Discovering, Iowa

Tour the Historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa

Both history and music buffs will love a tour of the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Learn how the Historic Surf Ballroom played a huge part in music history and why it continues to draw the biggest music acts even today!

Tour the Historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake

Where is Clear Lake, Iowa?

Clear Lake, Iowa is in Northern Iowa with a population of less than 8,00 people. Clear Lake is 110 miles east of Okoboji, 115 miles north of Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. From Mankato, Clear Lake is 97 miles south.

The Day That Music Died

The now Historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa was largely made famous due to a tragic event that took place after a musical performance of four up-and-coming musicians. Don McClean wrote the song American Pie which symbolizes the ‘loss of innocence’ of this 1959 era.

Winter Dance Party Tour

The Winter Dance Party tour was a 24-gig tour (in as many nights). Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper”, Ritchie Valens, Waylon Jennings, and Dion made up the band. The band referred to it as the “Tour From Hell” as it zig-zagged all over the tri-state area.

performers at surf ballroom musical history surf ballroom
The hallways and rooms are lined with photos of the performers over the decades at the Surf Ballroom.

Why is The Surf Ballroom Special?

In just about any city, present-day concerts include $75 + tickets in a stadium of thousands of fans, $12 beers, and nachos. The Surf Ballroom’s capacity is just 2,100 people in the 30,000-square-foot venue. It has to be pure magic to see and listen to musicians in this quaint, historic ballroom. The shows are General Admission and range from $20-$30. The lineup of musicians who have graced the stage at the Surf Ballroom also makes it pretty special.

musical history surf ballroom original coat check
The original coat check near the entrance. Note that it cost $1 to check coats.
They did not resume responsibility for fur coats that were checked. The carpet is a replica of the original carpet.

Surf Ballroom Points of Interest

Here are some fascinating things we learned on our tour of The Surf Ballroom. Read this article for more history on the Surf Ballroom.

  • The original location of the Ballroom was built in 1934 across the street from its current location.
  • A fire destroyed the original building in 1947.
  • The current building which is across the street is an exact duplicate of the original.
  • Originally a big band venue, Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey, and Glen Miller are just a few of the big names that played at the Surf Ballroom.
  • “Ocean beach club” is the theme. There is very much a “Beach Boys” vibe throughout.
  • The Surf Ballroom is a registered historic landmark,
  • The Ballroom was inducted into the 2009 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
  • The coat check and booths are all from 1948.
  • Lights above booths indicate an occupied booth or if a waitress is needed.
  • The carpet and hand-painted wallpapers are replicas of 1959, The Day That Music Died.
  • The wooden dance floor is original. Imagine the stories these floors could tell!
  • The phone that Buddy Holly used the night of the crash is on display.
  • All current shows at The Surf are general admission.
  • The Winter Dance Party was revived in 1979. The 4-day event takes place over the anniversary weekend of the plane crash.

musical history surf ballroom memorabilia
The walls are lined with memorabilia of musicians who have performed at the Surf Ballroom.

The Infamous Green Room

The green room sits just off-stage. There must be thousands of signatures! The Green Room is right next to the stage. Imagine the likes of Santana, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Alice Cooper, The Doobie Brothers, BB King, ZZ Top, Martina McBride, Lynryd Skynyrd, Gene Simmons, Kevin Costner, and countless others sitting in this green room in Clear Lake, Iowa!

Here is a close-up of the message that singer and songwriter Don McClean left on the green room wall.

musical history surf ballroom Don McLean signature and message in Green Room

Details at Historic Surf Ballroom

musical history surf ballroom original ballroom floor

Imagine if these floors could talk! This is the floor that attendees would stand on below the stage.

Original booth seating still exists today.

musical history surf ballroom booth seating

One doesn’t have to imagine what the bathrooms looked like in 1959 because they look exactly the same! Imagine all the women in their poodle skirts in this bathroom.

musical history surf ballroom ladies bathroom

A week before we toured the Surf Ballroom (2019) Gene Simmons of Kiss performed here at the Surf Ballroom. He tweeted out this picture. Dusty likes knowing he and Gene Simmons once stood in the very same bathroom.

musical history surf ballroom urinals

Traveling through Iowa? Take a tour of the historic Amana Colonies!

Have you been to the Surf Ballroom, what was your favorite thing?

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Getting There:

Hours: Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends hours are Monday – Friday 8:00 am-4:00 pm Saturdays 9:00 am-1:00 pm and Sundays 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Admission: Self-Guided tours are available with a suggested $5 donation. Guided tours are $8 per person.


  1. The Day the Music Died - Where to Honor Musicians Who Died Too Young

    November 25, 2019 at 6:30 am

    […] Surf Ballroom offers guided tours and is a must for anyone who loves music. It’s amazing to see the draw this historic ballroom […]

  2. Stacy

    February 3, 2019 at 5:40 pm

    I love this post! You’ve really captured the history and atmosphere of the Surf Ballroom.

    1. Kelly & Dusty Ratcliff

      February 4, 2019 at 8:42 am

      Thank you, Stacy! It was such a neat place to experience.

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