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Surf Ballroom: An Historic Landmark

By Jane Whitmore - | Jan 28, 2021

The U.S. Department of the Interior has designated the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, as a National Historic Landmark, recognizing its enduring role in the history of American music. The ballroom is best known for hosting the last concert of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson before their fatal plane crash in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959, a date Don McLean immortalized as “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”

National Historic Landmarks are buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects that have been determined to be nationally significant in American history and culture. The ballroom’s nomination was officially approved on Jan. 13.

There you have it – the Surf Ballroom, located in our own backyard, has been named a National Historic Landmark.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been at the Surf. The last time was for a wedding reception.

Back in the day, however, we went to dances at the Surf as well as the Roof Garden at Okoboji. We heard singers like The Everly Brothers, Conway Twitty, Bobby Vee, The Rumbles and others of that era.

My older sister was actually at the Winter Dance Party in 1959, for the last performance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs says that the Surf Ballroom is the most significant and well-preserved venue remaining on the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour. “The ballroom represents the nationwide dance-party tour phenomenon, a trend that helped establish touring as a legitimate business within the music industry.”

The news release from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs quotes Laurie Lietz, the ballroom’s executive director: “The Surf exemplifies a pivotal time in music history, one that should be honored and celebrated, It is our organization’s highest honor to achieve this designation, and we know this will ensure that the music lives on here at the Surf for generations to come.”

The ballroom is operated by the nonprofit North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum, whose president, Jeff Nicholas, discussed its mission to celebrate the lives and legacies not only of Holly, Valens and Richardson, but all the musicians who have taken a turn on the ballroom’s stage.

“As long as the Surf Ballroom is here,” he said, “their music will never die.”

The Surf Ballroom opened July 1, 1948, on the north shore of Clear Lake. In 2009, the Surf Ballroom was designated as a historic landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Today, the ballroom continues to host an annual winter Dance Party every February, as well as dozens of concerts and special events throughout the year.