Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever
BY: RACHEL WUMKES
A long, long time ago.
Seventy-five years to be exact.
After the original building was lost in a blaze of fire and smoke, plans were quickly put into place for a rebuild of the entertainment hot spot. Located directly across the street from its original location, the current Surf Ballroom opened its doors on July 1st, 1948.
The Surf soon became a popular dance venue as people from around North Iowa ventured to Clear Lake to take a spin on the hardwood floor. When the 1950s ushered in the era of Rock and Roll, the Surf Ballroom jumped on the bandwagon and booked some of the hottest up and coming artists.
After bringing in famed acts like The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Little Richard and Conway Twitty, the Surf developed into one of the premier places for artists to book on the performance circuit.
No one could have predicted what was to come.
How this beautiful place filled with live music and dancing would soon be a place forever connected with tragedy and loss.
When the Winter Dance Party musicians took the stage in 1959, they played to a full house. Music lovers braved the cold, North Iowa winter weather and came out in droves to hear Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Dion & the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo rock the stage.
They danced. And laughed. They sang along to the music.
Little did they know that day in history would forever be remembered as The Day the Music Died.
That evening, the small aircraft carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into a field shortly after takeoff. The musicians, along with pilot Roger Peterson, were killed instantly.
America mourned the tragic loss.
And Clear Lake fell into music history.
The Surf Ballroom continued to book top artists as time rolled on. Up and coming musicians of every genre found it to be an energizing place to play. Music enthusiasts from across the globe travelled to the iconic venue to soak in the history and relive a simpler time in their lives. When the Winter Dance Party was revitalized years later, the Surf discovered the music hadn’t died at all.
It was alive inside the Surf Ballroom.
Over the years, the Surf has done an impeccable job of creating music education programs for our youth. The Music Enrichment Center is a fantastic addition within the Surf family for those looking to take lessons and develop their musical ability. It energizes today’s youth, teaching them the rich history without our community.
The Surf Ballroom has been a staple in music history for decades. In 2009, it was dedicated as a historic rock and roll landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Just two years later, it was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But it wasn’t until January 13, 2021, when the Surf Ballroom reached the ultimate status of being designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark.
This monumental title meant the Surf Ballroom and Museum had officially etched its place into American music history, ensuring the music continued to live forever.
The following year, the iconic venue became the focal point in America, once again, with the release of the 2022 documentary, The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie. While much of the film was about McCLean’s rise to fame, there is plenty of footage focused on the Surf Ballroom and the Memorial Crash Site. In fact, you can take “The Day the Music Died tour” throughout Clear Lake to visit the places mentioned in the film.
When McClean penned the famous tune, it was to showcase the profound disappointment at the loss of innocence in America, as well as a recollection of the heartbreak felt across the country at the loss of his childhood music idol, Buddy Holly. The song quickly became a hit, breaking all the rules as it climbed the charts.
The history of The Day the Music Died has been passed from generation to generation in Clear Lake. It was the end of an era as music began to morph from the upbeat, happy sounds of the 50s into angsty anthems meant for social change in our country.
Who would have ever imagined a place built for dancing would become such an iconic part of music history? A place where people come together from all walks of life to learn about the past. Where they can cherish the memories of those who paved the way for rock and roll.
For 75 years, the Surf Ballroom has been a place where everyone is connected by one thing: music.
And in Clear Lake… it lives.