Congressman Silvio Conte, the Massachusetts Republican, put it best. “And a-one, and a-two, and a-three…and a $500,000!” he fumed, assuming the Germanic accent of America’s foremost maker of champagne music. “What are they going to do for an encore? Earmark funds to renovate Guy Lombardo’s speedboat or restore Artie Shaw’s wedding tuxedo?”
Conte was in an uproar over half a million in federal funds that was slipped into the 1991 budget at the last moment to preserve and enshrine Lawrence Welk’s boyhood home in Strasburg, N.Dak., turning it into a sort of Graceland-on-the-prairie. But what the Congressman views as a pork-barrel polka, the residents of tiny Strasburg (pop. 623) see as a justifiable way to honor their most famous son. They believe making a tourist attraction of Welk’s birthplace will boost the local economy, hard-hit by years of drought and poor harvests. “They give money all over the country for this and that,” says Al Kramer, owner of Pin Palace, Strasburg’s café-cum-bowling alley. “Why not us?”
Welk’s daughter, on the other hand, says the family was “astonished” to learn about the government grant. “We are very supportive of this project,” says Shirley Fredricks, “but we thought it was being done with private funding.” Welk, 87, who has not visited Strasburg recently, lives quietly at his Santa Monica, Calif., home with his wife of 60 years, Fern.
The Welk homestead won’t be the only beneficiary of congressional largesse. A museum honoring German immigrants from Russia—among them Welk’s ancestors—will be built on the farm, and Strasburg residents are also hoping to open a restaurant specializing in German-Russian cuisine. But if a single government dime goes for a bubble machine, you can bet Congressman Conte will weigh in again.