Surf Ballroom History

To many, the Surf Ballroom is an American cultural icon as well as an important historical landmark. The original Surf Ballroom was located across the street from its current location on the shores of Clear Lake. It officially opened for business on April 17, 1933 with a $1.00 dance on a 90x120 foot hardwood dance floor. The venue also featured a roof garden for dancing outdoors, five lakeside windows and a boardwalk leading to nearby docks. The Surf was one of three such ventures for its developer, Carl J. Fox - along with two sister ballrooms, The Terp located in Austin, Minnesota (built in 1938) and the Prom located in St. Paul, Minnesota (build in 1940). It's been said that Carl Fox borrowed against his life insurance to start the endeavor. He sold the three ballrooms in December of 1946 to Prom, Inc. of Chicago for a reported total of $1,300,000.

Tragedy struck the Surf in the early morning hours of April 20, 1947 when fire destroyed the building. Plans for its replacement were quickly underway and a new Surf Ballroom was rebuilt across the street from the original location in what was the original venue's parking lot. The current Surf Ballroom reopened on July 1, 1948. The building project cost approximately $350,000.

The Surf got its name (and motif) from the desire of the original owners to create a ballroom that resembled an ocean beach club. The murals on the back walls were hand-painted to depict pounding surf, swaying palm trees, sailboats and lighthouses. The furnishings were bamboo and rattan and the ambience that of a south sea island. The stage is surrounded by palm trees and the clouds projected overhead make it seem as if you were dancing outside under the stars.

The ballroom was scheduled to be open Wednesday through Sunday each week, with "Old Style Music and Dancing" featured on Friday nights. The remaining nights would be dedicated to "Modern Music and Dancing." In the 1930's and 1940's, in order for a big band to make its reputation nationally, it had to play the Surf. The likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and The Dorseys all made regular stops at the Surf. Back then, ballrooms were host to the primary form of entertainment -- dancing.

The 1950's saw the dawning of rock and roll, and then manager Carroll Anderson was quick to book the hottest names in the business. Artists like The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, Jan and Dean and Conway Twitty all took the stage here. The Surf Ballroom was one of the first ballrooms in the state to feature rock 'n roll, and the big name rock acts featured here made it a "must-play" venue on the performance circuit. This was the case on February 2, 1959, when Anderson brought in the famed Winter Dance Party featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, Dion & The Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. It was this fateful show that made the most lasting mark on the Surf Ballroom.

In the early 1970's through today, the Surf has brought in the likes of Santana, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Alice Cooper, The Doobie Brothers, BB King, ZZ Top, Martina McBride, Lynryd Skynyrd, Robert Plant and countless others.

Recent Changes

January 25, 2008

A new Iowa corporation, the North Iowa Cultural Center & Museum, takes over operations of the ballroom with the intent to operate the venue as a non-profit organization. The building is leased to the entity by the Dean Snyder family, who have owned the ballroom since 1994.

August 19, 2008

The Surf officially becomes a non-profit corporation and achieved 501c3 status through the Internal Revenue Service.

January 27, 2009

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (Cleveland, Ohio) dedicated the Surf Ballroom as a historic rock and roll landmark as part of the Museum's ongoing Landmark Series, which identifies locations in America that are significant to the origins and development of rock and roll. 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."

September 16, 2011

The Surf Ballroom & Museum is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

January 13, 2021

The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Surf Ballroom a National Historic Landmark, recognizing its enduring role in the history of American music. The Surf is Iowa's 27th National Historic Landmark.