A number of featured performers in the entertainment industry were groomed early in their career by spending a summer, or two, participating in western North Dakota's "Medora Musical." However, after leaving Medora, it usually took a few more years of honing their skills before they gained national recognition.
The singer who made the quickest leap from the Burning Hills Amphitheater to national fame was Tom Netherton, a tall, handsome baritone from Bloomington, Minn. During the summer of 1973, he was a member of the troupe singing on the Medora stage, and by the end of the year, he was a regular member of the Lawrence Welk musical family, singing weekly on the nation’s most popular musical television program, "The Lawrence Welk Show."
Thomas Harold Netherton Jr. was born Jan. 11, 1947, in Munich, Germany, to Thomas and Lillian (Christensen) Netherton. At the time of his son’s birth, Thomas Sr. was a career military officer stationed in Germany. He was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and, during World War II, 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.
Thomas Jr. attended school in Bloomington and although quite shy, he was popular among his classmates. 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.”
In high school, he participated in track and field events, but one of his primary focuses was a leadership role in the school’s American Field Service (AFC) Club, which encouraged student exchanges with students from other countries. 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. He then returned to Bloomington for his senior year and was elected class president.
Following graduation in 1965, Netherton enrolled in the University of Minnesota, intending to study architecture. While Netherton was in college, Fred Smith, who co-created the "Medora Musical" along with Harold Schafer, convinced the management of the Edgewater Inn restaurant of “the need for a floor show to attract business.” Smith formed a group of singers and dancers called the Edgewater Eight that specialized “in Broadway tunes and pop music hits,” and Netherton became one of the entertainers he hired for the group.
Meanwhile, American involvement in Vietnam was intensifying, and in 1966, Netherton dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, for basic training, and during his eight-week cycle of training, he became such a dedicated cadet that “he was awarded the Outstanding Trainee of the Cycle.” Netherton was then sent to the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., and he received a commission of second lieutenant.
Netherton was sent to Panama, in Central America, as a plans and operations officer for the 193rd Brigade and, soon after his arrival, was promoted to first lieutenant. He must have later been assigned to the Special Services branch of the military because he “frequently sang for the troops and was broadcast over the Army’s non-military radio network, Voice of America.”
While Netherton was in Panama, he regularly attended a Baptist church there and, at one of the services, dedicated his life to Jesus Christ and became a born-again Christian. In 1969, Netherton was discharged from the Army and he returned to Minnesota, spending a year at the Bethany Fellowship Missionary Training Center in Bloomington. When his missionary training was completed, Netherton found himself at a crossroads because he had two passions: singing and evangelizing.
By examining Pat Boone’s career, he decided he could do both by becoming a Christian singer. Netherton decided he would perform in gospel singing tours, based out of Bloomington, so that he could remain close to his parents. Most of his concerts were held in churches, and because he had no agent to look for larger venues for him to perform in and preach Christ’s message, he began to seriously go into debt in early 1973.
Netherton contacted Fred Smith to see if he could help. Smith was the associate producer for Al Sheehan Productions, and seven years earlier had hired Netherton to be a member of the Edgewater Eight. Smith was not interested in booking single performances, but he knew of Netherton’s talent and believed that he would be a great addition to the cast of the upcoming "Medora Musical."
At first Netherton was reluctant because Medora “was too far from Minneapolis.” Smith made him a deal. “He offered to loan Netherton the money to pay off his bills if he would audition” for a role in Medora. Netherton agreed and traveled to western North Dakota for the audition, and after receiving a contract, he agreed to spend the summer as a member of the cast.
Netherton was a big success at Medora during the summer of 1973, and two of his biggest fans were Harold and Sheila Schafer. “Tom greatly impressed the Schafers with his musical and entertainment abilities. When the Schafers learned that Lawrence Welk would be traveling through the state, they arranged a meeting between young Tom and Mr. Welk at a golf course in Bismarck. Lawrence Welk immediately saw potential in Tom and invited him to perform in his show at the St. Paul Civic Center a few nights later.”
A crowd of 19,000 people packed into the Civic Center, which may have been one of the largest audiences to experience a live audition, and they weren’t disappointed. Welk signed Netherton to a contract to become a regular member of his musical family, and Netherton’s national television debut took place on Lawrence Welk’s Christmas Special. Tom Netherton was North Dakota’s Christmas present to Welk, and it may have been the best Christmas present he ever received.
We will conclude Netherton's story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.