Debra Marquart

The Most Famous Person from North Dakota

When I was a kid my parents forced me to watch Lawrence Welk with them. Every Saturday night after supper our dishtowels flew. Supper was what we called the evening meal back then, what my parents still call it even though my sisters and I have all moved away and now call it dinner.

We hated doing dishes, and on those nights we did them even more reluctantly, lingering over our reflections in the stainless steel frying pans, excusing ourselves to the bathroom more times than was necessary. Our mother urged us on. As we swabbed counters and dried plates, she stood at the sink pulling silverware from the scorching rinse water and barking out commands about which Tupperware container should go with which leftover.

It was not until every dish was put away, not until the sink was wiped down and the chrome polished to a sharp glisten that we could retreat to the living room where my father already waited--all of us finally ready for the first sight of bubbles floating up from behind the bandstand, the first yippy tones of clarinets.

What we suffered from back then was a lack of options. These were the black-and-white days of the early 1960s. We only had two channels. And what was on that other channel? Marlin Perkins and all those slippery- tongued reptiles? I have no idea because my father never let us change channels once Lawrence Welk came on. These were pre-remote days too. No grazing.

We watched those "words from our sponsors," commercials from companies like Geritol, Sominex and Aqua Velva, with the same reverence as we watched the show. These were the people, my father reasoned, who were paying good money to put Lawrence Welk on television. The least we could do was hear what they had to say.

This is the old way of watching television, from the time before the mute button, when checking to see what was on the other channel involved getting up from the couch. The people from this era don't watch television in quite the same way as those who came later, who grew up with the white noise of forty channels running constantly in the background.

Many years later, after I became a musician myself and started traveling around the country in a run-down bus, I might be in my motel room exhausted from a long cross-country trip, and scanning the channels for something good to watch, I'd happen upon the Lawrence Welk Show and then I'd be stuck. I would have to watch it all again. Because thanks to Public Television and "viewers like you" we now have Lawrence Welk and his musical family in re-runs unto infinity.

All those old-fashioned, song-and-dance tunes where the boy gets too fresh and the girl huffs and crosses her arms to show how properly miffed she is. All those smiling women, heavily coiffured in that bionic flip that was so popular back then, which we now know was harmful to the wearer's health as well as highly flammable and dangerous to the ozone.

Every woman on the show was pretty in that such-a-very-nice-girl way. In their dance numbers they sway to the music in a straight row of flowing chiffon, while all those fresh-faced men march in place, swinging their arms in time to some patriotic anthem--all of them wearing matching polyester suits and matching shoes dyed to bizarre colors never to be found in nature.

And behind it all with a grin as sly as Quasimodo lurks Lawrence, the maestro puppeteer, baton in hand, smiling ingratiatingly at the camera, accent in tow, his odd syllables grazing over difficult words.

Even back then when I was a kid and forced to like it, those two-cute-for-television introductions struck me as amazingly corny. To Lawrence it seemed everyone was "nice" (pronounced nize), "very talented" and, of course, "wunnerful."

And even back then, as my parents exclaimed over how smooth this dancer was or how good that singer way, I was not fooled for one minute. I knew that Lawrence Welk was no Benny Goodman, no Count Basie, even though I had not yet heard of these people. He was no Guy Lombardo, no Duke Ellington, certainly no Louis Armstrong.

And the accordion was a big tip-off. No for-real bandleader played the accordion. Even in my provincial innocence I was fairly certain of that.

But continue to watch we did. Because we were from a small town in North Dakota, a mere 30 miles from Strasburg, Welk's hometown, and because Lawrence Welk was the most famous person from North Dakota aside from Peggy Lee who doesn't count because she's from the eastern part of the state and a whole other story entirely. But mostly we watched because my father insisted we were related to Lawrence Welk.

"A distant relative," he assured us, "a shirt-tail cousin," but nevertheless still "related."

There's a general feeling in small towns that if you look back far enough, you'll find that everybody, except the teachers, the doctor and the librarian, is distantly related. So growing up in a small town seemed to me like being related to the whole world. Around every corner were more people declaring themselves to be your cousin, your uncle, your auntie.

But Cousin Lawrence? This struck me as a horrifying possibility. Although he spoke and acted just like most of the people in my hometown--most of whom were first and second generation Germans from Russia--I had a sick and disturbing feeling that no one on television should sound and look like us. They should sound and look, well, American.

All of this was lost on my parents, who were so dazzled by his fame and wealth. "They say he owns a golf course and a resort near San Diego," my mother whispered while Lawrence danced the polka with some lucky member of the studio audience. "He just drives up to Hollywood to tape the show on Saturdays," she would say this like one who had read an insider's report.

Hearing him gossiped about like this made him feel close, like a relative, but within me I harbored a hard kernel of resistance, even though there was concrete evidence of our relationship to him. We got Christmas cards from him every year, along with thousands of other people no doubt. And in his early career, everyone agreed, Welk had often stayed with our grandparents when he passed through town and played dances in a barn that had once stood at the foot of our hill.

My grandmother was no longer alive, so I couldn't ask her about cousin Lawrence. Even this mytho-historic barn had long since been razed and a new barn had been built at the top of the hill. With some investigation, we found enough traces of the barn--fragments of old wood shingles, horseshoes and a rusty nail that I stepped in--to accept the veracity of our father's claims.

Years later when I checked the family genealogy for myself, I discovered that I was indeed related to Lawrence Welk. He was my grandmother's first cousin (or my great-grandmother's nephew) which makes him my first cousin twice-removed, if you know how to figure these things out. Not close enough to get rich or famous by association, but close enough to say that our ancestors came over together on the same boat.

But to the people in my hometown Lawrence Welk was a symbol of something more than just blood and old-world ties. To them his story was entirely American: he was one of us who had gotten away and had done good.

And all these years later, now that I myself have gotten away, and I might add, not done nearly so well, I've had a chance to think about the place where I came from. The people who live there are from a little known tribe called Germans-from-Russia whose descendants emigrated from central Europe to Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at the invitation of the Tsarina, Catherine the Great.

Hundreds of thousands of German, Swiss and Alsatian people, with all their pots, pans and children in tow, had made that cross-country trek to the Volga and Black Sea regions of Russia. What became of them in the 20th century is the story that is still to be told.

All of the history books have forgotten us, but it's a story that buzzed in my ears as a child, present everywhere. I heard traces of it in the odd, guttural accents of the people I grew up around, and the foreign sounding foods on the menu of our small town cafe--strudel, knephla, fleischkeichla--and in the reticent secrecy of the oldest people in town, the first generation who had fled Russia and had made the dangerous passage to claim American citizenry.

To them, seeing Lawrence Welk on the television set every week served as proof that they had made the right decision in coming to America, and that they had not repeated the same mistakes their own grandparents had made a century earlier when they so trustingly traipsed off to Russia.

Our ancestors spent over 100 years emigrating from country to country: from Alsace-Lorraine on the ever-changing border between France and Germany; then to the steppes of Russia where Alexander I had promised farm land, religious freedom and exclusion from military service. After the fall of the imperial regime, survival for German minorities in Russia became impossible, so they had fled to America.

In my own childlike way, growing up, I took this to mean that we German-Russians were an earnest hardworking bunch with an amazingly low threshold for, what my father likes to call "bull crap." We could accept the wrath of God easily enough, but as soon as governments and armies began messing with us, we pulled up stakes whether wheat was in the fields or not, and we moved on.

But we weren't a fortuitous people. In fact, our ancestors had an uncanny knack for settling down in places where armies and invading hordes were most likely to tread. They sought flat, rolling land, which was good for farming, but also, unfortunately, excellent for advancing troops.

My grandparents were children when they made the crossing to America with their parents; my maternal grandfather was the last to emigrate at the age of twelve in 1911. And because they were farmers by trade and temperament, the Germans-from-Russia, quickly made their way to the isolation of the Dakota Territory, taking up claims for virgin land. In the 1960s when I was a child, approximately 95% of the people living in my county were of German-Russian origin.

They came to North Dakota for a livelihood, certainly, but they were also desperate for the obscurity of rural places. Since most adult males had fled Russia to escape induction into the Russian Army, they were convinced (had been convinced while still in Russia) that the long arm of the Russian military was indeed long enough to find them anywhere in the world they chose to run to.

It was not unusual for many German-Russian emigres to change their names on the train when they left Russia, and then change their names back once they got to Ellis Island, hoping to further obscure the trail -- a maddening development for those who attempt to trace family histories back through numerous countries and continents all these years later.

For this reason there was a shroud of mystery that surrounded my grandparents' and my great-grandparents' generation regarding the place where they had come from: Russia, that cold, closed country, our adopted country's mortal enemy, and a place where no one I knew ever went on vacation.

And back then my grandparents, who remained life-long immigrants, were only visitors in this country. They struck me as amazingly odd and foreign with their harsh accents, and their only-German-between-them, an their all-white cuisine, consisting of potatoes, dough and onions, that looked like no food anyone on television ate.

They made little attempts to reveal their geographic origins. "Odessa," my grandmother would say in a perturbed voice when I bugged her long enough. "We all came from Odessa." And as they died off one-by-one, this town, Odessa, appeared on the back of their memorial cards as a place of birth.

I later found out that even this was not true. Odessa, that Black Sea port city that I stared at for hours in the atlas, had been nothing more than a point of departure, like New York City might be if we were traveling to Europe.

According to them Russia was a nightmare, best not talked about, even better forgotten. And we, the third and fourth generations who are reconstructing the stories, have suffered the consequences of trying to extract answers from the repressed and failing memories of the first and second generation immigrants who are all now, for the most part, gone.

Even in the 1930s and '40s when their experiences were still fresh in their minds, Germans-from-Russia had a way of confounding inquiries about emigration. WPA workers who were sent all over the country to interview new immigrants met up with such profound aphasic responses from Germans-from-Russia that they turned in frustration and sought out more loquacious immigrants.

Most of this century, after all, has not been a good time to be either German or Russian. 'If you said you were German," my grandmother once told me, "they called you a kraut. If you said you were Russian, they called you a rooskie. By choice they became the people of silence.

And thus, by choice my ancestors, a tribe seeking the protection of remote places rightly found their way to the middle of what was soon to become North Dakota, a forgotten state in a seemingly forgotten region: the Great Plains of the American Midwest, a place where, it seemed to me as a kid growing up in the early 1960s, nothing of importance even had or ever would happen.

v v v

A few years ago in a cartoon that appeared in USA Today, two men are sitting at a bar. The one is looking at the other and saying, "You know it's true. I've never met anyone from North Dakota either."

I like to imagine the conversation these two men might have been having. The one, a bit tipsy perhaps and high on imagination as cartoon characters tend to be is proposing to the other that North Dakota is really not there, an Orwellian trick the Union has played on itself. Case-in-point: Have you ever met anyone from North Dakota?

What we North Dakotans have is an image problem, a fact that was verified in the late '80s when the state commissioned a study be done to determine the "state of the state." The findings of the study, entitled Vision 2000, revealed that North Dakotans as a people and North Dakota as a state suffers from an acute late of self-esteem.

It seems the only time the rest of the country hears about us is when some radical fringe group like the tax-protesting Posse Comitatus hidden away in our far recesses overreacts to government controls, blows away a few FBI agents and the networks follow up with a made-for-TV-docu-drama--usually entitled something like Murder in the Heartland--or when our state's name is picked out of the air by some comedian who needs a corny sounding geographic location to flavor a weak punch line.

Just the other day, for example, listening to a report on NPR, I heard it happen. A commentator was complaining about "the new Prague," hailed by some as the "Paris of the '90s." Because of these glowing reports, the commentator had gone to Prague and found out that the overpriced housing and the stuffed-to-occupany restaurants and the gray, dirty buildings were all too dismal for him to recommend to any American traveler.

"To say that Prague is the Paris of the '90s," he said setting the record forever straight with a cynical east coast snort, "is like saying Fargo, North Dakota is the New York City of the '90s."

Fargo, North Dakota. Well, I guess he made his point.

Back in 1989 when our state legislature was wrestling with such revolutionary and ground-breaking issues as whether or not to drop the "North" from North Dakota and simply call the state "Dakota," the headline that ran in the Wall Street Journal read: "Would a Rose Smell as Sweet if its Name was North Dakota?"

It seems the state's tourism bureau had determined that most people associate the word "North" with cold and flat--two images from which the tourism bureau would like to see the state disassociated.

"It may sound ridiculous," the article read, "that a state riddled with towns named Zap and Judd and Gackle would say that its own name lacks warmth."

Trying to be helpful, no doubt, the Journal reporter solicited the assistance of Frank Delano, Chairman of Delano, Goldman & Young, a high-profile New York City consulting firm that has had its hand in renaming such big companies as Unisys and Navistar.

"If North Dakotans want to present a warmer image to the world," the article reads, "My Delano has another suggestion: Palm Dakota."

"You know, like Palm Springs," Mr. Delano says smugly.

Most often North Dakota is famous for floundering at the bottom of national lists and for being the last state to overrule archaic laws that have probably been in effect since the time of the wild, wild west.

In 1991, for example, the New York Times reported that North Dakota was the last state to repeal the no Sunday shopping law--a close, controversial decision that sparked heated debates around the state about what might happen to church attendance. And even before the ink was dry on the new bill, the Times reported, concerned residents of the state were busy combing the countryside for enough signatures to turn the issue back around to a state ballot.

This list of grievances, slights against the good name of North Dakota, which begins to read like a foreshortened version of Luther's ninety-five theses, preys on the already fragile ego of every North Dakotan. We collect these episodes, licking our wounds in private, making a mental note, keeping an obsessively detailed log of these small infractions, as those who are powerless tend to do.

Take the time a few years ago when Rand McNally, those conscientious map makers who so efficiently keep track of every country in the world--Djibouti, Mauritania, Gabon--every changing border, every revised spelling of every new territory, neglected to include part of North Dakota in their 1989 Photographic World Atlas. They left out parts of South Dakota and Oklahoma too, but that didn't make North Dakotans feel any better. Having low self-esteem, we take these things personally. The Times article read, "Rand McNally Covers All 47 States.'

"It was an editorial decision," Conroy Erickson, Rand McNally's public relations director said in response to heated inquiries from Dakotans.

"Now that this has come up," Erickson apologized, "we realize that this was not a good idea."

In 1990 North Dakotans faced another public humiliation when President Bush himself took the time and trouble in a national press conference (it was later rebroadcast on the nightly news) to single out and condemn a $500,000 rural development grant for North Dakota that had recently been passed in Congress--a grant intended, ironically enough, to preserve Lawrence Welk's childhood sod home and the original Welk homestead as a historical site. Bush labeled it "the worst example of pork barrel politics" he had seen for quite some time.

"I mean we all like Lawrence Welk," Bush said, bending his knees and making a little ooompa motion, "but this is ridiculous." Bush, usually not a very funny President, made the whole press corps laugh that day.

v v v

I'm sure even Lawrence laughed at this. He was still alive back then and he was a multi-millionaire. As my father used to say when I made fun of Lawrence's corny accent: "He laughs all the way to the bank with that."

Nobody was better at making fun of Lawrence than he himself. The text from his first autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful reads with the understated charm of a consummate self-deprecator. Commenting, for example, on the names of his early bands, Welk says:

I don't know which was the worst title: "Lawrence Welk

and his Hotsy Totsy Boys," "Welk's Novelty Orchestra,"

or "Lawrence Welk and his Honolulu Fruit Orchestra."

The boys complained about them all.

A poster reproduced in the photo pages at the center of Wunnerful, Wunnerful, features another of Lawrence Welk's bands--"America's Biggest Little Band"--which showcased a brass player named Leo Fortin, who could blow two trumpets at once, and a multi-talented trombonist, Terry George, who played a rousing rendition of "Nola" with his foot.

The poster includes photos of both of them: Fortin with his cheeks big as apples, his face stuffed with trumpets, and George bouncing on one leg, his right foot slung into the curve of his trombone, playing "Nola," no doubt.

"SUPERHUMAN PERFORMANCE ACTS," the poster boldly announces. "These two always stopped the show," Lawrence reports with obvious pride.

True midwestern modesty abounds in Wunnerful, Wunnerful. Under a beautiful picture of the elegant Trianon Ballroom in Chicago where his band played successfully for over ten years, Welk writes in something like a golf commentator's whisper: "The side stage, barely visible at the left, is where visiting bands would engage us in a "Battle of the Bands."

"We usually lost," Welk feels compelled to report.

In another photo in the center pages of Wunnerful, Wunnerful, above a promo picture of "America's Biggest Little Band," Welk has written: "you can see why they quit me!"

This episode, the painful story of Welk's first organized band telling him at breakfast one morning in the '20s that they were all moving on without him, because he "still bounced around like he was playing at a barn dance and he couldn't even speak English," is told in the painful chapter "My Band Walks Out" or, as I like to call it, "Lawrence Bottoms Out in the Midwest Market."

Here in this book we see the roots of Lawrence Welk's career, playing from Akron to Omaha and all stops in between, surviving by his wits and entertainment sense. It was this hick-quality, this hokey huckster charm that so repelled me when I was a kid.

I don't recall anyone telling me that it was necessary to suffer for one's art, but instinctively I looked for it, and it appeared to me that on the Welk Show no creative demons were being exorcised, no one was struggling against forces of censorship or oppression.

Sweat poured from the brows of real performers who were oblivious to their audience. The Welk "musical family" was just too happy to be there in front of the camera, entertaining--too conscious of me, the viewer, for my comfort.

At an early age I had theories about music, especially singers, which I separated into two categories. On one side were "singers" who sang nicely. They enunciated every word so you could understand them clearly. On the other side were 'vocalists" who massaged the musical line, the notes pouring from them like a fluid animal, the words becoming inconsequential. Through their sounds they could transport you to an unknown country, to a place that is all body and blood and memory.

There were no vocalists on the Lawrence Welk Singer, only milquetoast, fourth-rate nightclub singers, no one bordering on chaos--with the possible exception of Joann Castle, a honky-tonk piano player. She didn't last long on the show for precisely that reason: concerned viewers wrote in and complained about all her "wrong notes."

Even Welk's one African-American minority representative Arthur Duncan, a tap dancer, was too manageably light-skinned, too personable. And if he hadn't been, he wouldn't have been hired, because on the Welk Show no evidence of attitude, no true signs of cool were allowed.

Even as a kid, I knew about real players and how they teased the melody. They rushed ahead, then hesitated, then let it out all at once. Welk's musicians played their lines a measure at a time, like conservatives tucking a little money away every week, straight as, perhaps straighter than Muzak, but is this possible?

And Lawrence's fashion sense was no better. His women performers were attired in dresses with flouncy bows and neat, cinched waists, everyone looking as scrubbed and clean for the camera as possible.

"Man, are they good!" my father used to exclaim. "Everybody on this show always looks so neat!" Small groan from me in the corner. Welk's aesthetic was also my parents' aesthetic, and here it was, the formula for success, proof-positive on national television every Saturday night.

A few years later when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show I recall my father being appalled. How could these messy, noisy guys get on television? He left the room in the middle of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and he went to the bathroom. Coming back after the Beatles were done, he told us he had flushed the whole lot down the toilet. In my father's estimation, the Beatles had no future. Even before they started they were already a done deal.

v v v

There is a gravel road that leads out of my parents' farm about a half-mile long which leads to another gravel road about a mile long that eventually meets up with a paved two-lane highway. When I was a kid, I used to sit for hours in my brother's bedroom facing the highway, and I would keep a running tally of how many cars and trucks passed our farm: color, make, model, and whether the vehicle was going north or south.

I yearned for movement back then, for escape. From watching TV and listening to the radio, I got sketchy messages from the outside world but I wanted desperately to be "out there."

I spent a lot of time walking--restless, aimless walking, down the gravel roads, along the dusty section lines, always kicking stones, always walking with my head down, searching for some remnant, some trace that something had happened here on this barren strip of land.

I drew maps with large Xs on them, marking the spot where lost treasure surely would be found. I looked for chipped arrowheads, a stone carving, an agate, even an unusual rock formation--anything that might prove to me that someone or something, a nomadic tribe or an ancient glacier had passed through before me.

That half-mile stretch of gravel road leading out of my parents' farm is framed on either side by cottonwood trees that are over seventy feet tall. They have been there a long time; my great-grandfather planted them about eighty years ago, along with a long stretch of orchard when he settled there.

The day that I graduated from high school, I took a photograph of that view--the long driveway stretching out to other roads and the old cottonwoods reaching up to the sky--and I got myself on that road and I did not look back, not for many years. I was only 17.

I went to college and then, much to my parents' disappointment dropped out of school eight credits shy of a bachelor's degree to join a rock and roll band. It was my intention to become filthy rich, embarrassingly successful and to never tell anyone I was from North Dakota. I went on the road, slipped deep into the underground. I wanted to get as far away as possible and never look back.

In a similar fashion, in 1924, Lawrence Welk woke up very early on the morning he turned 21. He was now free to pursue his musical career. He got dressed in an unfamiliar new suit that he had ordered especially for his departure.

I inspected the contents of my valise one more time,

And counted my small hoard of money. I had enough

for my train fare plus Three one-dollar bills, which I

pinned in my inside coat pocket, and a little loose change.

I smoothed the patchwork quilt, which my mother had

made, over my bed for the last time, and then looked

around the room where I had spent so many hours with

my brothers. I felt no unhappiness, only a great eagerness

to begin my great adventures.

"So you're going," Welk's father said to him over the breakfast table. "Well, you'll be back. You'll be back just as soon as you get hungry."

"But I knew I would never return," Welk said. "I would never come back until I had proved myself."

As for me, I did return to North Dakota many times, sometimes in a state of abject failure when a band of mine had broken up and left me penniless and alone, sometimes with a stream of glory trailing behind me.

I recall once when I took my whole band home to play the prom of a neighboring high school for a large sum of money. My parents, out of kindness, offered to feed us and then came to watch us perform.

The prom turned out to be an extravaganza--mirror balls, fluorescent streamers stretching the length of the auditorium, balloons falling from the rafters as couples with big hair, tuxedos and chiffon dresses walked down the aisle.

We performed from the stage in our usual manner: blasting at 130 dbs, steeped to the teeth in leather, large stacks of amplifiers piled behind us, a fog machine blowing haze, flashpots popping off around us. It was like being in a war zone.

What I remember most, however, is the face of my father, lost somewhere in that sea of faces, that anonymous crowd of relatives with cameras that must watch from behind the wall of streamers. But the view of my father was clear to me that night, as if lit by a spotlight, and the look on his face was one of worry: why did we have to play so loud; how could I make such a spectacle of myself; did we ever wash and comb our hair, and didn't I have enough musical common sense to get this band to sound any better?

On that day back in 1924 when Lawrence Welk left behind his immigrant parents on the farm, he went into Strasburg and boarded the train, the same train, ironically, that had brought all of our people north to their homestead claims. On that day he took the train south as far as his money would carry him--to Aberdeen, South Dakota, a mere 125 miles from his hometown, but no easy distance considering where he had come from.

And similarly, I have lived for the last twenty years as a kind of reluctant, expatriate North Dakotan, traveling all over the country, residing in bordering states, close enough so that I can keep an eye on, but far enough so that I can be free of North Dakota.

Passing through. That seems to be what North Dakota is best for. We are the state that people speed through on the way to the ski slopes of Montana or the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. Even we children of North Dakota were programmed for flight. We grew up with a nagging feeling that life was certainly elsewhere, and even our parents encouraged us to get out--to scatter in a kind of diaspora to all the other states of the union.

That flat land, so barren and unforgiving, the land our grandparents were given was not so good, as it turned out. According to Frank and Deborah Popper, two urban planners out of Rutgers, the Great Plains boasts "the nation's hottest summers and coldest winters, greatest temperature swings, worst hail and locusts and range fires, fiercest droughts and blizzards, and therefore its shortest growing season."

The Poppers have declared the settling of the Great Plains "the largest, longest-running agriculture and environmental mistake in United States history . . . an austere monument to American self-delusion." They have gone so far as to propose that the government buy up the land, relocate the people and return the entire high plains to its "original pre-white state" -- a buffalo commons.

My great-grandparents and grandparents pitted their own strong wills against the unrelenting harshness of North Dakota and the testimony of their tragic lives proves the Poppers somewhat right: the settling of the Plains was, at best, a failed experiment.

But we, the surviving generations who were born and raised under the harsh tutelage of the Great Plains have found a fierce but loving taskmaster in it. We have been forged into a hearty breed, requiring little, expecting less, able to survive anywhere.

And no matter how far from that uncompromising land we drift, a long, sinewy taproot connects us, summoning us home from time to time, not like a song, not like a song at all, but more like a loud, brassy supper call.