The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake preserves a poignant chapter in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Nostalgic exhibits pay tribute to Buddy Holly and other pioneers.
By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
On a frigid February night in Clear Lake, Iowa, the unthinkable happened after a joyous show starring some of America’s brightest rock ’n’ rollers singing their greatest hits.
Just after taking off in a snowstorm from nearby Mason City Municipal Airport, the chartered plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson to their next gig crashed in a corn field, killing all onboard in the wee hours of February 3, 1959.
Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom preserves the young musicians’ memory and a period in music history when ballrooms and theaters in small towns across the nation hosted the biggest acts of the day. While today such ballrooms are as rare as drive-in movie theaters, at one time there were thousands of them across the country where people danced to the rhythms of Big Bands or rock ’n’ roll. Ballrooms provided the soundtrack of countless comings of age and touched the lives of millions of Americans.
A plaque recognizing the venue’s status as a National Historic Landmark declares: “Surf Ballroom represents the dance party tour phenomenon, which played a pivotal role in advancing rock ’n’ roll as a new genre by bringing performers to their fans and establishing touring as part of the music industry.”
The Surf Ballroom continues to host dozens of concerts a year, including national touring acts and local and regional talent. It also is a venue for weddings, reunions and other events.
Music Memorabilia Fills the Surf Ballroom
For casual tourists, especially those of a certain generation, the Surf Ballroom is all about nostalgia, with museum exhibits transporting them back to another era. And, to be honest, people are titillated by tragedies, particularly when they pertain to celebrities.
As visitors learn, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Valens and Richardson headlined the Winter Dance Party, a 24-day barnstorming tour across the Midwest. The entourage also included Frankie Sardo and vocal group Dion and the Belmonts. Waylon Jennings played bass for Holly’s band.
On display in the museum, an original poster advertising the Clear Lake performance lists an admission price of $1.25. It notes: “Dancing 8 to 12 p.m.” and “For Ages 12-21.” A 45 rpm record (Holly’s “Peggy Sue”) is a rare piece signed by members of the Winter Dance Party troupe.
Other memorabilia includes the next day’s edition of the Mason City Globe-Gazette, whose headline reads, “Rock ’n’ Roll Idols Among Lake Crash Dead….Plane Piloted by Clear Lake Man Plows into Field.”
The camera used by the newspaper’s photographer at the crash scene is another artifact that tells the story of “the day the music died,” a phrase repeated in Don McLean’s 1972 chart-topping hit “American Pie. Lasting a whole 8 minutes and 42 seconds, the anthem references the deaths as a turning point in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.
Dozens of other pieces of rock ’n’ roll history fill the knotty cypress-trimmed Cypress Room, a museum space that originally functioned as a gathering spot for dancers to take a break between songs and enjoy refreshments. One wall features publicity photos of stars who have appeared at the Surf over the years, including Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Santana, REO Speedwagon, Alice Cooper, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley. There are guitars signed by B.B. King and Gene Simmons of Kiss.
In the lobby, guests will find the original coat check and a rare group of photos taken during the 1959 Winter Dance Party. They also see the pay phone Holly used to call his wife, and Valens his manager, prior to their fateful flight bound for Fargo, North Dakota, the city adjacent to Moorhead, Minnesota, the tour’s next stop.
Touring the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa
As you tour the building, you’re serenaded by the music of Holly and others. Holly, a native of Lubbock, Texas, and his group The Crickets scored seven Top 40 hits in 1957 and 1958, among them “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby” and “That’ll Be the Day.” Recognizable by his trademark black-frame eyeglasses, Holly was a charismatic artist celebrated for his creativity and energetic craftsmanship, and famed for his vocal hiccup. He inspired the coming wave of 1960s rock ’n’ rollers (including the Beatles) and has influenced groups in every decade since.
Portraits of Holly, Valens and Richardson adorn the ballroom itself, a cavernous space with clouds floating on the midnight-blue ceiling and a vast sea of green vinyl-backed pine booths set against the original murals of pounding surf, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. Green-and-white-striped, cabana-style awnings complete the Florida beach club look. Artificial palms flank the stage. It’s all so retro.
Guests are free to roam among the booths and walk across the 6,300-square-foot-maple dance floor (set up for a banquet when I was there). They can step onto the stage and visit the Green Room, the holding area for performers awaiting their cue. Autographs scrawled on Green Room walls date back to only the mid-1980s. In this room, Valens won a coin flip to join Holly and Richardson on the ill-fated plane.
In one of the deadliest winters the Midwest had seen in decades, the musicians, crammed into a drafty bus, had traveled hundreds of miles between towns. In Clear Lake, Holly decided to take a small plane to the group’s next engagement, and there was room for two other passengers.
Sardo, Dion and The Crickets continued on the Winter Dance Party tour, with Jimmy Clanton, Fabian, Bobby Vee and Frankie Avalon substituting as headliners.
The Surf Ballroom’s Early Days
The original Surf Ballroom, built along the shores of Clear Lake in 1933, was destroyed by fire in 1947. In what was the venue’s parking lot, the ballroom was rebuilt across the street and opened on July 1, 1948. It was a regular stop during the Big Band Era, when Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lawrence Welk and the Dorsey Brothers toured the Midwest with their orchestras. One hallway pays homage to the era with framed black-and-white photos.
The ballroom underwent a massive rehabilitation in the mid-1990s, after the Dean Snyder family purchased the deteriorating structure, saving it from demolition. Still owned by the family, the property is leased to the non-profit North Iowa Cultural Center & Museum, Inc., which oversees day-to-day operations and preservation.
Today, guests are greeted with a marquee reading “The Music Lives On. Welcome Rock N Roll Fans.” A marble monument near the entrance is dedicated to the memory of the three musicians and the plane’s pilot, Roger Peterson.
For $8 a person, guided tours of the Surf Ballroom, with video presentation included, can be arranged for groups of 30 or more. Lunch may be catered and served in the lounge area of the ballroom.
For individuals, admission is a suggested donation of $5.
Other Clear Lake Memorials to the Rock ’n’ Rollers
3 Stars Plaza, one block west of the Surf Ballroom’s entrance, honors the legacy of Holly, Valens and Richardson with a 15-foot-high monument in the middle of a circular park. The Art Deco-inspired structure, dedicated in 2011, comprises a central spindle holding a stack of three 45 rpm records, each illuminated at night by blue neon lights. Names of the three fallen stars are etched on the bottom record. A push-button feature activates audio of their story and snippets of chart-topping songs.
On the roadside in farm land outside of town, an oversized pair of Holly’s iconic horn-rimmed glasses indicates the beginning of the quarter-mile path leading to the crash site where the three musicians met their fate 64 years ago. A small memorial, located along a fence line on private property, consists of three stainless steel 45s and a guitar. The guitar bears the singers’ names, while each record is inscribed with a hit song—“Peggy Sue” for Holly, “Donna” for Valens and “Chantilly Lace” for “Big Bopper” Richardson. There is a separate marker for pilot Peterson.
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Lead photo courtesy of Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce