Winter Dance Party Event History


In January, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper”, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch set out on a 24 day tour barnstorming the Midwest. It became the most infamous tour in rock ‘n roll history.

Organizationally speaking, the tour was a complete catastrophe. The shows were often scheduled hundreds of miles apart from one another as they zigzagged through one of the deadliest winters the Midwest had seen in decades, in the worst possible transportation available. The musicians crammed into a drafty bus to perform in small ballrooms and theatres and by February 1st, Carl Bunch (Holly’s drummer) had left with frostbitten feet.

By the time the tour limped into Clear Lake, Iowa on the evening of Monday, February 2nd, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself, Allsup and Jennings to fly to the next venue in Fargo, North Dakota following the show at the Surf Ballroom. At the last minute, Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper (who had the flu) and Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Ritchie Valens with a flip of a coin.

The performance in Clear Lake was electric and the music brought a joy that would remain forever in the hearts and minds of all who attended. It was a night that burned bright with some of rock and roll’s greatest songs and its brightest stars…and ended with the unthinkable. After their performance here at the Surf Ballroom, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, were killed when their plane crashed shortly after taking off from the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport.

The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history. Bobby Vee & The Shadows performed in Fargo, ND on Feb. 3rd, and Jimmy Clanton, Fabian & Frankie Avalon were substituted as the tour’s headliners. Frankie Sardo, Dion & The Belmonts and The Crickets continued until the end of the tour.

That day was forever immortalized as ‘The Day The Music Died’ by Don McLean in his 1972 anthem American Pie. For many people, that tour and subsequent crash symbolized the end of a period in both rock and roll and American history. The innocence, it seems, was forever lost.

1959 Tour Schedule

  • George Divine’s Million Dollar Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

  • Eagles Ballroom, Kenosha, Wisconsin (Debbie Stevens also performed)

  • Kato Ballroom, Mankato, Minnesota

  • Fournier’s Ballroom, Eau Claire, Wisconsin

  • Fiesta Ballroom, Montevideo, Minnesota

  • Prom Ballroom, St. Paul, Minnesota

  • Capitol Theater, Davenport, Iowa

  • Laramar Ballroom, Fort Dodge, Iowa

  • National Guard Armory, Duluth, Minnesota

  • Riverside Ballroom, Green Bay, Wisconsin

  • Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa

1959 Winter Dance Party Tour

How do we celebrate?

Annually, we celebrate the life and influence of our Three Stars.

How it began…

The Surf Ballroom’s annual commemorative event honoring the musical legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson began in 1979.

The Surf Ballroom’s “Winter Dance Party”, the event began after an on-air jest by a Clear Lake radio personality known as “The Mad Hatter” back in the late 1970’s on local Clear Lake radio station KZEV. The Mad Hatter – whose real name is Darryl Hensley – was doing his show one day when he told listeners, “There is a time warp in my studio and Buddy Holly has just walked in.” He pretended to have an on-air conversation with the rock ‘n roll icon. “Buddy” suggested the idea of holding a memorial concert at the Surf on the 20th anniversary of his death, and the Mad Hatter told him he would make it happen.

Hensley recalls that the event’s beginnings were challenging. The original slate of entertainers for the first commemorative concert cancelled just 6 weeks prior to the show. The Mad Hatter asked fellow disc jockey Wolfman Jack to help put together a lineup and be master of ceremonies. Among the performers booked were Del Shannon, The Drifters, Jimmy Clanton, The Whitesidewalls and original Cricket Nikki Sullivan. The Hatter made it into a media event by giving away hundreds of tickets to media types from across the country. And so it began…the first memorial concert dubbed “The Tribute to Buddy Holly Concert” took place on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1979.

Unfortunately, the event lost $4,000, but it didn’t take long for word of the good times to spread or for the event to sustain itself…and the rest has carved its niche in rock history. The event ultimately has evolved into a celebration of the music of the fifties and early sixties, when the concerts expanded to a 2-day event format back in 1980 when the first Friday night “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” was held in the ballroom of the local Holiday Motor Inn (now the Best Western Holiday Lodge), featuring a performance by The Rondells. In subsequent years through 1989 – the last KZEV-sponsored tribute – the Tea Party was held at the Surf Ballroom on the first Friday and Saturday evenings in February.

By the mid-1980s, the Surf Ballroom was sponsoring some “warm-up activities” on Thursday nights, such as the “Darrel Hein Hospitality Night” on Feb. 5, 1987. By 1992, these became incorporated officially into the annual “tribute weekend” when it became a 3-day affair with a Friday night sock-hop and the six hour-plus Saturday night concert.

…and continues today!

Today, the event has been further expanded to include a Wednesday night concert to accommodate even more rock ‘n roll fans. Hatter is credited with building an internationally renowned event.

Our small town ballroom has been covered by NBC, ABC, CBS, Entertainment Tonight, PBS, the BBC, Associated Press, UPI and more than 400 radio stations throughout the United States.

Perhaps a plaque given to Darryl by the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in 1999 says it best: “In recognition and appreciation of your bold and visionary efforts from conception to production of the first annual Buddy Holly Tribute. Because of your efforts, the music will never die.” Thank you, Darryl, for a tradition that we hope lasts forever!