. He get back often, was here two weeks last September. He’s just as he always was, very nice, very modest.”

“My predecessor here was Post-master John Klein. His son Johnny plays the drums in the Welk band.”

Rev. Father Mark Renner, pastor Sts. Peter and Pal Church, is a warm and intimate friend of Lawrence Welk.

“I don’t remember him as a boy,” he apologized. “Our friendship is much more recent. But he has told me many things about his boyhood on his visits here, and on my visits to him in California.”

“Although he is in fine health, Lawrence has had to combat all these years the enervating effects of a ruptured appendix in his youth. In that day-it was 1913, 1914-a ruptured appendix was usually fatal.”

“In small Strasburg, then as now, there was no hospital. The nearest was in Bismarck, almost 80 miles away. And that’s where he was taken, swathed in blankets, lying on the hard wooden floor of a horse-drawn wagon. It must have been a painful journey.”

“But by the grace of God he was alive when they reached Bismarck, and he survived, although for more than a year he was a bedridden boy.”

“To this day his diet is a restricted one-bland foods, pureed foods-for this childhood illness left scarified abdominal adhesions and intestinal weaknesses. Yet I am sure no one has ever heard him complain, no has he allowed it to limit his activities.”

Mrs. Anna Mary Mattern, one of his sisters, widowed now and living in Strasburg, remembers that Lawrence, about to become a professional musician, was ashamed of his accordion.

Then, studying a mail-order catalog, he was entranced by the illustration of a rhinestone-studded piano key-board instrument.

“He told Pa if he would buy it, he-Lawrence-would repay the purchase price of $200 over a four-year period, out of his earnings. My father agreed, Lawrence got the accordion, and he paid it back in two years!”

At the Pin Palace, Strasburg’s bowling-alley snack bar, proprietor Al Krammer was proud to report that Lawrence stops in when he’s home.

“Had lunch here twice when he was in, last September. You’d never guess he’s a national star in television. He’s a regular person.”

Al’s wife, Katherine, said, “If you want to know about Lawrence when he was growing up, we’re too young for that. You see Uncle Pius.”

Uncle Pius?

“Everybody calls him that. He’s everybody’s uncle. Pius Kraft runs the store down the street, Kraft & Keller. He’s been in business here since the Year One. He’ll talk a leg off you but he’ll tell you lots about Lawrence Welk as a boy.

“Oh-you like penny candy?”

In moderation.

“When you leave Uncle Pius, you’ll have a pocketful!”

Kraft & Keller, on Strasburg’s main street, is a grocery supermarket, drugstore, clothing, soft goods, shoe, hardware and confectionery store-in short, an establishment almost vanished from the rural American scene, best described as “the general store.”

Merchandise is displayed-“spilled” would be the more exact word in profusion in the glass-fronted cases, on the floor, on shelves, appended to the walls, hanging from the ceiling in a splendid chaos.

In spite of the seeming confusion, when you specify your need it is met with speed and precision.

To find Uncle Pius, you as Mrs. Agatha Kraft, who calls, “Pius! Someone to see you!”

From somewhere comes a jovial, hearty voice, “I’m here.”

“Here” is a remote corner of the store, reached by a labyrinthine course, where Uncle Pius has his roll-top desk, heavily burdened with letters, and old papers, a triumph of order within disorder.

Uncle Pius-does he remember the boy Lawrence Welk? There is a snort of incredulity at the question.

“I’ve been in business in Strasburg since 19-ought-six. Ask me about any baby born here, I can tell you.

“Before we get to Lawrence-one thing. In the magazines, they always say his parents, Ludwig and Christina Welk-came here from Alsace-Lorraine. Not so.

“His grandfather and grandmother maybe, originally. But his parents came from Odessa in the Ukraine. But they were German, all of them first from Alsace-Lorraine.”

“And Lawrence’s mother-the magazines said her name was Schwalm. Wrong. It was Schwahn. Here, I’ll write it down. Spell it right for once.”

“How did Lawrence get started on the accordion? Aha, you should have heard his father, Ludwig. Now he could play the accordion. When they came over here they had the clothes they wore, no more. Except for the accordion. It had been in the Welk family three, maybe four generations.”

“Farming was hard then. Up with the sun, to bed with the sun. But when there was a wedding! In those days any respectable wedding took three days-they were real weddings! And there was Ludwig Welk with the family accordion, playing as long as there was anyone left to dance!”

“Lawrence plays the accordion very good. But then, Ludwig taught him. You know how Lawrence got his own accordion? It cost $15 and he didn’t have $15. That was a lot of money then, he was just a boy. So he got the money by trapping. Muskrat, beaver, badger. He skinned them, sold the pelts, paid for the accordion.”

“I tell you, Lawrence has gone a long way, for a boy who had little education. He never finished fourth grade. Went to the boarding school over there; the Ursuline nuns used to teach there. Then he got sick, for a long time, never got back to school.”

“I did hear that Lawrence took a correspondence course with a music academy in Minneapolis. He got a diploma in piano tuning. It’s a good thing for a man to have a trade to fall back on, but I don’t suppose he’s ever had to tune pianos for a living.”

Did Uncle Pius know why Lawrence changed the name of his band in the early days from the “Hotsy Totsy Boys” to the “Lawrence Welk Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.”?

“Oh, that. After he had been playing for weddings and parties and social affairs for quite a while, he got a program on WNAX, the radio station over in Yankton [S.D.]. His sponsor was Honolulu Fruit Gum. He kept his pockets full of it and everybody he met, he gave them a stick of Honolulu Fruit Gum.”

“So that’s about Lawrence Welk, a fine boy from Strasburg. When he was about this high, he’d come in, with a list of things they needed at the farm. When he was leaving, he’d pause near the door, like where you are.”

“He knew that Uncle Pius would reach into this barrel of penny candy here-grab a handful and stuff it into his pocket.”

“Like this. Munch it on the way back home and come back soon.”

Lawrence playing banjo in 1925; acting like a matador (‘George T. Kelly Show’, 1925). He worked two years to earn the cost of the accordion.
Ludwig Welk and Christina (Schwahn), immigrants from Catholic German Villages today near Odessa, Ukraine, with their children outside their farm near Strasburg, North Dakota. Christina Welk is holding Lawrence.


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