Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Focus on musicians, the Surf & Clear Lake, Iowa February 7, 2023

Portraits of the deceased musicians grace the Surf Ballroom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

I’M SEVERAL DAYS LATE to the party. Yet, it’s worth noting, even after the fact, the importance of February 2 and 3 in music history. On February 2, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bop” Richardson and other musicians performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The next day, the three died, along with the pilot, when their chartered plane crashed in a field near this northern Iowa community. It was, as Don McClean later wrote and sang, “the day the music died.”

A broad view of the massive ballroom which seats 2,100. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

Each February, Clear Lake commemorates the musicians and celebrates their music at a Winter Dance Party. I’m about 10 years too young to have known these early rock and rollers. But I still appreciate their status in rock and roll, a music genre I definitely embraced as a teen. McClean’s iconic lengthy “American Pie,” which holds meaning well beyond the tragedy in Clear Lake, remains forever imprinted in my memory, like so many other songs of my adolescent years.

In the back are layers of booths, all original. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

In mid-May 2015, Randy and I traveled to Clear Lake, just an hour and 15 minutes from Faribault across the Iowa border along Interstate 35. We toured the Surf, but because of rain, did not walk to the crash site. The sprawling ballroom is worth visiting for the history it holds and simply for its ballroom of yesteryear appeal. Retaining its original ocean beach club theme (yes, in rural Iowa nowhere near an ocean), built-in wooden booths and a hardwood floor, this music venue feels like a step back in time. Simply put, I felt like I could have brought a whiskey bottle in a brown paper bag, ordered a set-up and settled in for an evening of dancing and fun.

This display references “American Pie.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

Even if you’re like me, not too knowledgeable about music, the Surf will draw you into the music of the era with posters and historical information. But mostly, it’s about being there, about feeling the music that was made, and continues to be made, here.

Lake Time Brewery, a great place to converse with the locals. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

Clear Lake is one of those small towns that appeals to me. Art and history and eats and drink and natural beauty and homegrown shops and much more make this a must-visit Iowa community. Randy and I are already thinking about a return trip there this summer. On our list of places to revisit is Lake Time Brewery. There we met Connie, Nancy, Chris and “They Call Me Norm.” What a welcoming bunch, exactly the type of connection we hope to make when visiting a place. We still reminisce about enjoying craft beer with locals on the Lake Time patio on a lovely May evening.

A public dock in Clear Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

These are my thoughts as I reflect on the tragic deaths on February 3, 1959, outside Clear Lake, Iowa, so far from the ocean yet so near.

TELL ME: Have you been to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake?

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “Focus on musicians, the Surf & Clear Lake, Iowa”

  1. beth Says:

    like you, I’m just a bit too young to remember this firsthand, but know the impact in had on the music world. how wonderful that this town still memorializes them and is so welcoming. lucky you had a chance to visit in person

  2. A nice tribute, Audrey. A little tidbit here. The song, “American Pie” was the one known as “the day the music died”.

  3. Wow, so many of the early pioneers of music died in plane crashes. Heartbreaking

  4. I came to love Buddy Holly’s music through my parents. We were too young to truly understand Big Bopper’s songs until we were a little older – fun to dance to (Chantilly Lace, The Purple People Eater). Then George Jones sung one of his songs (White Lightning – again as a kid no idea what this meant) – he was another true talent of a singer and musician. I remember La Bamba being a big hit from Ritchie Valens. Then getting to see the movie with Lou Diamond Phillips. That movie introduced me to Brian Setzer and his music. We did not watch a lot of TV growing up, however; there was all types of music played and plenty of books and such to read. I am sure I have been through this part of Iowa – just too small to have it as a true memory. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  5. One of my favorite Iowa places is the Surf Ballroom. We saw some great concerts there and I have great memories. Going to the crash site was always sobering. The Surf has really been a great place in Clear Lake and brings a lot of tourists in. And of course I got my sweet Buddy (RIP) and Holly ( almost 16 years) there. 😸

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