Read Time: 6 Minutes

​How a small Iowa city became a legendary music hotspot

It’s been 60 years since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson rocked the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. But the ballroom still rocks on.

It’s been 60 years since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson rocked the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. They then perished when their plane crashed in a nearby field during treacherous winter weather.

The Surf Ballroom & Museum became a nonprofit in 2008. A year later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named "the Surf" a historic rock and roll landmark. Its vintage décor still evokes an old-school beach vibe. Museum pieces range from guitars to gold records. Lyrics from Don McLean’s song "American Pie" — an ode to Holly — and hundreds of musician signatures cover green room walls.

In the 1930s and 1940s, big bands performed on the Surf stage — a must, to assure musical success during a time period when dancing was the primary entertainment. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and The Dorseys were among these early performers. Because the original building was “on the shore of Clear Lake, in 1933; you could dance under the deep blue sky,” says Jeff Nicholas, President of the Board.

But after a fire irreparably damaged the first site, it was re-built across the street in 1948. By the 1950s, rock and roll had taken the country and the Surf stage by storm. Yet, despite its incredible music history, the Surf had closed several times by the 2000s. Various owners had used up resources and then left after a few years.

interior shot of surf ballroom dance floors The original Surf Ballroom was built in 1933 and destroyed by fire in 1947. (Photo: Surf Ballroom & Museum)

“We went after nonprofit status because the Surf had fallen on hard times,” Nicholas says.

“The real blessing is that the city of Clear Lake stood beside the Surf at every turn and said, ‘We’re not going to let it go.’ But [we had to decide] what we were going to do with it. As a nonprofit, we don’t pay any taxes or sales taxes, and it’s easier to ask people to come and volunteer when it’s for the benefit of the community.”

“We continually bring things back to the original,” says Executive Director Laurie Lietz. “Now we have to replace the roof, which hasn’t been done since the 1990s.”

As the Surf began planning its 50th anniversary celebration in 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was planning an event related to the same musical time period. “When one rep visited, he said, ‘I always wanted to come here but I never thought it would be this cool,’” Nicholas says.

The plaque associated with the Surf’s designation as a historic rock and roll landmark reads: “There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our musical history. As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever.”

interior shot of surf ballroom with historic photos In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated the Surf Ballroom as a historic rock and roll landmark. (Photo: Surf Ballroom & Museum)

Two years later, the Surf Ballroom & Museum was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Surf also focuses on the future of music. An education coordinator oversees classroom programs that served 3,000 students in Northern Iowa last year while promoting the future of live music. The Surf provides funding to bus kids in, too, while creative and educational summer programs attract people of all ages.

“We need to build another generation that is passionate about all of this music,” Nicholas says.

Still an in-demand performance venue, the Surf typically hosts three to four shows per month. The mix of genres span from big band, blues, and country to classic and modern rock, plus ‘50s and ‘60s music. “We balance [performances] against being a meeting location and a music-focused museum,” Lietz says.

“There’s something special about live music,” Nicholas says. “We have performers come to us and we have relationships with talent agencies [across the nation]. In fact, a stop on the final Creedence Clearwater Revival tour will take place here.” Other contemporary concerts have featured BB King, Styx, Martina McBride, Kevin Costner, Brad Paisley, and ZZ Top, to name a few.

But the Surf’s signature event is the Winter Dance Party, an annual four-night event full of music and dancing. The gathering takes place on the closest weekend to February 2 — when that fateful plane crash occurred. “It was started in 1979 by a radio D.J., ‘the Mad Hatter,’ as the Buddy Holly Tribute,” Lietz says.

“In the early years, this was primarily a media event. We’re now in our 41st year of planning. We’re celebrating the music that changed music forever. Fans that come in are like a family. Many say, ‘I know exactly where I was standing when [the crash] happened.’"

During the Winter Dance Party, British fans often attend the annual British Buddy Holly Lunch. Liverpool native and 1950s Surf dance instructor, Margaret Majerczyk, organizes the entire event, which includes live music and lunch.

On the following day there’s a Valens family luncheon and entertainment available, with plenty of related memorabilia on hand. Some people even play their guitars on the stage where Valens and his band played.

interior of surf ballroom that looks like a mid century beach club The Surf got its name (and design) from the desire of the original owners to create a ballroom that resembled an ocean beach club. (Photo: Surf Ballroom & Museum)

“Once people come [to the Winter Dance Party], they usually make reservations for the following year before they leave,” Nicholas says. “It’s kind of turned into a family reunion, of sorts.” Guests come from 35-40 states and five to six foreign countries to celebrate the lives and music of Holly, Valens, and “The Big Bopper.”

“People who were most affected by what happened in 1959 are the most at peace when they visit here,” Nicholas says.

Lietz agrees. “Richie Valens’s younger sister feels like her brother’s spirit is here. I walk in each morning and say, ‘Good morning, boys.’”

No matter when people visit the Surf, it’s a great place to forget problems and challenges and enjoy an evening out. “We’re also about making memories,” Nicholas says. He has heard visitors mention what booth they met their spouse in and seen World War II vets meet up with other veterans. The Surf hosts 12 to 15 weddings per year, too.

“Anybody interested in the history of music that doesn’t come to the Surf, I think, is missing out,” Nicholas says. “It’s a very unique and special place that you can’t find anywhere else in the United States. [The Surf] is a place that time forgot. You can go back into the 1940s and 1950s the minute you walk through the door. There’s so much musical history here. It’s the soundtrack of our lives.”

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

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