By Steve Bergsman
Of all the buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, probably the most unlikely is the rambling music hall located in Clear Lake, Iowa, known as the Surf Ballroom. That's because this one has ghosts. It was the last stop for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper before their small airplane crashed in a farmer's field six miles outside of town, an event immortalized by Don McLean in "American Pie" as "the day the music died."
Since 1979, when a 20-year tribute concert was first held at the Surf Ballroom, the venue has hosted a four-day event that today is called the "Winter Dance Party," the name of the ill-fated tour that the musicians headlined before their young lives were lost.
The original Surf Ballroom was built in 1933 on the shores of Clear Lake and became one of the most popular ballrooms in the Upper Midwest. It opened its doors during the heyday of the big-band era, when swing and jazz bands constantly toured. Everyone from Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Duke Ellington to bands headed by Les Brown and Lawrence Welk appeared here.
The original ballroom burned in 1947. A year later a new Surf Ballroom was built across the street, and Clear Lake was once again on the map for touring musicians. The new location appeared on the outside to be a low-slung commercial building with a marquee in the center. On the inside, however, the fantasy began.
The original building had been erected on the shore of a lake, but lakes don't produce ocean surf. Nevertheless, the new Surf Ballroom doubled down on that fantasy. The idea was that on the inside it would resemble an ocean beach club, and to that end from the front doors to the actual ballroom there was a slight decline that made visitors feel as if there were heading to the shore of an ocean beach. Pineapple stencils on the walls greeted the entrants - and still do. The ballroom's dark ceiling was like the night sky above the sea — the original cloud machines are still in use — and the murals on the back wall depicting palm trees, sailboats and lighthouses were hand-painted.
By the mid-1950s the big-band era was over and the biggest thing on the radio was rock 'n' roll. Carroll Anderson, the manager at the time, made the smart decision to start bringing in the performers who were capturing the radio time of young America.
The Surf Ballroom was not originally on the itinerary of the Winter Dance Party, which began in Milwaukee before heading to smaller Wisconsin cities such as Eau Claire and Kenosha before going to such Minnesota cities as Mankato and St. Paul before dipping into Davenport and Fort Dodge, Iowa. Since they were already in Iowa they decided to play Clear Lake, which had a beautiful ballroom, so the Surf Ballroom was added.
Rock 'n' roll didn't die in the plane crash but instead got stronger until it became the dominant music of America — and the Surf Ballroom hosted rock 'n' rollers of all types. The list of performers who have played the Surf includes Lynard Skynard, Alice Cooper, the Doobie Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Wanda Jackson, Buddy Knox, Tommy James, Pat Benatar, Frankie Avalon and ZZ Top.
Today the Surf Ballroom is not just a music venue but a veritable museum because almost everyone who has played there has left something behind, whether it's a signed picture, a signed guitar or some other memento. A host of personal items from the three young men killed in the crash remain. For example, The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) always traveled with a briefcase, which was found at the crash site. It was given to the Surf by Richardson's son. Holly's wallet is among the items in the museum.
The two most treasured stops in the Surf are the entryway phone booth, where Holly made his last phone call to his wife, Maria Elena, and the Green Room, where hundreds of singers have signed the walls.
Most wonderful of all, whenever the Winter Dance Party rolls around, Ritchie Valens' two sisters, Irma and Connie, attend as honored guests. Connie was 8 and Irma 6 at the time their brother was killed.
"Sometimes we went to watch him play," Irma told me, "but we were young and would fall asleep."
"We couldn't figure out why the girls were so crazy when he sang," added Connie.
"When the news of the accident came to us in California, they took us out of school," Irma recalled. "When we saw the cars lined up front of the house, we thought we were going to a party."
When the sisters got home and saw their mother they knew something terrible had happened.
"I ran to her," Connie said. "They told me 'Perdimos tu hermano' (We lost your brother)."
It was a story the sisters still couldn't tell without tearing up.
"He was just 17 when he died, so his music was pure and it was from his heart," Connie said.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.surfballroom.com
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.