After the music died, the tour went on to Illinois
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA firstname.lastname@example.org February 7, 2013 9:12PM
Filmmakers James McCool (left) and Sevan Garabedian on stage at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. | Dave Hoekstra~Sun-Times
Updated: March 10, 2013 6:09AM
CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — The deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper are a well known chapter in rock ‘n’ roll history, popularized in such movies as “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978), which garnered an Oscar nomination for Gary Busey, and “La Bamba” (1987) with Lou Diamond Phillips.
What is less known is that the “Winter Dance Party” tour continued after the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash that killed the three young rock stars and their pilot.
The night after the crash in Clear Lake, the show went on with Bobby Vee as the new headliner at the Armory in Moorehead, Minn., the destination which Holly was in a hurry to get to.
Today’s artists will cancel a tour for a hangnail or a hangover.
“The Winter Dance Party” then moved into Illinois, hitting the Les Buzz Ballroom in Spring Valley on Feb. 7, Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on Feb. 8, a Valentine’s Day show at the Armory in Peoria and finally a Feb. 15 gig at the Illinois State Armory in Springfield.
Independent filmmakers Sevan Garabedian and James McCool have spent the last five years working on the documentary “Gotta Travel On: The Winter Dance Party Odyssey” that chronicles the tour. The film is slated for release later this year.
The filmmakers have found fans who attended 22 of the tour’s 24 dates. Garabedian, 37, and McCool, 38, have not located any fans who were at the Aragon show. (They are also looking for more fans were at the other Illinois dates.)
“The undertone of our film is how professional these guys were and how different the time was,” said Garabedian, who lives in Montreal. “Three of their friends had died. The drummer [Carl Bunch] was in the hospital with terrible frostbite. And literally the night their friends died, they played. We have pictures of Waylon Jennings crying at the mike. It became ‘The Show Must Go On,’ but it also became a tribute to those guys. Something like that will never happen again.”
Garabedian met McCool, a resident of Madison, Wis., on a Buddy Holly fansite. McCool has been a dispatcher for Wisconsin Aviation since 1999. He has meticulously researched the crash of the four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza that carried the musicians.
“We’re the only production ever to interview six of the surviving musicians from the tour,” he said. “Frankie Sardo [opening act], Carl Bunch, Tommy Allsup [Holly’s lead guitarist]. We’ve interviewed fans from all of the cities. It is the most comprehensive study of the tour ever done. Robert Zimmerman [later Bob Dylan] was at the Duluth show [Jan. 31, 1959 at the Duluth Armory]. We interviewed his classmates, who were there. There’s still magic when you go in those old armories and ballrooms.
Dave Hansen is an Emmy-winning former Mason City television anchorman who is assisting Garabedian and McCool with the production. He said, “In these armories and ballrooms there was no barricade, physical or metaphorical, separating the audience. The Surf is one of the few places where the roots of rock ’n’ roll reside.”
Newspaper coverage of post-crash concerts was unlike anything readers would see today. The Illinois State Register’s Feb. 16, 1959, review, “Rock n’ Roll Party Attracts Squealing Teen-Agers to Armory,” talked of 8,000 fans attending matinee and evening shows. (The Springfield, concerts were the last stop of the tour.) Mention of the fatal plane crash was seven long paragraphs into the story. Instead, writer Wayne Allen observed:
“... In the two-hour matinee go-round most singers overloaded the microphones by working too close, electronically speaking. However, the headache amplifying did not faze an adoring audience, many of who appeared to be way beyond Bufferin. It was loud, Daddy, but that’s the way teen-agers prefer it ... .”
Hansen smiled and said, “Back then it was sunny side up, dirty side down.”
Valens’ sisters, Connie Lemos and Erma Norton, have cooperated with the documentary, but the Holly family remains out of the loop. Garabedian said, “We haven’t been involved with the Holly family. The whole subject of his death and the tour is very emotional for his brothers Travis and Larry.”
NOTE: Fans who were at the Feb. 8, 1959, “Winter Dance Party” at the Aragon Ballroom should contact Sevan Garabedian at email@example.com. or firstname.lastname@example.org. The filmmakers are also offering a reward for any more photos from the Feb. 2, 1959, Surf Ballroom show.