By Donna Hup (article from Destination Clear Lake 2018)
Growing up I have fond memories of my parents playing their old records on a record machine and dancing to their favorite tunes. My mom would tell me about how she'd run home after school to watch American Bandstand. She definitely passed down her love for music to me. My taste in music may be different, but the love and appreciation for it is the same.
One of the records I played more than the others when I was little was Ritchie Valens single that had La Bamba on one side of the record and Donna on the other side. I knew that he had died in a plane crash before I was born and that there was a movie called La Bamba about him.
Fast forward to 2013 when I officially moved to North Iowa. I asked around for must see's in north Iowa and was told that the Surf Ballroom should be at the top of my list. They talked about the rich history and even visiting the Buddy Holly Crash Site. I didn't really know much about Buddy Holly. After visiting the Surf for the first time I put together what you probably already know - both Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were involved in a tragic accident that changed rock and roll.
I had the opportunity to sit down with two of Ritchie's sisters, Irma and Connie. They just beamed when they shared the stories of their older brother with me. Ritchie had written most of his own music, had several hits, and quite the female following all at 17 years old. They talked about Suzie behind My Little Suzie, how La Bamba affected their family, their mother's death, and how much they love their family at the Surf Ballroom.
Connie explained that coming to the Surf is always bittersweet for her. "That's the word I always use. Because it is. There's no other way to describe it better. As sweet as all the people are and our fellowship here with them, we are all gathering together for the same, common purpose."
Irma remembers her first visit very vividly. "I came here with my sister. We were standing there when a recording says, 'Hi! I'm Richie Valens. Welcome to The Surf' It was the saddest day. They were trying to make us happy, but instead they made us cry. So we hugged each other and left because that was my brother's voice saying that."
While they left at that moment they continued to return. "We have continued to come and the people just got better and better. They treat us like queens. We became family. We're all like sisters and brothers."
Family would be the best way to describe what I saw. As I sat and talked with the sisters several others passed through the room saying hello to them, hugging them, and doing the same with their family that was present. It was genuine. These were people who cared about each other and enjoyed each others company.
I asked if there was anything they felt people got wrong about Ritchie or if there was anything they thought we should know about him. Their first answer brought a laugh, but they want people to know that Lou Diamond Phillips was an actor playing a part and not Ritchie Valens. They also want to honor and remember all that Ritchie accomplished. People weren't just at the Surf to see Buddy Holly who had a much longer career than Valens. Ritchie was on the top of the charts and they would go as far as saying he was the more popular act at the Winter Dance Party.
The family describes the Winter Dance Party as heartwarming. They love that people take time to come in their elaborate costumes and hold on to that era. "I think the reason people hold on to it so much was because it was a time of innocence, it was a time of purity, it was a time when people were polite."
Connie went on, "The Winter Dance Party is a family reunion, but it's one you want to come to."