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The Surf Ballroom and Museum Keeps Music Alive in Clear Lake
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The Surf Ballroom and Museum Keeps Music Alive in Clear Lake

In 1959 Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom cemented its place in music history as the site of the last performances from music great Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Today it continues to draw visitors who are eager to relive the days of early rock ‘n’ roll.

The ballroom opened on April 17, 1934, and welcomed revelers to enjoy its 90-by-120-foot hardwood dance floor for an admission price of just $1 per person.

On April 20, 1947, a devastating fire destroyed the building, although it was quickly rebuilt on a site across the street. The Surf, as it’s commonly known, reopened on July 1, 1948, earning its name from owners who wanted to create a ballroom that resembled a beach club. The décor reinforces this: Rattan and bamboo furnishings combine with hand-painted wall murals of sailboats, lighthouses, swaying palm trees and a pounding surf to conjure thoughts of a distant paradise. Clouds are projected on the ceiling to create the illusion of dancing under the stars.

Shortly after its opening, big name entertainers took to the Surf’s stage. It was one of the first dance halls in the state to feature rock ’n’ roll acts like Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison, and it quickly became a “must-play” venue on the concert circuit.

On February 2, 1959, hitmakers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch headlined the Surf’s annual Winter Dance Party. After the show, Holly, Valens, and Richardson left on an airplane en route to the next night’s engagement in North Dakota. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft crashed in a rural area just miles from Clear Lake, killing everyone on board, including the pilot. That historic event sealed the Surf’s place in music history. Today visitors continue to flock to the Surf to pay homage to the musicians who made their last performances there and to relive the nostalgia of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. The ballroom looks much as it did in its heyday and retains the turn-style pay phone that Holly used to make his final call. Only the backstage dressing room has changed over time. Once painted a pristine white, it is now covered with the permanent signatures of musicians and entertainers who’ve played at the Surf.

The Surf maintains a busy concert schedule, although the Winter Dance Party is its signature event and draws travelers from around the globe.

Visit the ballroom year-round and wander through the historic building to see signed photographs and other memorabilia from artists that have performed at the Surf.

Leave a Comment

  1. Patrick Muller
    A dollar seems a steep admission fee in 1934 but maybe appropriate for live, touring bands. It's great this piece of music history is going strong in Iowa.
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