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Bandleader Lawrence Welk’s trademark bubbles and music attracted legions of adoring fans and made him millions of dollars.
“He was a marketing genius — we’re trying to channel him,” said Diane Rogness, who manages North Dakota historic sites, including the boyhood home of the late polka-playing bandleader in Strasburg, about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck.
Flush with cash from a once-booming oil economy, state lawmakers paid $100,000 in 2015 to buy the 6-acre Welk site. But attendance has been ho-hum, with about 1,000 mostly elderly people each paying $5 to visit, about $30,000 short of what’s needed to cover the annual cost to North Dakota taxpayers of its operations.
The site opens this season May 26. Rogness said several things are being planned to help boost attendance, including an increased social media presence and presenters who will talk about everything from blacksmithing to beer, and perhaps a Woodstock-like “jam session” that could draw accordion players from afar.
“People want experiences rather than a sleepy tour,” she said.
Welk learned to play accordion in the home in Strasburg, a town off the “Lawrence Welk Highway” where many of the 400 people still converse in German. Welk left Strasburg at 21 to start a musical career that took him from dance halls in the Dakotas to national television. He became known as the “King of Champagne Music” and added to the national lexicon with his heavily German-accented phrases, “Ah-one, an’ ah-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful.”
North Dakota’s purchase came two decades after Congress earmarked $500,000 in federal funds to develop a tourist industry in Strasburg. The money included funding for a museum of German-Russian heritage that was intended to draw visitors to the band leader’s birthplace. Lawmakers later withdrew the money when the idea was mocked as a national symbol of wasteful spending.
Welk’s nieces, Evelyn Schwab and Edna Schwab, sold the site to the state. The Schwabs had given tours of the farmstead since it was restored with private funds in the early 1990s. Welk donated about $140,000 for the restoration in 1992 before his death at age 89. They said it drew more than 7,000 people that year.
The homestead features a life-size cutout of an accordion-wielding Welk. The property also has a barn, summer kitchen, granary, buggy house, blacksmith shop and outhouse.
State funding pays for maintenance and two part-time tour guides during season, which ends Labor Day. Only one of the positions has been filled a week before opening.
Historical Society Director Claudia Berg said the site’s remote location and primitive accommodations have made hiring someone difficult.
“It’s not air conditioned, and there is an outhouse for plumbing,” she said. “It’s kind of like living the time period.”