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Surf Ballroom commemorates 'The Day the Music Died'

Joe Naiman


Tuesday, Feb. 3, 1959 is known as “The Day the Music Died” because of the three musicians who were killed in the plane crash along with the pilot that day.

The Winter Dance Party concert tour which included Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, who was also known as the Big Bopper, played at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Feb. 2, 1959.

After the concert they were driven to the airport in Mason City. The plane, which was supposed to take the musicians to Fargo, North Dakota, where they would have been driven to Moorhead, Minnesota, for the Feb. 3 concert which still took place along with 12 subsequent concerts, took off in the early hours, Feb. 3, and crashed shortly afterwards.

The Surf Ballroom still lives, and the marquee on the front of the building announces “The Music Lives On.” Concerts are still held at the Surf Ballroom, including an annual Winter Dance Party which is held in part a tribute to the original Winter Dance Party musicians, but the building also has what can be called a museum area which also pays tribute to the musicians who died in the plane crash.

Clear Lake is at the junction of Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 18. There is a memorial at the actual crash site, which is about a quarter of a mile west of Gull Avenue, and the entrance to that path at Gull Avenue and 315th Street has a glasses memorial to represent the horned-rimmed glasses Buddy Holly wore.

From U.S. 18 go north on Eighth Street, which will become Grouse Avenue, to 310th Street before turning east on 310th Street and north on Gull Avenue. Both 310th Street and Gull Avenue are gravel roads.

To get to the Surf Ballroom from Interstate 35 take U.S. 18 west to Buddy Holly Place – from the hotels Seventh Avenue North may be a more sensible route – go south on Buddy Holly Place and go west on North Shore Drive – or on Sixth Avenue North, which connects to a roadway on the east side of the Surf Ballroom.

The Surf Ballroom charges admission for concerts, which are during the evening, but, during the day, Monday through Friday admission is free although donations are welcome and expenditures may also be made at the gift shop.

The original Surf Ballroom was built in 1933 but burned down in 1947. A new Surf Ballroom opened in 1948. The building was remodeled during the 1960s. During the 1990s, it was closed due to roof leaks and other damage, but the Snyder family purchased the venue in 1994 and the Surf Ballroom reopened in 1995. In 2011, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum area includes a history of the Surf Ballroom and a section on the Winter Dance Party tour and the musicians who were killed. Booths surround the 50 foot by 90 foot dance floor. During daytime visits, the stage itself is accessible as is what would be called the backstage if it was in back of the stage rather than on the right side.

Artists who perform at the Surf Ballroom are invited to sign the side stage wall. The side stage is also where the coin toss which gave Ritchie Valens the final seat on the flight took place. The Surf Ballroom still has a coat check room, and amenities such as food and beverage stands and restrooms are also among the facilities. A memorial marker to the three musicians killed is outside to the right of the entrance.

The tribute Winter Dance Party concert began in 1979, the 20th anniversary of the crash. It has now expanded to a three-day event Thursday through Saturday, the first week of February The Best Western in Clear Lake is booked a year in advance for the Winter Dance Party, so maybe taking the original Winter Dance Party bus route from Green Bay to Clear Lake, which is about 360 miles and six hours not including stops for gas or food, or from Clear Lake to Moorhead, which is about 450 miles and nearly seven hours, has advantages other than duplicating the original tour route.

For other Surf Ballroom concerts, or for tours without a concert, lodging should be available in Clear Lake. The ability to be on stage at the Surf Ballroom and a tour of the venue itself will be a lasting memory.


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