One of Iowa’s Highest Rated Bars is Also a Rock and Roll Landmark
Out of sheer curiosity, I searched for some of the highest rated and most popular bars in the state of Iowa. One name that consistently appeared atop or close to the top of many lists was Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA. That name sounded familiar. I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I remembered a song, every word of which I know by heart.
That song, of course, is "American Pie" by Don McLean, which was of course about "The Day the Music Died," in reference to the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson in a plane crash in 1959. The Surf Ballroom, known colloquially as "The Surf," was the site of their final performances before they departed to Fargo, ND via the Mason City Airport for their next show in Minnesota. The plane took off just before 1am on February 3rd, 1959 before crashing shortly after takeoff.
Looking at various reviews and video-logs of the Surf Ballroom, most people use the same phrase: "frozen in time." It first opened in the 1930s, and has been upkept to reflect the feel of a 1950s-era ballroom and dance-hall, with photos of popular musicians who have performed there, vintage guitars, etc.
Currently owned by the Snyder family of Clear Lake, the Surf Ballroom is open to the public daily, with minimal updates to the exterior of the ballroom since the 1950s. Most of the aforementioned acts performed in what is known as "The Green Room." The building also includes a museum of music memorabilia, a Wall of Fame featuring a litany of artists who performed at the venue over the past several decades, as well as a souvenir shop.
The legacy of Holly, Valens, and Richardson are also still very much alive every February with The Surf's "Winter Dance Party." Every year, around the date of that tragic plane crash, The Surf puts on a three-day party that features music, drinks, and memories of three musical titans that were gone far, far too soon.
This year, Chris Montez, The Chiffons, and Dodie Stevens & The Killer Vees will be performing at The Surf's "Winter Dance Party."
Find out more about the Surf Ballroom on their official website.
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Gallery Credit: Shawn McKenna