The Surf Ballroom's place in music history has long been secured, as the site of Buddy Holly's last concert and the place where, as Don McLean sang, the music died.
Now the storied 72-year-old ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, has been officially declared a historic place by the U.S. secretary of the Interior, landing on the National Historic Landmark list this month, just days before the 62nd anniversary of that fateful day.
"The Surf Ballroom is a national treasure. You can almost feel the energy and hear the echoes of all the concerts over the years," Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said in statement. "The soundtrack of the 20th century played live, right here in Clear Lake, Iowa."
Located a little over two hours south of Minneapolis, the Surf has long been a frequent stop for touring musicians between Des Moines and the Twin Cities. Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were en route to a concert in Moorhead, Minn., in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1959, when their small plane crashed in an Iowa field on a wintry night after their Surf Ballroom concert.
Over the years, a who's who of music has performed at the Surf, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, B.B. King, Wanda Jackson, the Beach Boys, Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Willie Nelson and more recently Little Big Town and Robert Plant.
Originally opened in 1934, the Surf was a sister ballroom to the Terp in Austin, Minn., and the Prom in St. Paul. After a 1947 fire destroyed the Surf, it was rebuilt and reopened the next year with the same oceanside theme.
In 2008, the North Iowa Cultural Center & Museum took over operation of the Surf as a nonprofit. It operates as a museum and a concert and event venue, with a capacity of 2,100. Political rallies for candidates of various parties, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have been held at the ballroom.
McLean, best known for his 1971 classic "American Pie," which refers to the 1959 plane crash as "the day the music died," was scheduled to return to the Surf on Feb. 3 this year, but the gig, along with the annual Winter Dance Party, was postponed due to the pandemic. The Surf has held the multiday event on the anniversary of the final Holly concert since 1979.
The Surf Ballroom is Iowa's 27th National Historic Landmark, joining a list including President Herbert Hoover's birthplace in West Branch and the Old Capitol in Iowa City.