It's always cold and windy in February in Clear Lake, Iowa. Don't let the notion of the town's famous Surf Ballroom give you any delusions of sun and sea. Come winter, wide open spaces in Iowa are more numbing than even a hardy Minnesotan wants to experience.
Every February, we think of the Surf Ballroom because rock hero Buddy Holly played his last concert there in 1959. Shortly after exiting the stage, in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, the 22-year-old bespectacled Texan and fellow stars Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper boarded a small private plane to the next night's concert in Moorhead, Minn. It was a cold and windy night and — well, you know the rest of the story from Don McLean's "American Pie" — the chartered Beechcraft Bonanza crashed in an Iowa field, killing all on board.
It was "the day the music died," as McLean sang, but the Surf Ballroom has become immortalized. On Jan. 13, it was officially declared a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
The Surf is historic for more than that fateful concert, which also featured Dion and the Belmonts, and Holly's then-unknown bassist, Waylon Jennings, who famously gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper, aka J.P. Richardson.
The Surf has presented a who's who of popular music since the 1930s, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Ricky Nelson, B.B. King, the Temptations, Merle Haggard, Alice Cooper, Kenny Rogers, Little River Band, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Robert Plant, Jennings and, of course, America's premier surfin' acts, the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. Not to mention countless politicians, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump, trolling for votes in the influential Iowa presidential caucus.
The Surf put Clear Lake on the map. Right off Interstate Hwy. 35, it's an ideal midway spot for touring performers between Des Moines and the Twin Cities.
Situated across from the town's large lake, the ocean-themed Surf is historic because it is one of those grand ol' Midwest ballrooms that's still operating. In small towns and big cities in the 1900s, ballrooms were event centers (before the term was coined), hosting dances, weddings and concerts.
On Holly's Winter Dance Party 1959 tour, most of the venues were ballrooms in burgs like Kenosha, Green Bay, Eau Claire, Fort Dodge, Mankato and Montevideo as well as Milwaukee and St. Paul. (Note to music buffs: Hibbing High School senior Bobby Zimmerman — later known as Bob Dylan — attended Holly's 1959 tour on Jan. 31 at the Duluth Armory.)
Sister to St. Paul's Prom
The original Surf Ballroom, opened in 1933, was destroyed in a 1947 fire. A new $350,000 incarnation opened the next year across the street. A sister structure to the Terp in Austin, Minn., and the Prom in St. Paul, the Surf is reminiscent of the Saintly City's now-defunct University Avenue institution, which was torn down in 1987 to make way for an auto body shop.
With a capacity of 2,100, the Surf boasts a vaulted ceiling and a massive 6,300-square-foot wooden dance floor surrounded by old-fashioned wooden booths, where couples can chill with a beverage after cutting the rug. The stage proudly features red velvet curtains that were restored to their original appearance in 1991. Other restorations include new period carpet and hand-painted pineapple murals in the lobby (both from 2016) and a replica of the pineapple-patterned wallpaper in the men's room (2020). Because when you think of surf, you think pineapples.
Whether you're craving pineapple or not, the Surf is open daily for self-guided tours (masks required, $5 donation suggested) and guided tours by arrangement ($8). The ballroom-cum-museum features historic photos (Holly onstage on Feb. 2, 1959), memorabilia (Elvis Presley's telegram of condolence to the Big Bopper's family) and the pay phone on which Holly called his wife for the final time. Displayed prominently are autographed guitars and a surfboard signed by the Beach Boys. Too much, bro.
The must-see Green Room is overstimulating with graffiti-covered walls featuring signatures of Willie Nelson, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney as well as McLean's handwritten first verse of "American Pie."
"A long, long time ago. I can still remember how that music used to make me smile …"
Not that long ago, in 2008 to be exact, the North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum took over operations of the Surf Ballroom as a nonprofit entity. But it was really in 1979 — a year after Gary Busey made an Oscar-nominated splash in "The Buddy Holly Story" — when the Clear Lake venue resurfaced to the rest of the world. That's when a local radio DJ known as the Mad Hatter (Darryl Hensley to his mom in Minnesota) organized the 20th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party featuring Wolfman Jack, Del Shannon, the Drifters, Jimmy Clanton, Twin Cities oldies band the White Sidewalls and Holly's former guitarist Niki Sullivan.
"What a bash! This is better than the first one," Chuck Elsbury of Clear Lake told me that night. "I remember it as clear as day. I was a disc jockey at the local college radio station. The next morning, I went over to the scene of the accident. I was in shock."
The aptly named Mad Hatter, who had the flair of a pro wrestling promoter, continued to coordinate annual multiday Winter Dance Party celebrations in February. In 2009, with production handled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the 50th anniversary lineup showcased heavy hitters including Graham Nash, Peter & Gordon, Wanda Jackson, Dave Mason and Los Lobos as well as the surviving Crickets, Holly's old band, and Minnesota's Bobby Vee, who had taken a slot at the Moorhead concert after Holly died. For the golden anniversary, fans came from 32 countries and partied on a joyous albeit brutally cold night.
The Mad Hatter died in a 2017 bicycling accident, but the anniversary celebrations have continued. Until this year, that is. COVID KO'd the Winter Dance Party. However, the festivities, like Holly's music, will not fade away. The Surf will rise again in February 2022, and it will be cold and windy in Clear Lake.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719