Growing up, we spent most summers on the banks of Lake Michigan, sun kissed and sand covered as we wandered our small summer town. Stepping out of the car in Clear Lake, Iowa, I was immediately transported back to those sprawling summer days. Naturally, a visit to the Surf Ballroom and Museum seemed like the ultimate necessity.
Ever since I moved to Iowa, I’ve heard wonderful things about this must-visit venue—not just because Buddy Holly trivia was vital knowledge in our house growing up. So when I finally got the chance to spend a few hours in Clear Lake, the Surf Ballroom was the first place I headed.
When I arrived the venue was being set up for a private event, but I was still able to take a look around the small museum and sneak a peek into the beautifully preserved historic ballroom. While the museum itself is fairly small, it’s a great overview of some of the big name acts that have played the venue in its more than 80-year history.
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A Bit of History About the Surf Ballroom
Opened on April 17, 1934, the Surf Ballroom once featured a rooftop garden for dancing alfresco and a boardwalk leading to the nearby docks. The venue was one of three similar ballrooms built by developer Carl J. Fox who also created The Terp, located in Austin, Minnesota (built in 1938), and the Prom located in St. Paul, Minnesota (build in 1940). Visitors can thank the ballroom’s original owners for its oceanic motif complete with hand painted murals.
In April of 1947, the building was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt the following year across the street from the original venue. By the 1950s, the Surf Ballroom had become a mainstay for touring musical acts and was one of the first ballrooms in the state to embrace rock and roll. The venue is also the infamous last venue of Winter Dance Party Tour after which musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash in a nearby field.
If You Visit the Surf Ballroom & Museum
The Surf Ballroom is open to visitors Monday through Friday from 8 am until 4 pm (with some additional summer hours on the weekends). There’s really no bad time to visit the museum. However, make sure to call ahead in case the venue is closed for a concert or private event. While the museum is fairly small, it’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs and experience a unique piece of musical history if you’re passing through Clear Lake.
Suggested Donation: $5 per person
Surf Ballroom and Museum, 460 N. Shore Drive in Clear Lake, Iowa
Share Your Thoughts
I would love to hear from you! Have you visited the Surf Ballroom & Museum? What are your favorite places to experience local history in Clear Lake, Iowa?