Musical Ghosts in the Surf Ballroom

Exterior Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Front section of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“You can almost feel them in here with us, can’t you?”

I’m not one to go for woo-woo ghost stories, nor do I believe in haunted places, but I must admit that the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa has done a beautiful job of keeping memories alive, decades after “the day the music died.”

The interior feels like a movie set – the 1948 wooden dance floor made of maple, ocean-themed “South Seas beach club” murals covering the back walls, original wooden booths with dark green Naugahyde seat coverings, all watched over by the famous stage that is still flanked by fake palm trees, with a quiet soundtrack of period music playing over the speakers.

Fish details on wooden booth seats Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Fish details on the original wooden booth seats made to seat six, in the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Why not an ocean beach club in northern Iowa?

There’s a big lake – Clear Lake – across the street, so close enough….

It was their last night with us on February 2, 1959, but of course nobody knew it then. Their gig was part of a manic musical tour of the U.S. Midwest called the Winter Dance Party.

Postcard of Winter Dance Party graphic Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa

Postcard showing an ad for the February 2, 1959 Winter Dance Party lineup at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

From the Surf Ballroom website:

“Organizationally speaking, the tour was a complete catastrophe. The shows were often scheduled hundreds of miles apart from one another as they zigzagged through one of the deadliest winters the Midwest had seen in decades, in the worst possible transportation available. The musicians crammed into a drafty bus to perform in small ballrooms and theatres and by February 1st, Carl Bunch ([Buddy] Holly’s drummer) had left with frostbitten feet.

By the time the tour limped into Clear Lake, Iowa on the evening of Monday, February 2nd, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself, [Tommy] Allsup and [Waylon – yes, THAT Waylon] Jennings to fly to the next venue in Fargo, North Dakota following the show at the Surf Ballroom. At the last minute, Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper (who had the flu) and Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Ritchie Valens with a flip of a coin.”

I was in Iowa at the Surf because I was speaking at a new conference focused on U.S. Midwest travel bloggers and tourism organizations – Building Community 2018.

Suddenly I realized that I’d be at a microphone just a few feet from where the Dance Party musicians played….

Sheila Scarborough at Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa for Building Community 2018 conference

I played the Surf Ballroom! Well, sorta.

There is memorabilia everywhere, especially in the Cypress Room museum section of the Surf, but you’ll find yourself thinking and learning about the past in unexpected places. The women’s bathroom, for example, has vintage fixtures and a big front room with mirrors all around, where I stood for a bit and imagined girls and women of the 1950s and 1960s primping and fiddling with their makeup.

In a rather morbid bit of telecommunications history, here is the pay phone where some last calls were made before that ill-fated flight….note Buddy Holly’s wife Maria Elena’s signature….

Surf Ballroom vintage pay phone (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Surf Ballroom vintage pay phone (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It may surprise many to learn that the Surf is still very much an active performing arts venue; several musical acts, big band orchestras, and “Weird Al” Yankovic were scheduled to appear in the weeks after the Building Community conference.

There’s even a recurring tribute Winter Dance Party every year – (update) the next one is January 30-February 1, 2020. It started in 1979, with stars like Wolfman Jack, the Drifters, and one of the original Crickets.

It’s a Surf tradition for performers to sign the wall in their Green Room prep area, which is a not-fancy-at-all room off of the stage. I saw many musicians that I recognized and quite a few that I did not, but I can imagine their excitement at performing in a venue that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Performer Green Room at Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The performer’s Green (prep) Room at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

We’ve lost so many musicians to plane crashes and aircraft accidents – Patsy Cline, Ricky Nelson, Otis Redding, Aaliyah, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jim Croce, Glenn Miller, John Denver, and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, to name a few.

I thought about that a lot, because the Building Community conference organizers arranged for me to fly in an eight seat prop aircraft into and out of the nearby Mason City, Iowa airport as a guest of Air Choice One, a small airline that services 10 U.S. cities, mostly in the Midwest.

Here was the plane … yes, that’s my carry-on suitcase, laptop bag, and yellow jacket on the tarmac in Mason City

Air Choice One aircraft Mason City MSP run (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

My eight-seat Air Choice One aircraft at the Mason City airport (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

As the daughter of a Naval aviator and a frequent flyer myself, I don’t normally worry much about aviation safety. I’m very comfortable with being up the air; I understand how lift works on an airplane wing, how many backup systems there are, and the processes that pilots go through to ensure safety in all conditions and weather.

Still, flying in a small prop plane is different than flying on a regular jet airliner. It’s a much more intimate experience with flight. You hear the pilots going through their checklist, you see the runway rise up as you land, and you feel bumps and updrafts a lot more.

I frankly loved it.

This felt like actually flying, not the normal painful experience of boarding a plane with “Interchangeable Airlines” that resembles a crappy bus trip in the air.

Still, don’t think that I wasn’t hyper-aware of the irony of flying on a small plane into and out of the airport where those Winter Dance Party musicians took off and never returned (the crash site is lovingly maintained in a field nearby, with a big pair of black Holly-esque eyeglasses and other markers.)

Above Iowa on Air Choice One flight Mason City Minneapolis St Paul (photo by Sheila Scarborough

Trying not to contemplate aviation accidents above Iowa on an Air Choice One flight, Mason City IA – Minneapolis/St Paul MN (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

You can find videos of J.P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper, singing Chantilly Lace, but there seem to be very, very few good videos of Ritchie Valens (real name – Richard Valenzuela) – a search brings up mostly clips from the 1987 biopic La Bamba.

Here’s a decent one of Lubbock, Texas native Buddy Holly and the Crickets on the Ed Sullivan Show, where all the musicians hoped to get a spot and break out, back in the day …

The Surf honors all that these men did for music, and the spark that they brought to early rock and roll.

Their legacy will never fade away.

Not Fade Away writing on the wall in Surf Ballroom Green Room Clear Lake Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“A love for real not fade away…” sang Buddy Holly. Someone wrote the lyric onto the wall of the Surf Ballroom’s Green Room (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Surf Ballroom could be a somewhat gloomy building, given its inescapably sad place in history, but it is not.

The ghosts inside, if there are any, whisper to us to slow down, soak in the musical memories, and fly above the clouds humming, “Helllooooo, Baby….”

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