EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
In the history books of the Corn Palace, the list of A-list entertainment came of age in the 1950s and 1960s.
All-time names such as jazz orchestra leader Duke Ellington and The Three Stooges were on the stage. As was Andy Williams, Jack Benny and Gene Autry, with the latter flying his plane directly into Mitchell with great fanfare.
But in Corn Palace history, there is one entertainer who stands alone: Lawrence Welk.
Over four decades, Welk kept popping into the Corn Palace with his champagne music and filling the venue to its brim. He headlined the festival’s main stage five times (1948, 1954, 1962, 1963 and 1969, becoming the only standalone act to lead the festival billing that many times), and he set records with every stop. In the three appearances in the 1960s alone, he drew more than 150,000 attendees. A 1963 Daily Republic headline boasted it simply: “WELK WOWS ‘EM AGAIN AT PALACE.”
Given that Welk was from Dakota (as he often called it) and his appearances at the Palace coincided with his own national rise to stardom, the Mitchell area loved him unlike any other. Born to German-Russian immigrants to Strasburg, North Dakota, in 1903, Welk was known as the farm boy who liked to play the accordion, playing his famous “champagne music” that emphasized dancing, light melodies and rhythms. The goal, Welk said, was to create music that had a “bouncing feel” and would be easily recognizable.
Welk created a band and later an orchestra that toured the Upper Midwest, including halls throughout South Dakota. Welk’s talented accordionist Myron Floren grew up near Roslyn and worked in radio in Sioux Falls. Welk’s band took up semi-residency in Yankton in 1927 and playing on WNAX-AM expanded Welk’s reach, helping him make a name for himself.
The first documented recording of Welk leading a Corn Palace dance came in 1934, 10 years after Welk left his North Dakota farm at age 21 with his accordion to embark on a music career for the ages.
“It gives me a very warm feeling to return to South Dakota, which is really home to us,” Welk said on a visit to Mitchell in 1962. “After all, it’s the folks back here in the little towns that ‘got us over the hump.’”
Becoming a headliner
Welk first headlined a Corn Palace Festival in 1948, setting the festival’s attendance record. It was just before his radio show was picked up nationally by ABC, but well into an era when Welk was regularly filling ballrooms around the country. On the stage, Welk, who was 45, told the crowd that his orchestra would play a medley of tunes just like what he played in South Dakota in the Thirties.
Welk was back on March 25, 1950, although not as the festival’s lead billing. Instead, it was to play a Friday night Corn Palace dance, something he had done hundreds of times criss-crossing the Dakotas and the Midwest.
There were 1,841 people in attendance. That number was not insignificant: it was the first dance that turned a profit for the Corn Palace Committee since 1947. Republic columnist Dick Kobak wrote at the time that Welk never got into a rut with his show.
Instead, he got the Palace dances back into the black, showing once again that was a draw unlike any other.
For the annual fall festival, it was an era of bandleaders. Guy Lombardo — himself known for his sweet music, much like Welk — drew massive crowds to Mitchell in 1952. In the process, he took down Welk’s festival attendance record in 1952, drawing 49,433 ticket buyers over the course of 14 shows. (Outside the building, an estimated 100,000 people were taking in the festival on Main Street over the course of the week.)
In 1954, Welk took the record back, eclipsing Lombardo’s run by 409 attendees, for a total of 49,842 over 15 shows. At the time, Welk received the largest check ever paid to a Corn Palace performer at $29,746.80. (Today, adjusted for inflation, that check would be worth nearly $300,000.)
In a 1954 show program for the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica, California — where Welk’s band had a permanent engagement and filmed its local TV show — Welk wrote that the trip to Mitchell was a long-awaited trip and was “the one engagement that all of us have looked forward to making.”
“The week with home folks is one of our greatest thrills,” Welk wrote.
The next year, Welk’s TV show was picked up nationally by ABC, making his stardom ever larger, shown to up to 30 million viewers on Saturday nights.
Playing golf, making the audience happy
Fast forward to 1962 and Welk was set to return to Mitchell once more for the annual fall festival. The Corn Palace box office opened in mid-May, the earliest on record, and advance ticket orders were coming in at a pace of 800 tickets per day.
But Welk wasn’t too concerned about the ticket sales. Instead, he was wondering if he and his bandmates could get in a round of golf. Welk was an avid golfer, already a regular at mid-winter celebrity pro-am hosted by Bob Hope in Palm Springs, California. He even opened his own golf resort and housing development outside of San Diego.
In Aug. 1, 1962, he wrote to Corn Palace Festival committee treasurer Harvard Noble about putting together a charity event when he was in the city the next month.
“I was wondering if publicity-wise it would mean anything to have a delay of golf which could be put on for a charity,” Welk wrote. “It could be the band against a local club, or just some golers around Mitchell. Most of our players are duffers who shoot between 90 and 100.”
Noble and his Mitchell colleagues delivered for Welk, organizing a celebrity golf tournament on the Friday of Corn Palace week. The 18-hole tournament was organized to benefit the Mitchell United Fund, with Welk and 10 of his band members playing in the event.
“Golfing is a great sport,” Welk said in an interview with this newspaper. “It is especially good for entertainers because it gives us a chance to exercise and it relieves us of our tensions.”
The tournament was held at the Mitchell Country Club — now known as Wild Oak Golf Course — and was continued for 1963 when Welk returned to the city. For the second year, it was known as the Lawrence Welk Celebrity Pro-Amateur Golf Tournament, funding music scholarships at Dakota Wesleyan University, and the tournament would be held when Andy Williams commanded the Palace stage in 1964, as well.
At his day job, the festival attendance record was waiting to be broken again by Welk, after The Three Stooges reset the high-water mark for their 1961 performances. Welk delivered with standing-room crowds of 3,500 or more for each show, drawing 52,792 in 1962 and 51,895 when he came back the next year in 1963 to headline the festival again. (Since 1918, Welk is the only festival performer to headline the main stage in back-to-back years.)
In 1963, Welk received an ultimate honor in Corn Palace history: his likeness comprised from 27 shades of corn on the building’s exterior, designed by Oscar Howe.
The Carnegie Resource Center, thanks to donations from Noble, has much of the correspondence with Welk prior to the show, plus the festival contract and Welk’s rider. Aside from the financial terms ($50,000 guaranteed or 70% of the box office receipts, whichever was greater), Welk wasn’t too demanding. His only requests were a small baby grand piano, a spinet piano, a Hammond organ and sufficient speakers, microphones and lighting.
Welk headlined for the final time during the festival in 1969 — once again a full week of 15 shows, bringing his entire band and cast of his ABC television show to Mitchell. The demand was high once again — $177,000 in advance ticket sales were reported — and more than 46,000 were in attendance.
Tickets in 1969 ranged from $3 to $5, depending on what performance was taking place, double from the highest ticket price in 1954 at $2 and the cheapest ticket at $1.55 per seat.
It marked the final time Welk headlined the festival. In 1971, his ABC run came to an end as part of what became known as the rural purge: canceling network shows that were popular with rural, older audiences. Welk answered the move by syndicating his show and moving it to independent TV stations, where it would find more success until his retirement in 1982 at age 79.
When Welk died in 1992 at age 89, there were countless stories and remembrances of his time in the area and at the Palace specifically, bringing fans out of the crowd to sing on stage, his visits to the Brady Memorial nursing home when he visited town and for how he treated locals when at Mitchell restaurants.
“I dedicated myself years ago to make the audience happy,” Welk said in 1963. “I try to keep the feel of the audience.”
Later that year, Floren and the Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show were one of the headliners for Corn Palace entertainment, a group that Floren would bring to the Palace for seven straight years in the 1990s, paying tribute to the bandleader.
Floren’s show drew a massive crowd of 6,621 people, and was a major reason that year’s Corn Palace Festival was $35,000 in the black, and $47,000 ahead of the bottom line from the 1991 show.
It was one more Corn Palace reminder of the allure of Lawrence Welk.
This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.