Not Fade Away: The Surf Ballroom
Once upon a time ballrooms scattered across the country drew crowds from miles around to jump to the big bands of the 30’s and 40’s and early rock-and-roll groups traveling the dance-hall circuits. The Surf is one of the few survivors of that long-ago era, and one of even fewer to retain it’s original 1940’s appearance. Walking through the doors - past the glassed-in ticket booth, pineapple-papered lobby and into the cavernous, tropical-themed hall - is to be transported six decades into the past.
The stage has hosted famous names such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Rick Nelson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Doors, the Beach Boys, The Ventures, Dion, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Temptations, Johnny Cash, and many, many more. The walls of the lounge and dressing rooms are covered with photographs and signatures from hundreds of performers past and present. Yes, present, as the Surf is still very much alive and kickin’ - mostly due to the unfortunate demise of its three most legendary performers.
On February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens rocked the Winter Dance Party just hours before their plane took a fatal nosedive into a snowy cornfield a few miles north of Clear Lake. It was primarily this event, along with its timeless preservation, that landed the Surf on the National List of Historic Places and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Landmark Series roster. As much museum as music venue, among the enshrined memorabilia are personal effects of the musicians, some of which were recovered from the crash site.
A memorial Winter Dance Party has been held here every year since 1979. Don McLean did "American Pie" on this stage for this event in 1994, and you betcha everyone there sang along:
The ballroom is free for the looking although a $5 donation is encouraged. See the website for hours, history, current concert schedule and more information:
- Budget Travel
- Historical Travel
"A long, long time ago..."
We were having a bit of a problem locating the Surf so we asked a friendly looking local if he could point the way. After giving us directions, he said “Yeah, that plane went down in my Grandpa’s cornfield.”
That cornfield just happened to be next on our agenda.
Playing the Surf wasn’t on the Dance Party tour schedule, and flying to the next gig in Moorhead, MN wasn't the plan either but a half-frozen Buddy Holly - exasperated with the rickety, heatless buses he'd been forced to travel in - had the plane chartered from nearby Mason City airport. How the other two musicians ended up on it is the stuff of rock-and-roll legend: a coin toss; a last-minute switch. It may have been weather, miscalculations by an inexperienced pilot or both but shortly after takeoff, the Beechcraft Bonanza roared low over the roof of farmhouse, clipped a wing on the ground and somersaulted across an icy field, finally coming to rest up against a fence. Grainy black-and-white news photos taken after the wreckage was discovered the next morning show the the ejected remains of Holly, Richardson and Valens strewn around an unrecognizably crushed and mangled heap of metal.
The site has been a place of pilgrimage for rock-and-rollers for over 50 years, and the spot is marked by a permanent monument erected by a fan in 1988. It’s littered with the sorts of interesting things - booze bottles, coins, plastic flowers, strings of beads, instruments, wind chimes - the faithful tend to leave in such places and which give this desolate piece of ground a weirdly festive appearance.
From I-35 exit 197:
Go west on 300th Street. Turn right onto Grouse Avenue (S28). Take a right onto 310th Street, then a left onto Gull Avenue. You'll pass a farm on your left, then see the small turnoff area marked with an oversize model of Buddy’s glasses near a fence line on your left. Walk the fence line (stay to the left of it) west 1/2 mile or so to the site.
From Surf Ballroom:
Go north on Buddy Holly Place for about 4 miles. Turn right onto 300th Street. Turn left onto Grouse Avenue (S28). Take a right onto 310th Street, then a left onto Gull Avenue. You'll pass a farm on your left, then see a small turnoff area marked with an oversize model of Buddy’s glasses near a fence line on your left. Walk the fence line (stay to the left of it) west about 1/2 mile to the site.
Look for memorabilia at the Surf Ballroom that was collected from the crash site or was otherwise connected to each of the musicians.
- Budget Travel
- Road Trip
Need more info?
The Clear Lake Visitor Center shares space with the Chamber of Commerce and you can find it on the lake end of Main Avenue. Here’s where you can pick up walking tour brochures and other materials about the area. It’s rumored that you can rent bikes here, too. Otherwise, a nice guide can be downloaded from the tourism website:
Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce hours:
- Family Travel
- Road Trip
Clear Lake’s main street has retained some of its historic architecture - although I wasn’t able to find information on any of it until after the fact, and some of it could use a little TLC. Brochures for a self-guided walk of the more notable landmarks can be picked up at the the public library (where the route starts - 200 N 4th St), Chamber of Commerce (205 Main Ave) or Historical Society (309 Main Ave.)
- Hiking and Walking
- Budget Travel
Be a part of music history
The Surf Ballroom was witness to the last performance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper on Feb 2, 1959. It is still an active venue for concerts. Do not miss this remarkable building. If the building is open, see the wall of fame and the Green Room, as well as the rare photos of Buddy at the Surf.
If you have time, drive north out of town and visit the humble crash site memorial. It is about 10 minutes away from the Surf at Gull Ave and 315th St.
- Historical Travel
Grand Beach Houses and Classic Architecture
On the lake front are some really large summer homes, while in a block or so, particularly just south of North Shore Drive, there are some very nice Victorian era homes. I noticed for sale signs on some of these gems. Most of this architecture is very well maintained by external appearances.
Beach Cottages (for rent)
At the beach are cottages available for the summer. I found these very quaint structures built of wood or stone interesting. Although, I can't last anywhere for more than a few hours, let alone all summer, I can see how families might like to spend summers relaxing here.
Window Shop on Main Street
Main Street Clear Lake is well kept and has numerous gift shops, antique stores, restaurants, and ice cream parlors. Since the town dates back to 1851, the commercial architecture is mostly respectable brick structures from the late 19th and early 20th century. Main Street terminates right at the lake.
Watch as Boat Canopies are Transferred
A rather unique part of Clear Lake is the boat canopy business. These canopies stand on the lake bottom near shore, sheltering ski and fishing boats for the summer. During winter, the lake freezes and so the canopies have to be removed for storage elsewhere. A company provides storage and transport every year at reasonable cost. The canopies are delivered to the boat ramp in town by truck, and a special crane boat hoists them for transport anywhere on the lake they may need to be transported. In spring, this is good idle time viewing as the crane boat slowly disappears into the distance of the lake. While I managed to think fast enough for the truck drop at the boat launch, I missed the opportunity for an iPhone shot of the unique crane-boat.
Walk along the waterfront
Clear Lake is surprisingly large and is surrounded by homes and cottages on all sides. The lake isn't so clear as it used to be due to agricultural run-off, but new projects to keep storm drains from polluting the lake have been completed in town. The lake is only 18 feet deep in the center, and so some dredging has been done to keep boating active in all parts of the lake. A walk along the waterfront in town, with my iPhone camera, was all that I had time for. But, it was time well spent off the highway. I found the birdhouses on poles along the beach interesting, and full of finches.
- Hiking and Walking
- Water Sports
Visit Surf Ballroom
For Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens fans, the Surf Ballroom, on the corner of Buddy Holly and North Shore Drive, is a must stop. The auditorium is still in active use for summer events. The airplane crash site memorial is in a field outside of town. I didn't have time for that adventure.
Definitely go for the Fourth...
Definitely go for the Fourth of July! It is great!
This town has a carnival that comes to town that sits down by the lake. When you are on the farris wheel, you can look out onto the water.
There are fireworks that they shoot off from a boat on the lake, when it doesn't rain or set fire to the boat. :) That only happened a couple times.
Clear Lake City Park
There is a sizeable park right off Main Street on the lake front, the Clear Lake City Park. An outdoor auditorium and children's play equipment are among the main features of this park.