The Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum attached to the new Roof Garden Ballroom at Arnolds Park celebrates the bands, musicians, disc jockeys and impresarios who pioneered and shaped rock and roll music across the state beginning in the 1950's. During our vacation in the Lake Okoboji region, I made it a point to stop in to the museum to pay homage to a number of friends and others who have been inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began in 1997 with the first induction class that included of D.J. and the Runaways, The Fendermen, disc jockeys Dic Youngs and Peter McClain from the original KIOA station radio in Des Moines, and Darlowe Oleson, the owner of the original Roof Garden Ballroom when some of the biggest names in rock in the 50's and 60's would play there.
The Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum is located on Lake Street in Arnolds Park, next to the Arnolds Park amusement park, just up the street from the pier on West Lake Okoboji (see map). It's open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., then it's open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday thru Saturday until the end of October. Winter hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday thru Saturday from the first part of November to the end of May. Cost to get into the museum is one measly buck.
The museum curator is Connie Mueller who was hired in 2011 taking over for longtime curator Doris Welle. Mueller has worked hard to update the exhibits, publish the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Yearbook, and to coordinate and produce the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony held each Labor Day weekend. Connie was on hand to greet us as we walked in just past 11 a.m. one weekday morning.
As I said, I have a handful of friends who have been inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - Bob Dorr, Jeff Peterson, Steve Hayes and other members of The Blue Band (Jeff had been previously inducted in the IRRHF with his band Headstone, and Bob for his work on KUNI Radio); Ralph Stephens, Donnie Myers, and John "Barney" Behm from the Deputy Dawg Band; Patrick Hazell, Steve Hayes (again!), Bo Ramsey and the late Rick Cicalo from The Mother Blues Band (Bo was also inducted for his solo work); Chuck Lannom, who was the original bass player for The Mojos out of Grinnell; and Tom Kingsbury from Flood Music in Sioux City, a pro dealer I used to call on years ago. Plaques celebrating their induction - and others - into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are on the east wall of the museum.
I had always heard about the Roof Garden Ballroom as a kid growing up. It sounded like a mystical place to go for a kid in his pre-teen years as I was getting exposed to rock and roll music growing up. Unfortunately, the original Rooftop Ballroom is no more, demolished due to old age in 1988.
It opened in June of 1923 and soon became one of the most famous Midwestern big band ballrooms in the 30's and 40's where the likes of Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong all played with their orchestras at the Roof Garden.
Pictured right, a 1929 aerial shot of the original Roof Garden Ballroom on the shores of West Okoboji Lake. Picture courtesy Iowa Ballroom.com
Original owner Dr. A.L. Peck sold the building to Darlowe Oleson in 1958. Oleson owned four other ballrooms across Iowa and he had the moxie to risk the wrath of conservative and church groups by booking rock and roll acts in his ballrooms, all of which were successful ventures. Oleson's ownership of the Roof Garden Ballroom ushered in a golden period for rock and roll music in Northwest Iowa. In addition to local and regional bands, the Roof Garden Ballroom also saw the likes of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) play there in the late 50's into the early 70's. Johnny Cash, The Monkees, and the Shangri-La's also played shows at the original Roof Garden. The Everly Brothers, who were both spent their formative years in Shenandoah, IA, played the Roof Garden Ballroom every year for seven years straight.
After a tornado demolished a portion of the ballroom in 1968, Oleson rebuilt the Roof Garden. However, Olesen tragically died in a plane crash in 1972. Fewer and fewer bands played the Roof Garden Ballroom after that. The ballroom fell into a state of disrepair and along with the amusement park next door, the Roof Garden closed for good in 1987. A year later, local fire departments burned down the original Roof Garden Ballroom for practice.
In 1989, some local people helped restore the amusement park, and then a few years later a new ballroom was built just south of the original Roof Garden. This is where the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has their induction ceremonies, and the museum has bands come in and play for the Roof Garden's "Rock the Roof" Thursday night shows during the summer months.
Connie Mueller took us into the new ballroom and told us that they get about 1200 to 1500 people each Thursday night through the summer months when they have the "Rock the Roof" events. There is also an outdoor stage in a park to the east of the shops opposite the museum that features bands on Friday and Saturday nights through the summer. Connie told us that even with the attached reception hall on the north side of the new Roof Garden Ballroom, the total square footage of the entire building is smaller than the original Roof Garden.
We went back into the museum to take a quick look around. The museum was featuring an exhibit that showcased famous drummers from Iowa. Drummers such as the late Richie Hayward from Little Feat; Willie Leacox, the longtime drummer for America; the late Keith Knudson from The Doobie Brothers; and Phil Jones who played with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Neil Young and Bob Dylan were honored for their place in rock and roll history.
Also honored were the three percussionists for the Des Moines-based thrash rock band Slipknot, and Alice DeBuhr from Mason City who was the original drummer in the L.A.-based all female rock band Fanny. There was also an homage paid to John "JR" Robinson, an in-demand session drummer from Creston. Robinson has been called "The Most Recorded Drummer in the World" and has played on hit records with singers such as Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, The Pointer Sisters, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Barbra Streisand. He has also worked as Quincy Jones' session drummer since 1979 and has also played drums on dozens of movie soundtracks and music scores. Although the displays were a little confusing and somewhat scattered in their appearance, it was still sort of interesting to learn about some of the famous drummers who once called Iowa home.
The museum also showcased an exhibit that honored the Great Lakes Recording Company, a studio that, when it opened in 1965, was only one of two recording facilities in the state of Iowa. The original studio was in nearby Milford and recorded over 150 singles and over 40 albums for either the IGL, Iowa or Sonic labels. A number of regional rock bands from around the Midwest came to Great Lakes Recording to record songs. Dee Jay and Runaways had a hit song that made the Billboard Top 40 chart - "Peter Rabbit" - that was recorded at Great Lakes Recording, as was the Pete Klindt Quintet's mid-60's hit "Walking Proud".
The Iowa Rock and Roll Museum also featured an exhibit of 14 guitars that were each signed by annual inductees of the Hall of Fame. The 14 guitars (now 15) bore the signatures of inductees since 1999. I couldn't get past the fact that each of the guitars were beautiful instruments never to be played.
There was also a display of clothing that some Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands wore back in the 60's. Many bands coordinated their wardrobe so they all dressed alike when playing music. There's also an old working jukebox that features music from the 60's. Numerous pictures, records, plaques and other memorabilia are tastefully crammed into the museum.
Interestingly, we were told by a lady working with Connie Mueller that day that the creaky floor we were standing on in the center to the front of the museum was a restored piece of the old floor at the original Roof Garden Ballroom. "They found it in a heap after the original Roof Garden was gone," she told us. "This part of the floor was the biggest piece they could find, but it was covered in bird poop and sort of weathered from the elements." She said when they built the museum they put the floor in to be part of the display. "So you can say you actually stood on the floor of the Roof Garden Ballroom," she proudly exclaimed.
OK, so it wasn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame out in Cleveland (a place that we visited about 8 years ago). It took us about 30 minutes, tops, to go through the museum - and that included looking around the new Roof Garden Ballroom and chatting with the ladies in the museum. But for a kid growing up in a rock and roll culture of the 60's with three older sisters and an older brother that played rock music on the car radio or on the Zenith transistor radio that we had around the house, it was a pretty neat experience. I think it's definitely worth the buck a head admission fee. Heck, I would have paid TWO BUCKS to experience Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum.