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Winter Dance Party at The Surf: 'To us, it's a place of worship'

39th annual event showcases the history of rock 'n' roll and 'The Day the Music Died.'

Posted: Feb. 1, 2018 8:07 AM
Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 8:57 AM

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa - It's been a North Iowa tradition for 39 years now, and the beat still goes on.

The Winter Dance Party kicked off Wednesday night at the Surf Ballroom with the Family Sock Hop, headlined by Johnny Rogers.

The four-day event showcases the history of rock 'n' roll music, as well as the memorable February 2, 1959 concert starring Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson at the Surf. Shortly after the trio boarded an airplane en route to Moorhead, Minnesota, the plane crashed in a field in rural Cerro Gordo County, killing everyone on board, including pilot Roger Peterson. The accident has led to the name "The Day the Music Died" after singer Don McLean referenced it in the 1971 hit "American Pie."

The event originally began as one-time show 20 years later on February 3, 1979 as a tribute concert to Holly, and was organized by local DJ Darryl "The Mad Hatter" Hensley. Due to the overwhelming success it received, the event would continue, and would later expand to two, and then four days. The event also began including art exhibits, movie showings related to the time period, and even a wedding/vow renewal ceremony. 

The party draws an audience from over 36 states and four countries. John Cumberland and David Taylor, both of whom are shooting a documentary on Richardson's life and the concert, are from the United Kingdom. Cumberland holds the venue near and dear to this heart, and remarks how it meant for long-time owner Dean Snyder to renovate such a key landmark in music history.

"To us, it's a place of worship, so to speak. If Mr. Snyder didn't dedicate his life to this, it would be another unfortunate nail in rock 'n' roll's coffin," Cumberland says.

Taylor also notes the influence Holly, Valens and Richardson have in popular music.

"It was a tragic event, but those seeds blossomed in the 60s into a whole new kind of music," Taylor says.

The Surf originally opened in 1933, but financial problems forced the venue to close in 1994. Snyder purchased the ballroom that year and restored it to its original glory. In January 2008, Snyder leased the building to the North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum for daily operations, though he continued to be involved.

This year's event will mark a significant change, as Snyder died Jan. 13.

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