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