Explore Music History at the Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake IA

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Explore Music History at the Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake IA

The Surf Ballroom is steeped in America’s Music History.  So many artists of all genres have performed there and brought joy to so many people.  From Lawrence Welk to ZZ Top, Jimmy Allen, and everyone in between, it is hard to fathom that you will find this powerhouse of rock-n-roll in the quiet town of Clear Lake, Iowa.

The Surf Ballroom sits near the North shore of the lovely Clear Lake on North Shore Drive in Northern Iowa. Thousands of people visit each year to dance, sing, and party the night away.  But that’s just today.  To fully understand the Surf Ballroom’s story, we need to travel back to 1933, when it was initially built.

Since you’re heading for Clear Lake, check out all the other things to do in the area in 21 Best Things to Do In and Near Clear Lake Iowa

The Surf Ballroom is Born

In 1933, Carl J. Fox built the Surf Ballroom right on the North shore of Clear Lake.  When Iowa had more ballrooms per capita than any other state in the U.S., Mr. Fox knew that this one needed to stand out.  And stand out it did.

The Surf was built and decorated in a tropical beach club style, has a capacity of 2,100, and boasts 30,000 feet of entertainment area.  Decor included bamboo and rattan furniture and accents, palm trees flanking the stage, and murals of giant waves, fish, sailboats, and lighthouses on the walls.  Even the ceiling got in on the act with puffy clouds painted high above dancers’ heads to give the feel of dancing under tropical evening skies.

The Fox family loved this ballroom so much that they resided in an upper-floor apartment.  The main floor boasted a large hardwood dance floor and an elegant stage adorned with swaying palm trees.

The Surf Ballroom was for Dancing

Before rock-n-roll hit American culture, we had fine orchestra music and well-known conductors.  Men and women pranced across the Surf Ballroom’s 6,300 Square foot dance floor and enjoyed classical dances such as the Waltz, the Foxtrot, and the Rumba.

Many of the great orchestral conductors of the 30s and 40s led the music at the Surf in those early years.  Greats such as Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, and Les Brown were among those you would have found here during the Big Band Era.

Memorabilia on the wall showing info about the big band era at the Surf Ballroom
Notice Lawrence Welk on the bottom right. He was a champion of the Surf Ballroom.

The First Surf Ballroom Tragedy

No one could have predicted that the lively Surf Ballroom would break into flames on a beautiful spring morning in April of 1947.  But that it did.  Firefighters did their best to save the wooden framed building, but their efforts were in vain.  The building burned entirely and was a total loss.  Fortunately, the Fox family escaped from their upper floor living space.

The only item to make it out of the fire was the safe. The safe is now in the Fox house across the street from the Surf.

The outside of the SURF Ballroom - yellow brick with bright blue letters
The piano in the entrance to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa

Because all thought of restoring the existing building was out of the question, Mr. Fox regrouped, the city came alongside him, and the Surf Ballroom was built again, this time in a location just across the street from the original.

Mr. Fox and crew paid the same attention to detail in the décor. By 1948 the new Surf was up and running with its tropical feel.  The new building is the one that we know and love today.

An exterior shot of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa

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The Next (And Hopefully Last) Surf Ballroom Tragedy

Soon the 1950s were upon us, and we said goodbye to the Big Band Era and Helllloooo Baby to Rock-n-Roll.  Teens everywhere were bee-bopping to the sound stylings of early rock stars such as Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, and others.  Of course, we all know of the biggest name of the late ’50s, the King himself, Elvis Presley.

On a blizzardy winter night in February 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Peterson played their sets on stage and boarded a plane at the Mason City Municipal Airport to head for their upcoming Fargo, North Dakota location.  Sadly, the flight never made it but crashed into a cornfield just a few miles from the airport.  The world learned about the tragic plane crash on the morning of February 3rd and has never forgotten.

This series of events set the Surf Ballroom on the Nationwide map and put Buddy Holly and company into the hearts of America to this day.  The death of these young superstars has been memorialized in song by Don McLean as “the day the music died.”

The Tragedy and Triumph of Buddy Holly and The Day the Music Died

A view of the Surf Ballroom showing the three stars who died after performing in large portraits on the back wall
The three men who died are remembered throughout the Surf Ballroom, including in these large portraits high on the wall in the back of the ballroom.

The Surf Ballroom Memorializes

When you visit the Surf Ballroom today, you can almost feel the lingering ghosts of these young artists playing their final gig.  Listen closely, and you might just hear the sounds of thousands of artists that have performed in this space both before and since that fateful February night.

Everyone From Teen idol Bobby Vee, who made girls scream in the ’60s, to Don McClean singing American Pie in the ’70s, to today’s superstars like Edan Everly and Jimmie Allen, have memories here.  Their footsteps and drumbeats have echoed within the walls of the Surf Ballroom for decades, and I like to think I can still hear them.

One hallway covered in memorabilia at the Surf Ballroom
History is everywhere at the Surf. Every wall is virtually covered in memorabilia.

The Annual Winter Dance Party

To further remember these artists’ effect on the Surf Ballroom’s future, the Surf has held an Annual Winter Dance Party.  Most recently, in February 2022, Austin Allsup opened up the Winter Dance Party on Thursday night.

Austin Allsup is the son of legendary singer and guitarist Tommy Allsup, who was the drummer for Buddy Holly at the time of the original Winter Dance Party.  Austin is also known for his run on Season 11 of The Voice (go, Team Blake!).  During his performance, Austin played some of his father’s favorites and featured a few Buddy Holly originals.  Click HERE for information on the Winter Dance Party Tour and to purchase Surf Ballroom Tickets for live events.

Take your time and explore the halls and back rooms of the Surf, and you’ll see the history of the Surf spelled out in photos, clippings, and signed guitars donated by various artists over the years.  When you get into the ballroom, enjoy the detail of the beautifully restored floor.  Take note that the color looks and gives the feel of tropical sand.

Notice the size of the small booths that surround the ballroom floor.  Mr. Fox constructed these booths intentionally small because he wanted the people to feel close and intimate when enjoying the music at the Surf.

Originally the booths were outfitted with small drawers beneath the tables so the ladies could slip their purses into the drawers, making more space for people and less for handbags.  When the Surf discovered empty alcohol bottles left in the drawers, they got wise and removed the drawers.

A framed explanation of the 1962 Winter Dance tour located in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa

The Green Room

After you take your moment on stage, standing in the footsteps of many famous people who have stood before you, make your way to the Green Room and stage left.

The Green Room is a small room painted in white and covered entirely with the signatures, drawings, and good wishes of every artist who has performed at the Surf Ballroom.  Look closely to see if you recognize anyone.  I saw Faith Hill and Don McClean’s tribute to Buddy Holly in the lyrics to American Pie.  This room is a treasure trove of autographs.  Even the photos of this room give me chills!

A view into the Green Room where the walls are covered with signatures
Every square inch of this room is covered in signatures – including the door jambs and the ceiling.
A closeup shot of the words of American Pie written on the wall in the Green Room at Surf Ballroom by Don McLean
Don McLean’s Lyrics with his signature commemorating “the Day the Music Died”

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The Fox House

After you’ve taken plenty of time to wander the ballroom, head across the street to the Fox House.  The Fox House tour is included with the deluxe touring package for the Surf Ballroom and is well worth the extra few bucks.

Carl J. Fox built the house in 1948 at the same time as the new Surf Ballroom. He lived there until he died in 1966.  The home remained a part of the Fox family for many years.  In 2017, the Snyder family of Clear Lake purchased the house and restored it to its original state.

The view of the Fox House with a prominent set of angular stairs leading to the front door
The corner windows right behind the round bushes look straight across the street at the front of the Surf Ballroom

A visit to the Fox House brings you back to the 50s with its vintage furnishings and fixtures.  Be sure to note the feathered ladies’ hats in the primary bedroom, the monkey jungle wallpaper in the guest bath, and the safe.  During my visit, the safe had been removed from Mr. Fox’s office and placed in a hallway closet.  Who could resist snapping a quick shot of the only remaining relic from the first Surf Ballroom.  I wonder what was in that safe at the time of the fire?

The safe that came out alive from the original Surf Ballroom after the fire - dented and slightly rusty but still in tact

I loved the location of Mr. Fox’s office at the front corner of the house. The corner windows overlook a direct view of the Surf Ballroom just across the street.  Can you imagine him sitting in his office smoking a cigarette and looking over at his business domain.

The SURF Ballroom is in the background - this shows the view from the Fox House office
The view from Mr. Fox’s office

A Lasting Legacy

In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, declared the Surf Ballroom a landmark as part of their Rock and Roll Landmark Series.  This distinction recognizes the Surf Ballroom as significant in the development of rock and roll.  Look for the plaque on display while you’re there.

The plaque reads: “There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our musical history.  As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P.  “The Big Bopper” Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever.”

In 2011 the National Register of Historic Places added The Surf Ballroom to their list, and in 2021 the Surf ballroom was recognized as one of America’s official National Historic Landmarks, Iowa’s 27th location to earn this esteemed award.

Wrapping it all Up

This beautiful building packs a powerful historic punch in the landscape of America.  The city of Clear Lake and Cerro Gordo County has every right to proudly boast that they have hosted historic rock and country musicians such as Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, Conway Twitty, and Martina McBride.

Plan to spend at least a couple of hours enjoying the atmosphere and seeing the sights at both the Surf Ballroom and the Fox House. When you’re done, head out to the Buddy Holly Memorial Crash Site and the nearby Three Stars Plaza.

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Pin image for Surf Ballroom's history showing the exterior of the Surf Ballroom

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