Dear Paul McCartney, you still can visit the Surf Ballroom (just like Buddy Holly)
Published Jan. 26, 2018
CLEAR LAKE, Ia. — Don’t worry, Sir Paul McCartney. You still have time to make a pilgrimage to the Surf Ballroom, Iowa’s shrine to the early American rock ‘n’ roll that influenced you to pick up your first guitar and make a racket.
A very nice racket, I might add, except for the occasional dud by Wings.
You might have heard that the owner of the Surf died earlier this month. Dean Snyder, 87, had been battling cancer but refused to slow down until he had exhausted every last fiber of his being.
The restless businessman owned the north Iowa ballroom where on Feb. 2, 1959, rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson played their final show before their plane took off from Mason City and at about 1 a.m. Feb. 3 plowed into a barren field north of Clear Lake.
But you already know this. That tragedy was immortalized as “The Day the Music Died” by Don McLean.
And your publishing company smartly holds the rights to Holly’s timeless songs.
But you probably know much less, if anything, about Snyder. He already had started his construction company the year before the plane crash.
It grew to include his three sons and numerous other family members among its 200 employees and a second office in Ankeny. They build grocery stores for Fareway, or plants for Oscar Meyer (Missouri) and Velveeta (Minnesota).
So Snyder’s death was the opposite of Holly’s: The rocker’s life, like that of Valens and the Bopper, was cut brutally short before he reached his prime or fulfilled his artistic promise.
But Snyder was able to look back on his influence and see how he literally had transformed the landscape of his community and industry.
And now their legacies are intertwined. History can get weird like that.
Snyder Construction is in the midst of plenty of succession-planning in the wake of its patriarch’s death.
Walk in the front door of the office in Clear Lake and you don’t see any signed guitars behind glass like you do at the Surf. But the centerpiece on the counter is an upside-down construction helmet that brims full of Snyder’s favorite candy, Bit-O-Honey.
As long as this company thrives, and the family hands down a passion for the Surf as part of its heritage, then the imprint of Holly and early rock 'n' roll on north Iowa should remain secure.
'That lease will outlive all of us'
When and why did Snyder buy the Surf? He was gently persuaded in 1994 by a friend who at that time was among the ownership group.
In a lake town that relies on resort traffic throughout the warm months, does any sort of mover and shaker really want to give up a crown jewel that draws flocks of tourists in the dead of winter?
Not to mention the accumulated sentimental value of how the building spawned countless romances and marriages? A place where Snyder and his wife, Joanne, loved to dance?
So Snyder and family became the Surf’s caretaker.
He liked to tell people: "If she liked to fish, I would have bought her a fishing pole. But she liked to dance, so I bought her the Surf."
After juggling various lease and management models, it was a decade ago that Snyder and allies finally forged a nonprofit to operate the ballroom. That entity (the North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum) signed a 99-year lease.
“That lease will outlive all of us that are involved at this point,” said Laurie Lietz, the executive director since the nonprofit launched.
I caught her Wednesday in the Surf lounge, working with a Snyder employee to clear space to repaint walls and add a signed guitar from Brian Setzer.
Wayne Christgau shuffled by, pushing a cart full of plastic cups. He began working at the Surf at the start of the Snyder era and never quit.
If you’ve already made your clandestine visit to the Surf, Sir Paul, then you did a good job of keeping it quiet. I can't find a single person in Clear Lake who thinks you slipped in.
So, I assume you’ve never stood inside the ballroom, where fake palm trees flank the stage.
My favorite spot remains the backstage room with white walls covered floor to ceiling with the signatures of decades of performers. Every time I study the walls I spot something new, like on this visit: "Try Chuck Berry, jackass!"
My own life as an Iowa journalist has involved a lot of time at the Surf.
For instance, In 2005 I attended the first gig here by Waylon Jennings’ son, Shooter. Waylon Jennings toured with Holly, nearly boarded the deadly 1959 flight and remained haunted by it.
A decade ago a bunch of my colleagues and I produced a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what we called "the Crash that Changed Rock 'n' Roll."
I tell everybody that I’ve never been colder than shortly after midnight Feb. 3, 2009, when I shivered at the frigid crash site, shooting shaky video as a throng of crazy fans sang “American Pie,” circled around a bonfire, passed a bottle and watched tourist planes soar overhead.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame filmed that year’s ballroom concert, with footage of Graham Nash and a whole lineup of stars (including Peter Asher, older brother to your 1960s girlfriend Jane) that languishes somewhere in a vault.
Organizers also supposedly managed to slip a note into the guitar case of your American pal Bruce Springsteen during his halftime performance at that year’s Super Bowl.
A plane was waiting to fly him directly to the Surf to join the 50th anniversary if he so desired, but he didn't take them up on the offer.
That week I remember accidentally elbowing a woman in the back of the head at the Surf as I walked through a row of chairs — only to realize during my apology that it was Maria Elena, Holly’s widow.
Snyder was a constant presence at the Surf. His granddaughter Chelsy remembers helping him scrape garbage bins full of gum from beneath the booth tables. Or how he scrubbed the floor after concerts.
And he showed up not only for the vintage dance bands. Snyder would insert earplugs to sample all kinds of “hard metal or acid rock stuff,” his son Dale said.
My favorite detail is the family's story of Snyder’s reaction to an Alice Cooper show at the Surf. When asked what he thought of the prototypical shock rocker’s spectacle, Snyder remarked that, yes, it was loud and colorful.
“But, boy,” he added, “was that woman ugly!”
So, here we are at another Winter Dance Party to commemorate Iowa's most famous chapter in rock lore that doesn’t involve Ozzy Osbourne’s taste for bat meat.
Recent months have seen not only Snyder’s death but also that of Darryl “the Mad Hatter” Hensley, the DJ who in 1979 founded this annual tradition of reunion concerts. He died in September in a bicycle crash in Burlington.
Last year, Holly bassist Tommy Allsup died just before the Winter Dance Party where he was scheduled to perform.
In 2016 it was Jerry Dwyer, the owner of the plane that crashed.
So, as the Surf looks back and inevitably loses more of the characters central to its story, it also remains a living, breathing venue.
Lietz knows that country music remains the big seller for her rural Iowa audience, forming the backbone of what last year was a lineup of 36 concerts.
Snyder’s funeral reception was held here at the Surf with some 450 mourners. He will be honored again during the Winter Dance Party.
Next year brings the 60th anniversary of the crash.
The Snyders recently purchased the ranch house across the street that was home to Carl Fox, builder of the Surf. It had been vacant for decades.
Fox died in 1966, yet what was assumed to be his shaving razor and jar still sat inside the bathroom medicine cabinet.
They also found gorgeous black and white photos of what had been the original Surf of the pre-Holly era. That wooden ballroom was built on the lake shore in 1933 and burned to the ground in 1947.
The current Surf was built across the street in 1948.
Now the ballroom's roof needs to be replaced. The original cast-iron plumbing will need relining. And Fox's former home will be fashioned into a companion museum.
So the Surf's future, for now, seems secure.
But the Snyder family’s No. 1 bucket-list item remains to somehow convince you, Sir Paul, to make a visit to a space that I imagine for the Beatles would be similar to country artists walking inside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
I know you may want to celebrate Holly’s life, not his death. But let me emphasize that this dot on the Iowa map has become just that — a reaffirmation of all the strangers who have convened and become an extended family.
They responded to tragedy by nurturing a positive presence in one of the unlikeliest of places.
And a visit by you, Sir Paul, is “still our dream,” Dale said.
You still have time.
But to be fair, you probably have less time than the Surf.
Bring Springsteen, if you want.
Musician Paul McCartney poses with a Buddy Holly Look-a-like at a Buddy tribute dinner in London.
January 01, 1990