Checking in from Charles City, Iowa …
On our trip back across the country, we visited two iconic locations in a single day. In Mitchell, South Dakota, we started our day at a uniquely American folk art building—the majestic Corn Palace. This building, in its third iteration, has celebrated agriculture and the productivity of the American farmer since 1892. Each year a new decorating theme is chosen and the outside of the Corn Palace is stripped and completely redecorated with new corncobs and grains. Some 3,000 bushels of rye, oat heads and sour dock are tied into bundles and used along with corn to grace the exterior of the building. Roughly 275,000 ears of dried corn in twelve colors are sawed lengthwise and are nailed to the building in elaborate patterns created by local artists. And the building is not a simple box. In each rendition, it has turrets and towers, spires and steeples. It is an amazing structure that is the center of community activity for the prairie of South Dakota, hosting plays, stage shows, concerts, trade shows, even basketball games. Folksy and corny but remarkable and original.
In the afternoon, we rolled into Clear Lake, Iowa to visit the famed Surf Ballroom. Built in 1948, this nostalgic facility has been lovingly maintained in its original glory and splendor. The 30,000 square foot facility has a capacity of 2,100 and includes a 6,300 square foot polished wood dance floor. The ballroom’s name and motif was chosen by the original owner who wanted it to look like a beach club, complete with palm trees, bamboo and rattan and the ambience of a South Seas island. The dance floor is circled by booths that would be at home in any 50’s diner.
The walls of the Surf are lined with the photos of the countless stars that have appeared in the club from genres of folk, country, jazz, blues, pop, swing, rock and big band music. Names like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Drifters, Conway Twitty, George Jones and Willie Nelson. The Surf continues to draw big names in recent years including Santana, BB King, ZZ Top, George Strait and so many others. Even big name comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld continue to appear here.
Of course, the Surf Ballroom will always be tied to the 1959 Winter Dance Party and the night of February 2, 1959. The Dance Party was a 24 day barnstorming tour of the Midwest featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion and the Belmonts. From the beginning, the tour was an organizational disaster with the stars and support staff crisscrossing the Midwest in a drafty bus in the worst winter in many years. On the fateful night, however, the show was a great success with the crowded ballroom rocking to the best of early rock music. When the show ended and the crew started to head to the next site, Buddy decided to charter a plane for himself and his band the Crickets. One of the Crickets (Waylon Jennings) gave up his seat on the plane to Ritchie Valens who had the flu, and the other Cricket (Tommy Alsup) lost his seat to the Big Bopper in a coin flip. Tragically shortly after takeoff, the plane went down in a cornfield, killing the three stars and the pilot. The loss of these stars, particularly Buddy Holly, was to quote the song American Pie—“the night the music died.”
Brenda and I were honored and awed to stroll around the Surf Ballroom. We were allowed to go into the “green room” where the stars awaited their time on stage. The walls of the green room (which are white) are covered with the autographs of performers including the first verse of American Pie penned and signed by Don McLean. We were also allowed to walk up on the stage for a photo. Thanks to our hostess Margaret for her kindness to some real Buddy Holly fans. Even though the Surf Ballroom is a long way from North Carolina and Florida, we hope to return to this historic venue for a future concert, maybe even the annual celebration of the Winter Dance Party.
Please keep following our journey east and south. And don’t forget to join us at the PNC Center in Raleigh at 1:00PM on October 7 for the Triangle Heart Walk.