Golf outing in Bismarck launched Minnesota singer to fame in 'Lawrence Welk Show'

Jan. 24—If you're like me and grew up before the age of DVRs, streaming services and video on demand, you know we didn't have a lot of choice when it came to TV. Most of us only had three or four channels, tops.

We kids would plop down in front of our parent's ginormous console television (approximately the size of a Buick) waiting patiently for our favorite shows to come on—shows like "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," and "Emergency."

In the meantime, we'd have to sit through those shows that just always seemed to be on. You know the ones—"Hee-Haw," "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," "The Wonderful World of Disney" or "The Lawrence Welk Show." We couldn't escape them. We were trapped like Jacques Cousteau in a shark tank.

Even with this casual viewing, these shows left their mark on many of us—memories of Marlin Perkins of "Wild Kingdom" forcing poor Jim Fowler to sedate the lion while he cowered in the jeep, the "Hee Haw gang blowing raspberries singing, "You met another and PFFT! You was gone!" or listening to Tom Netherton, a tall, handsome guy (in a white bread, polyester shirt, gold chain kind of way) singing old-timey ballads on "The Lawrence Welk Show."

I bring this up now because I thought about Netherton for the first time in years following

a story I did recently about another handsome, blond '70s-era performer


Actor David Soul, who starred in "Starsky and Hutch," died on January 4 at the age of 80. Soul grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and rose to fame after performing in the "Medora Musical" in 1965.

I learned Soul wasn't the only star to get his start in Medora. Netherton did, too. He was in the "Medora Musical" cast in 1972.

As I read up on Netherton, it was clear the Minnesota native had a pretty interesting life as a U.S. Army lieutenant, evangelist, performer, and the potential subject of a what some perceived to be a scandalous comment made by talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford.

I was able to pick through Netherton's Bloomington (Minnesota) High yearbooks from 1964 and 1965 to learn a little more about the young man behind the star who would later go out for a round of golf in Bismarck and leave the 18th green headed for stardom.

Thomas Harold Netherton Jr. was born Jan. 11, 1947, in Munich, Germany, to Thomas and Lillian (Christensen) Netherton. Thomas Sr. was a career military officer stationed in Germany and a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. During World War II, he was awarded three Bronze Stars for valor. After 20 years in the U.S. Army, Thomas Sr. received his discharge and moved his family to Bloomington, near Minneapolis.

Tom Jr. was considered "shy" by some people, but in looking through his yearbooks, it's easy to see he wasn't sitting home alone in his room reading books. Among other things, he was senior class president, a homecoming ambassador, a service club member, a Spanish club member and a track and field athlete.

But two of Netherton's pursuits seemed to stand out. Not surprisingly, he was a theater guy. Forum columnist Curt Eriksmoen once wrote about his unlikely start on stage.

"While in junior high, Tom and his buddies dared one another to audition for the school's musical production. He climbed up on stage, sang 'Almost Like Being in Love,' jumped off the stage, and ran for home. The next morning, he was shocked to see his name posted on the bulletin board as the main lead," Eriksmoen wrote.

Netherton's leading man days continued. He starred in "Brigadoon" at Bloomington High. One photo shows girls surrounding him asking for autographs.

But Netherton had his sights set far beyond the stage. He was active in the American Field Service (AFS) Club, which encouraged student exchanges with other countries.

According to Eriksmoen, "In the summer between his junior and senior years, he took part in the AFC program and lived in a small town in Peru, high in the Andes Mountains."

A write-up in his yearbook jokes about his wardrobe of "ponchos and cutoffs" during a chilly fall picnic when he was back home in Minnesota.

Following graduation from high school and a brief stint at the University of Minnesota, Netherton followed in his father's footsteps and joined the U.S. Army. He excelled during basic training, earning the title of "Outstanding Trainee of the Cycle."

Officer Candidate School followed along with promotions to 2nd and 1st Lieutenant. While serving as commander of the 1542 Infantry Unit in Panama, he frequently sang for the troops, just for fun. He was good enough to be broadcast over the Army's non-military radio network, Voice of America. He also became increasingly interested in church while in Panama and declared himself a born-again Christian.

Netherton's life seemed to be leading in two new directions: music and evangelism.

After being discharged from the Army, Netherton trained to be a missionary, but his love of music was still there. Could he sing and spread the gospel?

The answer seemed to be "yes."

According to Eriksmoen, "By examining Pat Boone's career, he decided he could do both by becoming a Christian singer."

Netherton started performing in gospel tours outside Bloomington. Money was a bit tight, so he reached out for help to Fred Smith, a producer who had once booked him for floor show work at a Bloomington restaurant.

Smith was now the associate producer for Al Sheehan Productions and as co-creator (with Harold Schafer) of the Medora Musical, told Netherton, he thought he'd be a great addition to the 1972 cast.

Netherton didn't like being so far from Minneapolis but took the job anyway to help pay off his debts.

Among his biggest fans were Harold Schafer and his wife Sheila, who were impressed by his singing and stage presence. So much so that they wanted to introduce him to one of North Dakota's most famous celebrities who was in his home state for a family reunion.

"Harold and Sheila Schafer introduced Netherton to Lawrence Welk at a Bismarck golf course and, a few nights later, Welk had the young man auditioning to become a regular on his popular television program, in front of an audience of 19,000 people at a show in St. Paul. Netherton was a hit and he made his television debut on the Lawrence Welk Christmas Special in 1973," wrote Eriksmoen.

Welk seemed to appreciate Netherton's wholesome image and gave him a platform to sing religious hymns and pop standards.

In an era when other male singers his age (26) were growing their hair and dropping acid, Netherton was definitely "square." But it worked.

He was one of Welk's most popular entertainers, singing on the show from 1973 to Welk's retirement in 1982.

When asked about Netherton, Welk said, "Tom's got a good noodle, and he's a showman. If he continues to work, I think he'll make it. In fact, I'll bet Tom could run for president."

He didn't run for president, but when he wasn't filming the Welk show he traveled the nation like he was one, performing in venues across the country. According to The Forum archives, Netherton came to Moorhead in 1975 to sing at a Concordia College C-400 fundraiser and was back in the area in 1979 to appear at an evangelism rally at the Fargo Civic Center. He also became a spokesperson for Nabisco's Triscuits and Rose Milk Skincare Lotion.

When "The Lawrence Welk Show" went off the air in 1982, he faded a bit from the national spotlight. Reruns on PBS kept him in the public eye after that, as did something talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford wrote in 1993.

Netherton first met Kathie Lee Gifford when she was married to music producer Paul Johnson. Johnson produced some of Netherton's Christian albums in the '70s. They were all friends. Kathie Lee even tried to set up Netherton with her single friends.

(She wasn't the only one. Netherton also appeared on "The Dating Game.") But he never married. Kathie Lee and Paul eventually divorced.

In 1993, Kathie Lee (now remarried to football star and commentator Frank Gifford) wrote about her troubled first marriage in her book, "I Can't Believe I Said That."

In it, she said Johnson "had lived with a gay performer on 'The Lawrence Welk Show.'"

Tongues wagged and as Eriksmoen said, "Kathie Lee never gave the name of the performer, but since Johnson and Netherton had been good friends, some insisted that she was referring to Netherton. Both Netherton and Gifford refused to comment on it, and eventually, the rumor faded away."

Thirty-two years after he first set foot on the Medora stage, Netherton returned for the 40th anniversary show in 2005. He was later honored in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in Minot, North Dakota.

Early in 2018, Netherton came down with the flu and later developed pneumonia. He died on Jan. at the age of 70.

After writing about Netheron and Soul, who both reached fame after leaving North Dakota, it makes me wonder if they ever crossed paths and chatted about their shared bond of performing as singing cowboys on the Medora stage.

Probably not. But it's interesting to imagine what their conversation would have been like.

Rest in peace gentlemen, and thanks for the music and memories.