IOWA ICON: Surf Ballroom Still Dancing

By the look of things, you’d never know what it’s been through, 65 years after opening the doors, the Surf Ballroom has still got it.

“There’s some magic here in the Surf,” says Ballroom president, Jeff Nicholas.

“It makes you feel like 15, 16 years old!” says Clear Lake’s Dick Casey, who’s been going to concerts since the early 60s.

“People come in all the time and say they can feel the history,” says executive director, Laurie Lietz.

It’s one that pulls off the unlikely feat of connecting the icons of American music to small town Iowa.

“Count Basie, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, Glen Miller…” Nicholas recalls.

The kings of jazz and Big Band took the back roads north to what was one of over a hundred ballrooms in the state.

“It was a place to come and meet your friends, dance, reminisce, make memories,” Lietz adds.

And when America was ready to rock and roll, the Surf was, too…                                                                

“It was popular and it wasn’t supposed to be popular and the parents hated it,” says Lietz.

Like it or not, their kids circled the date “February 2nd, 1959” on their calendars.  A storm of stars was approaching.

Dion and the Belmonts… Richie Valens…The Big Bopper…

And a bespectacled Texan who for the last two years, had been shredding a Fender Stratocaster with his hands, and the Billboard charts with his hits.

But the route to Clear Lake was maddeningly indirect, on a bus with a broken heater…

“They said it was so cold that they would lay blankets down,” says Nicholas, “then lie down, have a person lie down and then have somebody lie on top of him and then lay the blankets down again just to keep warm!”

Holly and the others were relieved to reach the Surf. With Waylon Jennings on bass, Holly’s act was a huge hit, but wanting a break from the bus, he then chartered a small plane to take him, Valens and the Big Bopper to the next stop in Fargo…Jennings stayed behind.

“When saying goodbye, he said ‘Oh, Waylon, I hope that bus breaks down!” Jokingly.  And Waylon shot back to Buddy, ‘Oh, I hope that plane crashes!’

That comment haunted Jennings for years.

The plane didn’t get very far; only a couple of miles. It went down in a field, north of town. And just like that, the lives of three young stars were over.

“Really, it wasn’t our finest hour” Nicholas admits. “It wasn’t the Surf’s finest hour and it wasn’t Clear Lake’s finest hour.”

In the years that followed, the Surf lost its steam, changed owners and began to sink.

“It was pretty close to becoming a Red Owl grocery store,” says Casey, whose father, Richard, bought the Surf in the early 60s and sold it a few years later.

“The property was going to be bulldozed and a store was gonna be put up.”

Despite its famous past, no one saw a future.

“History wasn’t cool, then,” Lietz says. “I think is maybe the easiest way to say is history wasn’t cool.”

Holly’s music rose back to the surface…living on through the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and in 1971 Don McClean added his lyrics…

In 1979, the Surf decided not to die, but rather embrace its place in history by resurrecting the Winter Dance Party…inviting all of the old favorites back to play.  The Surf had found a new calling, and turned its attention to a face lift.

“We had this really kind of cool architecture and all of a sudden it wasn’t  cool,” Nicholas laughs, “so we covered it up! We put paneling, we put carpeting on the walls, we put mirrors on the walls…”

It took some time, but the Surf is back to its original glory…beckoning famous acts and giving them a place to look back. 

The challenge is in maneuvering its dark past back into the light.

“We’ve always focused more on the legacies,” Lietz says.

Lietz now runs the Surf as a museum, attracting all types of attention…most of it’s good…but not all.

“We’ve been approached by a lot of paranormal groups that want to come and monitor ‘activities’,” she says, rolling her eyes, “and we just…I don’t get into that.”

If there are ghosts that haunt the Surf, they must be delighted to be here…in a place that had every reason to forget them, but never did.  They live in the bright details and the darkness of the rafters…coming alive each time the music returns.

“Music tells a lot of stories and creates memories and I would like to think that north Iowa will hold this venue close to its heart and never let the music die,” Lietz says.

54 years ago, a tragedy gave it a place in history…but it’s the community that picked it up and carried it on ever since, that turned it into an Iowa Icon.

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