On my way out of Minnesota, I had a couple more big, goofy statues to take in. In Rochester, at a food processing plant, is a water tower painted (and rather effectively, too) to resemble a giant ear of corn. Further west and south, in the little burg of Blue Earth, is a life-sized Jolly Green Giant. I enjoyed seeing him and watching some young children ooh and ahh when they first caught sight of this emerald goliath.
I also experienced the thrill and wonder of a Spam museum. Actually, it's not, strictly speaking, a Spam museum; it celebrates the many culinary contributions offered over the years by the Hormel Meat Co. but let's face it, there's not a one among us who would place another meat by-product above this tasty delight in the pantheon of canned animal treats. It was Spam that put Hormel on the canned meat map and it was Spam that drew me to this mall (a mall?) on the outskirts of Austin, Minnesota. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to pay homage to this most mysterious of mystery meats.
In the end, to be frank, I was somewhat disappointed in the exhibit. I had hoped that the Hormel folks might come clean and spill the beans, so to speak, as to what exactly comprises Spam but no such info was forthcoming. Instead, the history of the company was the focal point. On view is a panorama of product advertising used over the years and artifacts along the lines of the company founder's personal desk and a company bowling shirt from the '50s. Not a hint of hog viscera but don't let that sway you away from paying a visit. After all, admission is free and if the stars are with you, you may find that the Foot Locker just a short, climate-controlled stroll away is having a sale on Reeboks.
That evening, in Clear Lake, Iowa, I visited the Surf Ballroom. This is a delightful place. Built originally in the '30s on the shores of said lake, it was a haven for big bands and their jitterbugging fans. The original edifice burned down in the early '40s and was replaced by the current structure in 1948. It looks today much as it did the night it opened and once again features live music for your (and my) dancing pleasure several nights a week.
All the greats of the swing era appeared at the Surf at one time or another - Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller (at the original Surf, natch), Duke Ellington, Count Basie. The room is designed to suggest a beachside cabana; the booths and tables that surround the dance floor are covered by low hanging ceilings, the walls are painted with murals depicting palm trees, the beach and the ocean by moonlight. When one steps out from under the shelter of the cabana to take a spin on the dance floor, a glance skyward reveals clouds slowly rolling across the heavens (the ceiling, in this case), furthering the illusion of a summer evening spent seaside.
The Surf is perhaps now best remembered as the site of the Buddy Holly's final concert. Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died a few miles outside of town as the small plane that was taking them to their next gig crashed. Outside the Surf stands a monument to these pioneer rock'n'rollers and it is Holly's legacy that draws most tourists to this spot.
For my money, though, it is the ballroom's big band past that appeals. On this night, a seven-piece combo plays such favorites as String of Pearls and Stompin' at the Savoy while a throng of 50-, 60-, and even 70-somethings cut a rug, albeit a bit slowly. I asked the Surf's current owner, a personable gentleman named Bruce, if he ever brings in some of the ongoing big-name bands. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, now led by Buddy Morrow, made a recent appearance, he said, but he hasn't booked the Glenn Miller band. It seems the Miller outfit isn't amenable to the notion of slowing down the tempo of those great Miller favorites a bit to accommodate the slightly slower pace these aging jitterbuggers now require.
I thoroughly enjoyed my night at the Surf, even though I went stag. I didn't get a dance the whole evening; all the ladies seemed to have escorts. The Surf certainly deserves a BRETTnews Highlight Attraction Award. Pay a visit when you're in Iowa. While there's no telling what music may be featured (it could be big band, country, '50s rock 'n' roll, or even polkas), I can guarantee you'll fondly remember this trip back in time.
Continue on the American Odyssey.
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