Surf Ballroom title

The Surf Ballroom: A rock icon

On February 2, 1959, the Winter Dance Party bands played at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Headliners included Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. The night was electric. Couples whirled around the dance floor to the exciting new music genre.

Afterward, Holly, Richardson, and Valens left The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. They climbed into a Beechcraft Bonanza with pilot Roger Peterson at the Mason City Airport. And then the unimaginable happened. Peterson’s plane crashed, and all four men died.

A dozen years later, Don McLean wrote the song “American Pie,” giving the tragic night its name — The Day the Music Died. The song hit the charts as No. 1 in January 1972 and remained on top for four weeks. Music still fills the Surf Ballroom.

I have visited the Surf Ballroom more than once, but the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce hosted my most recent visit. As always, my opinions are my own.

Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson portraits at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa
Ritchie Valens’s, Buddy Holly’s, and J.P. Richardson’s portraits are above the speakers at the Surf Ballroom.

Experience live music at the Surf Ballroom

Every February, the Surf Ballroom commemorates the Winter Dance Party. However, that tradition did not begin at once.

Instead, a disc jockey devised the idea 20 years after the dreadful night. Darryl Hensley, a/k/a the Mad Hatter, invited Buddy Holly into his studio via a time warp. “Holly” suggested that the Surf hold a 20th-anniversary commemoration.

The first year’s event lost $4,000, but the organizers did not give up. Now the event lasts for three days and honors rock music of the 1950s and 1960s.

Summertimes swing at the Surf. Regional and well-known musicians take the stage on summer Wednesdays during the Surf Sounds Summer Concert Series. The seasonal events are not the only Surf concerts.

Look at the venue’s schedule for more details. The ballroom holds 2,100 people. Its dance floor is 6,300 square feet in a total of 30,000 square feet of entertainment space.

Clear Lake’s Snyder family owns the performance space, which is open daily.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before you enter the ballroom, stop to view the monument to those who died.

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Related: Meredith Willson, the creator of The Music Man, grew up in nearby Mason City. Visit his childhood home and museum.

Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa, music memorabilia collection
These autographed photos, guitar, and other memorabilia are only part of the Surf’s collection.

Experience music history at the Surf

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the Surf as a rock and roll landmark as part of its Landmark Series. Because of its iconic status, numerous musicians have contributed artifacts. On the building’s museum side, the walls are lined with autographed guitars and pictures.

Band members wrote their autographs from floor to ceiling in the green room. The ballroom and booths retain their original South Sea beach resort décor.

Roxie’s reliable report: The booths are small because the original owners wanted to promote togetherness. The builders installed drawers beneath the stalls so the ladies could store their purses. Instead, cleaners discovered empty alcohol bottles in the drawers. Hence, goodbye drawers.

Before the rock era, the Surf Ballroom hosted many big bands, including North Dakota bandleader Lawrence Welk. More big band-era stars like Iowan Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman also performed there. Later, rockstars Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, B.B. King, the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers, and Willie Nelson graced the stage.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Take time to browse the Surf’s memorabilia collection and read the green room autographs.

Surf Ballroom stage, Clear Lake, Iowa
The stage backdrop and lights at the Surf Ballroom.

Rock icons play their final concert

Holly had broken up with his original manager. His original band The Crickets had decided to stay in Lubbock, Texas, while he moved to New York.

As a consequence, Holly needed to earn some money. He rounded up some acts and booked a tour through the Upper Midwest in the dead of winter. The Winter Dance Party’s schedule was absurd. Their tour bus zigzagged around Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, often driving past future venues on their way to the next venue.

Moreover, the bus was poorly heated — when the heaters worked.

The night before their Clear Lake concert, the musicians performed 340 miles away in Green Bay, Wisconsin. During their trip, the heaters failed again.

Finally, Holly had had enough. During the frozen bus ride, he decided to skip the 400-mile ride to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next concert destination.

Instead, he would hire a charter plane and fly across the river from Moorhead to Fargo, North Dakota.

After repairing the heaters, the bus pulled into Clear Lake just in time for the 8 p.m. concert at the Surf. Twelve hundred people showed up to hear them. All the musicians came on stage to jam at the concert’s end. They played “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Great Balls of Fire” plus more.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before they left for the airport, Holly called his wife, Maria Elena Holly, and Valens called his manager, Bob Keene. The Surf preserves the pay phone behind glass. Look for Maria Elena’s signature.

Rock and roll singers killed the Surf Ballroom Clear Lake, Iowa
Coverage of the Day the Music Died after the concert at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa (The Bradford Timeline)

The Day the Music Died

Holly intended to take his band members Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings with him. Instead, Jennings gave up his seat because Richardson was sick. Allsup flipped a coin with Valens for the third seat, and Valens climbed aboard.

At the Mason City Airport, Holly joked with Jennings. Holly hoped Jennings would freeze. Jennings replied, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” The flip statement would haunt Jennings for decades.

The plane climbed into the night and disappeared. At 9:35 a.m. on the following day, a sheriff’s deputy found it five miles northwest of the airport. All those on board were dead.

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Fox House living room with Clear Lake out the window
The Fox House stands between the Surf Ballroom and the shores of Clear Lake.

Explore the Surf District

Three of the streets in Clear Lake’s Surf District bear Holly’s, Richardson’s, and Valens’s names.

Three Stars Plaza is a block east of the Surf Ballroom. Three records are stacked on a spindle. Each one represents one of the fallen stars. Their names are engraved on the lower record. Buttons on the spindle tell each man’s story.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Visit the park after dark when lights illuminate the records.

The original Surf Ballroom burned to the ground in 1947. The owner, Carl J. Fox and his family lived above the ballroom.

When he rebuilt the Surf, he built a house across the street. Fox always treated the bands well. He owned a speedboat and would steer them around the lake.

He also spared many bands the inconvenience of long bus rides by flying them in with his small plane. Because of this VIP treatment, musicians considered the Surf a worthy venue.

The house is now restored to its period glory with Mid-Century Modern furniture and vintage appliances. Look for the women’s hats stored in the master bedroom and enjoy the lake view in the living room.

Roxie’s reliable report: Visits to the Fox house are by appointment only.

Related: Shop our store for T-shirt designs, including Support Live Music.

Surfside Restaurant next to the Surf Ballroom
The Surfside Restaurant is steps away from the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa.

Before you leave the Surf District, enjoy a poké at the Surfside, Later, enjoy live music and dinner at the Legacy Grill.

Chili gumbo
Chili gumbo from The Other Place

The Other Place is across the street from the Surf District’s boundaries. Try the chili gumbo, a dish that University of Northern Iowa students invented.

Buddy Holly Crash Site glasses
The Buddy Holly Glasses mark the path to the crash site.

Visit the crash site

The Beechcraft Bonanza crashed in a cornfield. At 22728 Gull Ave., you’ll see a large eyeglass frame on poles. Park on the shoulder opposite the glasses.

The crash site is a quarter-mile into the field behind the glasses. One marker represents the musicians, and another honors the pilot. Small mementos decorate the site. Please respect the crops in the fields, and do not trample them.

Iowa’s summers are hot and its winters are cold; please dress appropriately. Read these directions before you go.

Musicians memorial
The musicians’ memorial lists each musician with one of their hit records. Pilot Roger Peterson’s marker is nearby.

The sheriff’s department found Holly’s glasses at the crash site, but they filed them. The department rediscovered them in 1980 and eventually, Holly’s widow received them.

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North Iowa aviation marker
The Mason City airport’s historical marker curiously omits the Day the Music Died.

The last stop for the three stars and their pilot

After paying homage at the crash site, continue to the Mason City airport. A marker on the patio lists significant events at the airport. The marker does not include the infamous crash, which is a very strange omission.

Then sit down for supper at the Avion Azul Mexican Restaurant. After you enjoy watching the wait staff prepare guacamole at your table, order the steak chimichanga and the churros.

Related: Amelia Earhart spoke at the airport while she was seeking funds for her circumnavigation. Visit several Earhart attractions in Northeast Kansas.

"Induct the Crickets" in the Surf Ballroom's green room
The green room writer received his wish when the Crickets entered the Rock Hall of Fame.

The show must go on

After the crash, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Allsup, and Jennings continued on. The tour mercifully ended 13 shows later in Springfield, Illinois. Bobby Vee and the Shadows performed in the Moorhead show. Then Jimmy Clanton, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon came aboard. The Moorhead show helped launch Vee’s career.

Holly, Valens, and Holly’s original Crickets backing band all entered the Rock Hall of Fame.

Richardson remains outside the hall, despite his contributions to music. Among other pioneering efforts, Richardson produced the first music video. Jennings is in the Country Music Hall, but not the rock hall.

Related: Vee and Welk are in the North Dakota Roughrider Hall of Fame in Bismarck and the North Dakota Music Hall of Fame in Mandan.

Ritchie Valens tribute in the Surf Ballroom's green room
“Let’s Go” was one of Valens’s top hits in his eight-month career.

So, come on, come on, let’s go, little darling… straight to rock nirvana at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Related: Explore the Bridges of Madison County.
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