The final concert performed by Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA. Unlike many of the once-popular ballrooms, the Surf Ballroom is still intact, providing a minimal stage and a fabulous dance area for concerts of all kinds. And during the day, the ballroom and its history-lined walls are open for anyone who wants to see where that momentous day began -- and where those fateful decisions regarding who got the quick, warm trip to North Dakota in the plane and who had to ride in the cold, drafty bus were made.
Photos of past performers at the Surf, encompassing pretty much everyone you have ever heard of, are hung in row after row on the available wall space. Most are autographed. Most played here to stand on the same stage as the doomed rock n' rollers, and now we go there to do that, too. There are literally rooms filled with photos packed side by side, covering almost every inch of wall space.
And we come to see the small, cramped "green room" where the performers waited to take the stage, now each wall, surface, sink, and table covered with words of grief, adoration, and respect -- not graffiti, but it would be difficult to say why not -- we just know the honor bestowed on the performers changes words scribbled in magic marker from distasteful to reverential. Even Don McLean scrawled some of the lyrics to American Pie on these walls.
And we can gaze at the wall pay phone Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens used that night to call home before boarding the plane, and almost see them standing there, shielding the phone's earpiece to better hear over the loud music just feet away, wishing they were home with their loved ones instead of going out into that snowy cold night.
The stage was empty while we were there, the door to the graffiti-covered room ajar off stage right. The next performance would be Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, scheduled for later this month. As full of photos as the walls are, there is always room for more.