Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa June 4, 2015

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

WHEN I MENTIONED to a friend that my husband and I were going on an overnight get-away to Clear Lake, Iowa, he immediately asked if we were touring the Surf Ballroom. We were.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

The Surf is the focus for many visitors to this north central Iowa community. It wasn’t our main reason for traveling here. But we knew we couldn’t visit Clear Lake without seeing the famous Surf, site of Buddy Holly’s final Winter Dance Party performance before he, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a February 3, 1959, plane crash along with the pilot.

This display references "American Pie."

This display references “American Pie.”

It was, writes Don McLean in his song, American Pie, “the day the music died.”

Another tribute to the Surf's most memorable performed, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Now I’m not much of a music history person, nor a person with musical talent. I can’t read a note. I don’t have a particularly good singing voice. I typically cannot tell you who sings what and even had to ask my husband, before our arrival at the Surf, what songs Buddy Holly sang. He cited Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day.

The exterior ticket booth.

The exterior ticket booth.

Looking toward the interior lobby doors.

Looking toward the outside, this interior set of lobby doors are hefty and heavy. To the right is the original coat check area, not shown in this image.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

Yet, even for someone like me who is rather musically illiterate, the Surf proved an interesting place. Built in 1948, the current ballroom (the first burned down) is on the National Register of Historic Places. And rightly so. From the exterior ticket booth to the heavy doors that lead into the dark lobby, where you can check your coat, the Surf holds that feel of yesteryear. It’s difficult to explain. But you feel that sense of entering a different world from a bygone era the minute you step inside. As if you’ve left Iowa. And today.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

You'll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

You’ll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

Here you’ll discover a hallway museum of musicians’ photos, posters and history. And inside the lounge you’ll see stars’ guitars and more photos and other tributes to those who have performed here. If a musician’s picture is displayed, then he/she’s played/been here.

The ballroom stage.

The ballroom stage.

On the Friday afternoon we arrived at the Surf, we almost didn’t make it into the actual ballroom. Black curtains were pulled across two entrances and marked by “closed” signs. I peeked through the curtains to see musicians for Lee Ann Womack setting up inside. I failed to notice on the Surf website that the dance floor occasionally closes if a concert is scheduled. So be forewarned: Check the Surf calendar. Even better, call ahead.

But then, as luck would have it, Mark, who’s been working Surf security since 1978 and clearly loves this place and his job, parted the curtains and invited us inside with the admonition to keep our distance from the stage. He’d overheard our disappointment and said, “Since you drove a long ways…” We’d traveled only 85 miles. But another couple had driven nearly four hours from Omaha.

In the back are layers of booths, all original.

In the back are layers of booths, all original, and beach-themed murals.


Portraits of Ritchie Valens, left, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson hang inside the ballroom.



He led us onto the original maple floor dance floor, pointed us to the original booths (where I slid into one; it’s a tight squeeze), noted the beach themed décor (it is, afterall, the Surf), took us into a small room where musicians and others have signed the walls…

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

I wished I could have lingered longer in the ballroom, asked Mark to switch on more lights for better photos. But I didn’t press my luck. If not for his graciousness, I would have remained on the other side of those black curtains.


Shortly before our visit,

The day before our visit, the king of blues died. B.B. King’s promotional poster hangs in the lounge.

Lee Ann Womack's band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit.

Lee Ann Womack’s band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit. This was snapped just outside the front entry doors.

About a block away, this outdoor sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson.

About a block away, this outdoor turntable/album sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson. You can also visit the plane crash site about five miles from town. Because of rainy weather, we did not go there.

FYI: Please check back next week for the three remaining installments in this series of seven posts from Clear Lake, Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


34 Responses to “Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa”

  1. Marneymae Says:

    Brilliant – to have a community dance party in the depth of Winter!

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    I told you you would love it!!!! I can just see Randy bursting into song. My favorite spot is the green room and trying to decipher all of the signatures!!! Love it and you took great pictures as always.

    • We did not see the green room. With the band setting up, our tour of the actual ballroom was not in-depth. We were just thankful to get inside, thanks to Mark. Randy knows way more about vocal artists and songs than I do. The pictures turned out OK. As you know, it’s really difficult to photograph inside the ballroom. Maybe if I’d had more time and a lot more light…

      • Beth Ann Says:

        I thought that was where you got the signature picture — the green room. It is very difficult to take pics there either during the event or during the day. But you did a great job. Thanks for showing so much love for Clear Lake.

      • Oh, maybe this room is called the Green Room. But, if I recall correctly, the walls are all painted white. Maybe the name Green Room has nothing to do with its color. Obviously, I am confused.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        Yes— that is it. A “green room” in the entertainment industry is the place the performers/guests hang out before the show. I am sure there is a reason why it was initially called that— I need to check with my friend, Mr. google.

      • Thank you for clarifying. I just learned something new today. Mr. Google is quite helpful, isn’t he?

  3. Dan Traun Says:

    That is quite a section of memory lane and collection of tributes. I’d like to visit this site someday. Rich and amazing history there. I am by no means musical either, but do have an interest in music history. So much has changed in this industry (like most other industries) and I find myself curious of the past and how things came to be. These artists are a bit before my time, but not out of my wheelhouse of interest. Thanks for sharing. Great stuff.

    • Oh, I’m pretty certain bands from your time period have played at the Surf. From what Mark told us, many artists really want to say they’ve performed here. And it’s not always musicians. Comedians, too, like Louie Anderson.

  4. Almost Iowa Says:

    The Surf Ballroom is one of the last of a dying breed. They were popular during the Big Band era when couples used to dance (together). I recall The Prom in Saint Paul, The Majestic in Cottage Grove, The Bel Rae in Mound, The Arcadia and Marigold in Minneapolis.

    • You’re right. And many a couple met on the dance floor, including my parents. In my home area, there was the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. My younger siblings attended many a dance there until fire destroyed the building. I believe my youngest sister may have cried upon hearing the news.

  5. Deepa Says:

    I am not into that much musical history. But the description and the photos are truly inspirational, thanks.

  6. Katy Flint Says:

    You’re absolutely right…there is something very special that you feel when you step into the Surf! We are so lucky to have it as a part of North Iowa!! Glad you enjoyed your visit!

  7. Wow, what a neat photo tour.

  8. Littlesundog Says:

    I remember my mom talking about that tragic loss, felt around the world. I had no idea the Surf Ballroom was their last performance. I would love to visit this place – your photographs made me realize FD and I would love to visit. Nicely done, Audrey!

    • Thank you. I really knew nothing about the Surf until recently, when my friend Beth Ann, who lives in neighboring Mason City, blogged about it.

      Buddy Holly and crew were on a 24-day Winter Dance Party Tour 1959 when they arrived in Clear Lake. The cities of Duluth, St. Paul, Montevideo and Mankato, Minnesota; Green Bay, Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Davenport, Fort Dodge and Clear Lake, Iowa, were stops on that tour. They’d been traveling on a drafty bus and Holly’s drummer even suffered frostbitten feet. Holly decided to charter a plane from Clear Lake to Fargo/Moorhead for their next performance. The plane crashed not far from the Mason City Municipal Airport.

  9. What an interesting place! I love signed walls like that. So cool to peruse.

  10. hotlyspiced Says:

    As soon as I read the title of this post I wondered if this was the venue for that final concert of three very talented and so, so, young musicians. Great post, Audrey, and I’m so glad the venue is still there. Amazing how that guy from security has been working there for so long! Have you seen the musical, ‘The Buddy Holly Story’? We’ve seen it a couple of times and it’s fabulous – until we get to the really sad part! xx

  11. Andrea Says:

    The photo of the guitar has Dierks Bentley’s signature on it. Just about any artist you can think of has played the Surf. Now, they do it to play on the same stage so many music icons have played. Some treat it with the same reverence as the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. But not just country artists, either. It’s just a really cool place. If you get a chance to ever tour it, or see a show there, do it! you won’t regret it!

    My grandparents lived in Clear Lake since 1963. in 1994, my mom moved back to her home town. I’m so lucky my kids have this great town to visit and tour. it’s very safe and clean and we all enjoy our time there.

  12. Sue Ready Says:

    Interesting tidbits about the ballroom. Your photos and taglines made me feel like I actually had stepped into this historic place. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

  13. Sandra Van Erp Says:

    Super report! I’ve considered a weekend jaunt, never quite seem to get it done. Interesting to read the other posters “list” from the era. It was special. I remember Mom speaking of their era before their 1933 wedding, they had a long courtship…during the prohibition. Glad I lived through another “era”. Glad to see the current owners have done a tasteful job of preserving the day the music truly did die for R&R, followed by Elvis’ death. The Surf’s ownership has had quite a journey. https://www.surfballroom.com/timeline.html…and almost didn’t survive. Thanks so much for this post.

  14. Sandra Van Erp Says:

    Also a r-e-a-l-l-y nice honor the FSHS choir director just received too!

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