This joint was jumpin’

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played their final Fort Dodge sets 60 years ago at the Laramar

For most of its 115 years, this joint was jumpin’ — as it was 60 years ago today when the Winter Dance Party and its headliners — Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts — performed on its stage on a cold, snowy night in Fort Dodge.

It was the Laramar Ballroom, and some 1,000 fans crowded into the downtown building at 710 First Avenue North to watch, dance and sing along as the musicians played their hit songs — never imagining that a few days later, in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959, three of them — Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson Jr. and Valens — would die in a plane crash after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.

“The whole show was great. Little did we know that this was the last time we would see them,” said Wes Trickel, of Fort Dodge, who was at the Laramar with his wife, Bertha, that night and got to meet Richardson and Valens. “We were so sad when we heard the news that we all never wanted to believe what had happened.”

That tragic moment on a wintry night in a cornfield north of Clear Lake was “the day the music died” as Don McLean would sing in his 1971 classic “American Pie.”

But until the last few years, there was still plenty of music left to play at the Laramar — later known as the Plamor and then the Twilight Ballroom before becoming the Laramar again. The old brick building that started as the Fort Dodge Armory in 1904 is now vacant, up for sale. Asking price, $169,000.

“We’ve had lookers but no buyers,” said Jim Kesterson, of Kesterson Realty, the listing agent for the building’s owner, Anhelo Inc.

“Some of them were members of bands who played there. There have been family members who reminisce and think, wouldn’t it be great to bring it back? But it can’t be a pipe dream. It’s got to be a business you spend money on. It’s a big building to have dance lessons once a week. To get it going again, you need something that would pay the bills six days a week.”

For the thousands who frequented the ballroom over the years, the brick building with loft seating that rings the wooden dance floor holds many special memories. For some, like Joan and Harold Horn, or Moe and Ray Pickett, it was where they met their future spouse. Jayne Manchester Cassidy recalls first meeting her husband, Mike, there in 1989. “He was new to town and decided he would ask three women he didn’t know to dance with him that night. I was lucky number 3. I’m sure that’s where many couples met over the years.”

Many of the top performers of the day — playing all genre of music — mesmerized their audiences. And newbies to the dance floor were introduced to the “trap.” Today, the kids and grandkids of those who lived through that era might roll their eyes in disbelief on the trap, perhaps unique to Fort Dodge?

A trap would be set up by three or more girls or three or more boys, who would wander through the dance floor and surround a dancing couple. If it was a guy trap, the girl dancing would choose one of those in the trap or stay with her partner. If it was a girl trap, the guy dancing would choose one of those in trap or stay with his partner. “Loved the traps,” said Penny Miller. “The girls had a code if they were dancing with someone and wanted a different partner. When a girls’ trap passed by, you would say to one of the girls, ‘How is your mother?’ That meant come back and circle us. Hopefully the guy would then pick someone else. So did the guys have a similar code? I hope so. Otherwise this sounds a little mean now. Or maybe the guy was thankful too.”

Some remember a Laramar bouncer of the late 1960s — John Matuszak, a football player at Fort Dodge Junior College for one season who later became the No. 1 pick in the 1973 NFL draft and went on to appear on television and in movies. (He died in 1989 at age 38.)

In recent years, as the Laramar struggled for an identity, it has been used for a variety of purposes: as a site for weddings, mixed martial arts bouts and as a Spanish bar with music and dancing.

Music was part of the building’s DNA from the outset, when it was built after $8,000 was raised so that Company G, 56th Infantry would have a place for a regimental band under the direction of Carl Quist to rehearse and perform.

The end of World War I marked an upswing across the country in ballrooms where people would gather to dance to the new music of the times. The Jazz Era was where they got their start and the 1930s and 40s were the highpoint of the ballroom era. Ballrooms, some elegant and some plain, could be found in the biggest cities or smallest rural areas. All shared a common denominator of music and dancing.

During the two World Wars, soldiers were drafted at the armory and ration books were issued there to Fort Dodge residents. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many were worried that armories would be attacked so soldiers were stationed around the building. Over the years, the ballroom was the scene of many charity balls, police and firemen’s balls, craft shows, reunions, banquets and much more.

The armory was purchased by Larry and Margaret Geer from the Chamber of Commerce around the time they were married in 1938, said their son, Bob Geer, of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. His father had operated the ballroom at the armory since the 1920s, possibly before. Their first names — Larry and Margaret — were merged to create the name Laramar. They sold the business, but not the name, around 1964, when it became the Plamor for the next eight years.

Among the artists who performed at the Laramar were Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, the Glenn Miller orchestra, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Lawrence Welk. Geer said that on one of Welk’s appearances, his father had to gift Welk enough money for gas for him and his five-piece band to get to their next stop.

In the ’50s-’60s teen era, performers included Bobby Vee, Tommy James and the Shondells, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Four Preps, Freddie Cannon, Jimmy Clanton, the Crew Cuts, the Everly Brothers, the Diamonds, the Fabulous Flippers — and more.

“In those days,” Geer said, “they could fill the house. Costs were significantly less to travel on bus to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other Midwest states. It was all about getting publicity and getting their records exposed.”

Jack Grandgeorge, of Fort Dodge, recalls watching the Everly Brothers perform at the Laramar and then going to the Green Garter restaurant afterward. “I was surprised when the brothers and eight or so others walked in to dine. Caused quite a stir in the building. The Green Garter was located on Old U.S. Highway 20, Fifth Ave South, south side of the road perhaps where the Ford dealership is currently located. It was rather novel for the time — each table had a phone which you used to place your order.”

Geer was 15 at the time of the Winter Dance Party performance in 1959 and as the son of the owners, it was not his first chance to be around big stars. One of his lasting memories: “I helped Johnny Cash climb through a back window and back stairway to his dressing room one night, to get through the crowds.”

About 1,000 people were on hand that night 60 years ago, with the balcony reserved for adult spectators and the dance floor for teens only, Geer said. The 11 performers arrived late on an old bus that didn’t have a heater that worked. One of the members of Holly’s Crickets band was future country star Waylon Jennings.

The book, “The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens — and the Fatal Air Crash That Took Their Lives” detailed the musicians’ appearance at the Laramar. Here is part of the entry:

“Fort Dodge (pop. 28,000) had come under the intense scrutiny of health officials after a mysterious virus spread rapidly through the city in November. As many as two thousand Fort Dodge residents had been stricken with the virus, which caused nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. A team of federal health officials descended on the city in January in an all-out effort to determine the source of the virus.

“When it was discovered that the pet dog in many families was stricken with similar symptoms, the Iowa state veterinarian was dispatched to the city to take case histories of the sick dogs.

“The Winter Dance Party bus with its balky heater slipped through the winter darkness in temperatures in the low teens and with two inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground, en route to a concert in a city full of sick people and dogs.”

A child of the ballroom’s next owners, Sheri Derrig, of Council Bluffs, said the ballroom “was almost like a second home for me” when her parents, Lee and Dick Derrig, purchased the Laramar in 1972 and owned and operated it as the Twilight Ballroom for the next 13 years.

Sheri’s sister, Cyndee Carlson, a Fort Dodge realtor, doesn’t want the period of their parents’ ownership of the Twilight to be overlooked. “Please don’t forget it was the Twilight Ballroom for 13 years. I know that the ballroom’s ‘claim to fame’ is the Buddy Holly appearance. But music-wise and contribution to Fort Dodge-wise, the Twilight was such a popular place during its years as well. Many artists from the ’50s and ’60s played there during my parents’ ownership as well. … Bobby Vee, Tommy James, The Coasters and some others I don’t remember.”

Sheri worked the coat check in her junior high years, later waitressed and helped setting up and serving at wedding receptions and other events. Her mother was also a cake decorator “so they had like a one-stop shop for receptions.

“I remember helping my parents clean the ballroom on Sundays after the Saturday night dances and my dad would always run down the street to Amos & Andy’s (another old Fort Dodge favorite) and get us coneys. Sometimes if my parents were running behind I got to go to the ballroom and let the bands in so they could set up for the dance and do sound checks and such. I always liked doing that.

“On occasion, after a dance we would go out to breakfast. I remember one time, when the Cleavettes were in town, there was a big snowstorm so the band ended up sleeping the night at the ballroom.  The Cleavettes were always my personal favorite. They were kind of like big brothers to me. They played there nearly every month for most of the years my parents owned the ballroom so they were pretty good friends and some still are to this day even.”

Rock n’ Roll wasn’t all the Laramar offered. Recalled Alice Johnson of Fort Dodge: “I remember distinctly all the old-time dances on Thursday nights. We ‘regular’ ones had a ball. Loved the Circle Two dances as well as the polkas and waltzes. We made a lot of friends there from the surrounding area. One of our favorite polka bands was Kenny Hofer, another was the Malek Fisherman. Oh yes, we also enjoyed the square dances. Have many good memories!”

Jorge Blanco, whose family owns Blanco roofing business in Fort Dodge, purchased the Laramar 6-8 years ago, “more as a hobby for him,” said one of his sons, Daniel. “He loved music and he liked being in the mix of things. … Whoever buys it may change it completely or try to keep the nostalgia going. But artists don’t come cheap. A comedy club might be great. But whatever the use, it’s going to take money to renovate it. We know it’s not going to be sold in a hurry.”

It has been vacant for the past 14 months, since it was a venue for Spanish music and dancing, Daniel Blanco said.

Sheri Derrig wishes she was able to continue her family’s ownership.

“I wish I were rich and could buy it and restore it,” she said. “I loved that place!”