VERMILLION, S.D. —Ah one, and ah two, no more.

Bandleader Lawrence Welk, the North Dakotan with the accordionists and baton and hour-long television special, may finally be signing off after nearly a century on South Dakota's radio and television waves.

That's because South Dakota Public Broadcasting, which has carried reruns of "The Lawrence Welk Show" since 1986, has opted 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 director of marketing, who told Forum News Service about the decision last month, noting the show's renewal has biennially set off a hemming-and-hawing session among staff. "Aug. 7 is the last one."

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

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And that's left some folks scratching their heads.

"I wonder why they're not going to renew the contract here in South Dakota?" asked Clarence Shoemaker, 82, of Gregory, South Dakota, when told the news earlier this week. "I know some people, especially over in Yankton, still tune in."

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

"Iowa PBS continues to air 'The Lawrence Welk Show' each Saturday evening, as it has since September of 1987," said Susan Ramsey, spokeswoman for Iowa PBS.

And a Welk-related publicist with the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, who has produced the show since the 1980s, doesn't buy the ratings decline, either.

"Oh I don't believe that," Susie Dowdy scoffed, on a phone call last week. "We're on all over the country."

Still, there's also a sense in South Dakota that, for whatever reason, the viewers — always at the top end of the plus-65 demographic — just aren't there anymore.

Just a few years ago Welk drew big audiences for the public station unaccustomed to blockbuster viewership, says Miller. But station officials say that number has dropped off over the last five years, especially over the last year as the pandemic has sent more viewers to digital spaces.

"What we've seen in the ratings has been a trendline downward," Miller acknowledged.

While Welk was a North Dakota native (born in Strasburg), the celebrated "champagne music" maker cut his chops one state to the south, according to his 1971 memoir. In the 1920s, the ambitious, clear-eyed son of German immigrants drove down from Bismarck on a frigid night looking for New Orleans, but pulled off with his freezing band at a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota.

That next morning he first broadcast over the airwaves of WNAX, a massive radio station stretching the eastern width of the state.

Since then, for nearly a century, Welk has been broadcast in one form or another — on a national radio show out of Pittsburgh and Chicago, then, beginning in 1955, on ABC out of Los Angeles. Since 1986, Welk's variety show, featuring the Lennon Sisters, the Irish tenor Joe Feeney and accordionist Myron Floren, have played on South Dakota Public Broadcasting via syndication.

In the meantime, Welk — who died in 1992 at age 89 — made pit stops at the (World's Only) Corn Palace in Mitchell and to visit his favorite pen pal, Edna Stoner, in Beresford, South Dakota.

And his legacy still sings in the Rushmore State.

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

While Welk was an inaugural recipient (along with actress Dorothy Stickney) of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the Strasburg Svengali counted pivotal moments one Dakota to the south, including his first show away from home (Ipswich), his many years in Yankton, and that time his band walked out on him (in Dallas, South Dakota).

The Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen can point to an accordion owned by Welk's third cousin on display and tell you about Welk's residence in the area.

Of course, Welk always encouraged viewers to "keep a song in your heart," so it's not like he'll be going anywhere, at least for the true believers.

He will live on in memories.

"When Lawrence Welk was on TV, you know," said Shoemaker, who pens a column for the Gregory Times Advocate, "that was a program that you had everything organized so there were not going to be interruptions during that hour he was on."

Or — given a broad cable package — he may still live on in your TV.

Earlier this summer, a North Dakota TV station honored him on the 70th anniversary of his television debut in 1951. And across the border in Minnesota, they just renewed the program, too.

"We've been airing 'The Lawrence Welk Show' on tptLife since September '94," wrote Sherry Meek, Director of Programming for Twin Cities PBS, in an email. "We know it has a dedicated and passionate audience who look forward to it on tptLife."