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August 19, 2019

Kayla Breese/River News

Nearly 60 years after he watched the legendary Buddy Holly perform on the Crystal Rock stage, Neale Winker, right, explores the old ballroom on U.S. Highway 8 near Rhinelander while Mark Steuer records the visit.
Kayla Breese/River News

Nearly 60 years after he watched the legendary Buddy Holly perform on the Crystal Rock stage, Neale Winker, right, explores the old ballroom on U.S. Highway 8 near Rhinelander while Mark Steuer records the visit.
5/11/2016 7:30:00 AM
Not Fade Away: 'Holly Buddies' make pilgrimage to Crystal Rock
Legendary singer played local ballroom in 1958

Kayla Thomason
Feature Writer

A group of six Buddy Holly fans took a musical road trip recently to visit the venues where the famous musician and his band "The Crickets" performed before his untimely death in a plane crash. Last Friday, the group, known as the Holly Buddies, explored Crystal Rock near Rhinelander. Holly played there in July 1958 when the former roller rink was a ballroom.

A real estate agent guided the group through the old building into the bar area which is filled with memorabilia, including ads and flyers mentioning the various bands that took the stage there.

Records hang from the ceiling, slowly rotating on their strings above a red bar with a black countertop.

"It's just amazing, you can smell the place - it's a little musty but we expected that - and it's like a time warp," said Mark Steuer, who was 5 1/2 years old when Buddy Holly died in February 1959. "You go in here and you just see the old records and there's posters up here and records hanging from the ceiling and you don't see that everywhere."

After a short hunt for the light switch to the roller rink, the group migrated into the large, open room with records hanging from the ceiling and worn, painted wood floors underfoot.

The lights - both black, colored and plain - slowly turned on, as if they were waking from a slumber.

They softly illuminated a small stage, complete with metal work displaying the name "Crystal Rock."

On the gray walls are signs like "rough road" and the arrow for curve, as well as musical notes, a streetlight and records of varying sizes.

Steuer filmed the event and interviewed those in his party as they explored the ballroom.

"We're just trying to keep the spirit alive of the music, the old ballrooms," he said. "I'm into historic preservation so I want to see places like this remain if it can. I know it costs money and you have to find a use for it."

Steuer said he has been to about 20 different places filming footage for a documentary that his friend - who is a documentarian - is going to help him put together.

"Most people that we have talked to are really intrigued by a trip like this, they're kind of going 'Wow, Buddy Holly, that was 55 years ago, from Texas and he was playing in a little town in northern Wisconsin in the middle of nowhere type thing. Like wow, how did that happen?'" he said.

One of the men Steuer interviewed was Neale Winker of Tomahawk. Winker was in attendance when Holly played Crystal Rock on July 13, 1958. He was 17 years old.

It was the only time he saw Buddy Holly perform, and he hasn't forgotten how lively the concert was.

"It was very good, a lot of energy," Winker said. "The guy sounded just like the records."

Winker remembers Holly singing some of his classics like "Think it Over," "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Rave On," and "Oh Boy."

Winker even had a brief encounter with Holly after the concert. He shared the story with Steuer on camera.

Across the street from Crystal Rock stands a closed gas station, but back in the day there was a bar there. Winker saw Holly and his group pull into the bar's parking lot, and about a half hour later they went over.

"We looked in the car and Buddy Holly was sleeping in the backseat and I rapped on the window and he got up, put his glasses on and they came out the side door and said 'let him get some rest,'" Winker recalled.

Winker went to Crystal Rock a few times after that to roller skate, but it has been years since the last time he stepped foot in the facility. He thought it was a bit eerie to be back in the once-lively building.

Steuer praised Buddy Holly's contributions to rock and roll music.

"He invented the rock n' roll setup, if you will, with lead guitar, rhythm guitar, drums and bass, which I found interesting," he said.

He added that Buddy Holly was a fan of Elvis Presley and had met him.

"He (Buddy Holly) said 'Without Elvis we wouldn't have been able to do what he did,'" Steuer recalled. "One of the things we say is Elvis was the King of Rock n' Roll, but he never played his own music, he used the guitar as a prop, it was Buddy Holly, there was a technique called the 'brush and broom technique' where he could take his hand and pull it down and up and get a very distinctive sound."

An example of this technique can be heard in the guitar break in "Peggy Sue."

"Buddy's music is just very happy music," Steuer said.

Despite a tragically short career of only 18 or 19 months, the talented artist wrote and produced over 50 songs, including "Not Fade Away."

The conditions Holly and "The Crickets" had to endure were terrible. Their tour bus was having frequent breakdowns, the heating was busted which caused freezing and even frostbite to some of the band members.

"After playing in Clear Lake, Iowa, which was the Surf Ballroom, he (Buddy Holly) was so fed up with the bus breakdowns and everything he chartered a plane from Mason City, Iowa, and it was about a five-minute flight and the pilot thought he was flying up and he was actually flying down into the snow," Steuer said. "(They) crashed in a cornfield."

Holly, 22, Ritchie Valens, 17, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, 28, and the pilot, Roger Peterson, 21, died in the crash.

The crash took place only a day and a half after they played a show in Green Bay. They were 11 stops into a 24-date tour, and the rest of the band had to continue without those who died.

The day of the crash, Feb. 3, 1959, became known as "The Day the Music Died," as immortalized by singer-songwriter Don McLean in his 1971 song "American Pie."

Winker is a friend of Don Larson, one of the other Holly Buddies, and that's how he learned the group was going to visit Crystal Rock.

"I'm one of the foremost experts in the world on Buddy Holly, and I guess I've made a life's love situation of knowing everything about him," Larson said.

He was standing next to Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper a week before the plane crashed. When he heard the news he was devastated.

He later met The Crickets in 1978 when "The Buddy Holly Story" movie came out.

He knew Holly's parents and siblings, and The Crickets have been his friends for 38 years, he said.

"They're not a band to me, they're just my friends," he said.

In 1989 Larson recreated Holly's 1959 tour.

"We drove 2,764 miles in 11 days, we did record hops in each one of the towns," he said.

He is amazed to retrace the band's steps and visit the venues where they once performed, even if some of the facilities have been demolished or - in better cases - turned into museums to commemorate the bands that had performed there.

"Just to see these things after all these years and the Crystal Rock still here, that's just unbelievable," Larson said.

He recalled a time when he was growing up in the rock and roll years when people couldn't go to the ballrooms in jeans.

"They had ads in the paper advertising the event and it said 'dress right to feel right,' and you wore decent clothes, you couldn't wear cutoffs or frayed pants and stuff like that," he said.

The ads even said that parents were admitted free.

"On the ad, when I saw Buddy Holly on Jan. 26, 1959 in Eau Claire, that's what they had on the ad in the paper, it said 'parents admitted free,'" he recalled.

Steuer has also met many of Holly's musicians and friends and has their autographs. He said he also enjoys meeting fellow Holly fans. "It's amazing, and we get to meet people like Neale Winker, and I think through this tragedy we've met hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the country and all over the world who just are into the music and we become friends," he said.

Kayla Breese may be reached at kayla@

Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Article comment by: Dick Graham

Back in June, 1986 I flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and traveled through Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. I also visited a few of the ballrooms and venues where Buddy and the Crickets performed. To my recollection, I went to the Surf in Clear Lake, the Prom in St. Paul just to see the outside, the Electric Park Ballroom and McElroy Auditorium in Waterloo, Iowa, and also the Crystal Rock. I also attended the wedding of Neal Winker’s friend, Joe Beutner. I enjoyed my visit and had to fly back to Charlotte, NC the next day and just did a drive by at the Prom Ballroom.
As I recall, Bobby Vee’s wife and daughter attended the wedding but couldn’t stay for the night. Since the groom’s family had already paid for the hotel rooms for the guests and Mrs. Vee couldn’t stay, I was offered the room. I offered to reimburse the family for the room but they wouldn’t hear of it.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Beutner Family for the accommodation.

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2017
Article comment by: Tammy Pierchoski

My Grandparents, Frank and Gladys Loduha BUILT and ran the Crystal Rock when all of this occurred! I would be very interested in speaking with someone regarding the Rock and what condition it is in or anyone who can share history with us. We are traveling from Tennessee with my Grandma to celebrate her 92nd Birthday in Rhinelander Feb. 6 with remaining family and friends and would love to see it again! Please contact me with any info you could share with us! Sweet memories Grandma shares of performers including Johnny Cash and so many others...who played the Rock and stayed at their cabins next to their home on Crescent Lake....may be a good time for an interview with her? Thank you for sharing this! Kindest Regards, Tammy Pierchoski

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Article comment by: Mavis Winkler

Terrific article! My mom took my sister to Crystal Rock and I remember I had to stay in the car (I was only 8 years old). There's others in the Rhinelander area that could add to Mr. Winker's story. I often think, "what a shame the kids nowadays are missing so much!"

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