Step Back in Time on a Tour of the Legendary Surf Ballroom

All throughout my youth in the 80s and early 90s, it never failed that the radio station in our car was dialed into the local oldies station. I have many fond memories driving with my mom; my long skinny arm hanging out the window, making airwaves while my head bopped to the music. I’d sing along to the likes of The Temptations, Buddy Holly, or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

I even have one particular memory that places my older brother and some of the neighborhood boys staggered up on a bungalow staircase singing a choreographed rendition of “Earth Angel” to the new girl that moved in around the block.

To which my brother conveniently claims he doesn’t remember.

There’s no denying it though, I remember it like it was yesterday. Each of them brought their hands together, pumping them over their chest to show their hearts beating as they sang along. Makes me laugh every time I think about it. 

Earth angel, earth angel
Will you be mine?
My darling dear
Love you all the time
I’m just a fool
A fool in love with you

Jukebox oldies or the golden oldies, as they are often referred to, are songs that date from the 50s through the early 1960s.  And I think no matter what your age or where you grew up you’ll recognize at least one of my favorites from that era. 

Big Girls Don’t Cry • La Bamba • That’ll Be the Day • You Can’t Hurry Love • Dream Lover • Stand By Me • Pretty Little Angel Eyes • The Leader of the Pack • Peggy Sue • Blueberry Hill • Chantilly Lace

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
The Surf Ballroom was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

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The Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa

My love of the oldies is what initially led my husband and me to a small city in northern Iowa on our most recent road trip from St. Louis to North Dakota. You see, Clear Lake is home to the legendary Surf Ballroom, a historic concert venue with a storied past.

The original building first opened in 1934 and was located right on the shores of Clear Lake. After a fire destroyed the building in 1947, a new one was built across the street. 

The current Surf opened its doors on July 1st, 1948, and has internationally known to rock the microphone ever since. For a long time, you didn’t “make it” in the business until you played a set at the Surf. 

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
The street signs outside the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake

The Day the Music Died

The Surf’s notoriety is what led the infamous Winter Dance Party of 1959 to Clear Lake, Iowa. The brief 24-day rock and roll tour will forever go down in history. It featured some of the most popular artists of the time including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion, and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch. 

After the group’s show, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson boarded a small plane in nearby Mason City. In the early morning hours of February 3rd, 1959, tragedy struck and the young musicians never arrived at their next destination. The plane crash marked one of the most iconic moments in the history of music. And turned the Surf Ballroom and Clear Lake, Iowa into a rock ‘n roll pilgrimage of sorts. 

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
One of the original articles from when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed.

Arguments swirl around whether or not Don McLean’s famous song, “American Pie” coined the plane crash as The Day the Music Died. Either way, the term stuck and it is widely used to describe that fateful night. 

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
Memorial to Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper outside the Surf Ballroom
A must-do for any music fan is the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Stay for a concert and then come back the next day for our tour to explore all the memorabilia from over the years.
The three musicians watch over the ballroom from up above.

The Surf Ballroom Today

Not much has changed since it first opened, the Surf looks quite similar as it did sixty years ago. On the outside, the one-story building is quite plain and simple. Big blue block letters adorn the beige brick and mortar letting us know we are in the right place. A semicircular ticket booth sits empty between the two main sets of doors.

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
The Music Lives On…
Photo Courtesy of The Surf Ballroom

A Duke Ellington signed piano and rare photos taken at the Winter Dance Party are the first of many cool artifacts we see inside. 

Wondering who has played at the Surf Ballroom? Just check out the walls upon walls of posters, signed guitars, and memorabilia.
Surf Ballroom and Museum Tour
Wondering who has played at the Surf Ballroom? Just check out the walls upon walls of posters, signed guitars, and memorabilia.
Imagine how many fingers have hit these keys!

As I step onto the wooden floor of the large dancehall, I wonder who has played at the Surf Ballroom? I’ll soon learn many talented performers have graced the stage over the years including B.B. King, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Richard, REO Speedwagon, The Beach Boys, and countless others. It’s not a surprise that it was designated a historical landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. 

Self-guided tour of the Surf Ballroom.

A quick glance around and it’s clear where the name “The Surf” comes from. I feel like I time-warped into a 1960s beach movie set with Frankie and Annette. Palm trees are next to the stage and ocean scenes with sailboats and raging waves are hand-painted on the walls. Even the retro diner booths have fish swimming in the wood.

Seeing a live concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
A throwback at the Surf.
Must-experience thing to do in Clear Lake, Iowa: Tour the historic Surf Ballroom.
Step back in time at the Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa

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Surf Ballroom Tour – The Must-Sees

Try to plan your visit around a show. I highly recommend seeing a performance at the Surf Ballroom, even if it’s not your genre of music. Buckcherry was playing the night we arrived. The raunchy singer is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea but we saw all ages wandering around. Why? Because when an artist is up on stage at the Surf the room comes alive and the atmosphere is electric. 

Seeing a live concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Rockin’ out with Buckcherry at the Surf Ballroom.
Seeing a live concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Live Concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, a must-do on your visit.

With that said, come back the next day when it’s quiet and open to the public for a self-guided tour because there’s a lot to see. And when you are not there for a show you can go inside the tiny “Green Room” and search for the most famous autographs on the wall. 

Find out what the lyrics - The Day the Music Died - is all about at the legendary Surf Ballroom Clear Lake Iowa. A must-visit for any rock n' roll fan.
The Green Room at the Surf Ballroom
Wondering who has played at the Surf Ballroom? Just check out the walls upon walls of posters, signed guitars, and memorabilia.
Santana’s Signature in the Green Room at the Surf Ballroom

Another perk of a self-guided tour is being able to hop on stage to imagine what it’s like to play for 2,000 people. It was surreal to be up on stage after seeing the show the night before. 

A must-do for any music fan is the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Stay for a concert and then come back the next day for our tour to explore all the memorabilia from over the years.
You get to walk on stage!

In the main hallway on your left, do not miss the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made calls the night they died. Note the signature of Buddy Holly’s wife Maria at the bottom. 

A must-do for any music fan is the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Stay for a concert and then come back the next day for our tour to explore all the memorabilia from over the years.
Don’t miss the phone booth on your self-guided tour of the Surf Ballroom.

Next, check out the thousands of memorabilia, original posters, guitars, and autographed photos in the Cypress Room and Lounge area. You can spend hours looking at each of the mementos.

Wondering who has played at the Surf Ballroom? Just check out the walls upon walls of posters, signed guitars, and memorabilia.
Wonder what year this is from?

A few things to look for are Buddy Holly’s cufflinks, the aviation headset from the plane, and a copy of the telegram sent by Elvis Presley to Big Bopper’s family.

If you like history or music, a visit to the legendary Surf Ballroom is a must! To make your experience extra special, buy a ticket to the Winter Dance Party held annually as a tribute to the trio.

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Aviation headset from the plane that carried Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson

Details

Where: 460 North Shore Drive, Clear Lake, Iowa

Hours: Self Guided Tours are available Monday – Friday 8am – 4pm, Weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day Saturdays 9am – 1pm and Sundays 1pm – 4pm. 

Details: A donation of $5 is suggested at the door. Guided tours can be arranged for groups of 30 or more. 

*Disclaimer: I was provided two complimentary tickets to see a performance at the Surf Ballroom, but all experiences and opinions expressed are my own.*

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Looking for things to do in Clear Lake? Touring the iconic Surf Ballroom is a must-do for any rock and roll fan. Visit the Buddy Holly plane crash site first then head over to the venue. #SurfBallroom #Iowa

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