Visit Clear Lake, Iowa, where ‘the music died’
Readers of a certain (ahem) age know the tragic saga of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, who perished in a plane crash in the midst of their 1959 Winter Dance Party tour. Movies about them bring the younger generation up to date, and some folks will remember that Springfield was to be the final tour stop for the three before that fateful February “day the music died.”
Many people, however, may not realize that in a day’s drive from central Illinois you can pay tribute to the three performers, steep yourself in rock ’n’ roll history and show your moves at the legendary Surf Ballroom, site of their last concert. A trip to Clear Lake, in north central Iowa, is a nostalgic step back that music fans of all ages can enjoy. Pop in a CD or program your electronic device with the three legends’ music to pass the 400 miles from Springfield.
Clear Lake has long been a vacation spot with its scenic lake surrounded by summer homes, a quaint downtown and a slew of antique stores. You can cruise the lake, visit gardens and camp at a state park in nice weather or ice fish in the winter. Nearby Mason City hosts a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel and spots associated with native Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.
But the draws for rock ’n’ roll fans are the Surf in Clear Lake, the ballroom where today a toddler/parent exercise class shares the iconic dance floor with fans of modern music, and the crash site just outside of town, where oversized Buddy Holly glasses mark the path to the field where the plane went down.
In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated the Surf as a historic landmark, but the building’s history stretches to 1933. A 1947 fire destroyed the original, and a new version emerged a year later. With a 6,300-square-foot dance floor and a capacity of 2,100, the Surf has seen music legends of every era, from the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington to rocker Alice Cooper and country star Martina McBride.
Laurie Leitz, executive director, says the Surf hosts two or three nationally known musicians every month, but February is especially busy with four days of commemorative concerts, this year Feb. 3-7. “The Winter Dance Party is always a big time for us, with 2,000 people visiting then,” she said.
The original owners, apparently intent on transporting patrons from the farm fields of Iowa to a tropical beach club, decorated the cavernous room with fake palm trees, ocean scenes and bamboo touches. Wooden booths surround the floor and feature small drawers where patrons could stash their flasks for a quick sip between dances.
If no band is playing and for a suggested $5 donation, visitors can roam the dance floor, stage and green room, where countless performers and politicians have penned their names to the walls. Of particular note are Don McLean’s handwritten lyrics to “American Pie,” in which he immortalized the ill-fated end of the three performers on “the day the music died.”
The building also houses display cases stuffed with music history, including the original itinerary for the Winter Dance Tour and news accounts of the plane crash hours after the Feb. 2, 1959, concert. The 24-day tour through the Midwest continued after the crash with Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton filling in as headliners. Some 8,000 fans packed the Armory in Springfield for two shows on Feb. 15.
Other displays in the Surf’s museum include costumes, records, guitars and photos of the hundreds of performers drawn to the ballroom to become part of music history.
The landmark annually has 20,000 visitors to the museum and another 40,000 to the concerts, according to Leitz. Last year they came from 49 states and 22 countries.
The Surf is open weekdays year round from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and adds weekend hours during the summer. Staff members and volunteers are eager to answer questions and share their memories of the building’s highlights.
They also will give you directions to the crash site, five miles north of town. The plane, carrying the three musicians and a young pilot, plummeted shortly after takeoff from the nearby Mason City airport in the frigid early morning.
Although the field where the plane crashed is private property, visitors can find the spot by a post holding a large replica of Holly’s famous black glasses. A quarter mile walk along a fence row ends at a small memorial with a metal guitar and three records. The walk provides time to speculate how things could have turned out differently had the group stayed with original plans to ride a drafty bus to their next tour stop.
They could have made it to Springfield and kept the music alive.
For more information, visit www.surfballroom.com and www.clearlakeiowa.com.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield is a freelance writer and rock ’n’ roll fan. She alternates writing the monthly Midwestern travel column for IT with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.