Ten days before the music died, rock ‘n’ roll was alive and well in Kenosha.
Teen heartthrob Buddy Holly joined rising stars Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson for the second stop of the infamous Winter Dance Party tour on Jan. 24, 1959, at the Eagles Ballroom.
More than 1,500 screaming teenagers squeezed into a packed ballroom to witness a performance that would soon become — certainly far sooner than anyone envisioned — a significant piece of music history.
Just one month past her 13th birthday, Kenosha resident Pat Keating arrived hours early to assure a front-row spot at the stage.
“My girlfriend and I stood there for four hours without moving,” Keating said to Kenosha News. “We were both in love with Buddy Holly. I remember when he came out, it took at least 10 minutes before everyone would stop screaming to let the poor guy sing. But once he started singing, nobody made a noise.”
The Winter Dance Party opened the previous night at George Devine’s Ballroom in Milwaukee. After a successful encore performance in Kenosha, the grueling, non-stop tour quickly took a turn for the worse as freezing temperatures and constant, broken-down buses created difficult, if not dangerous, conditions.
The final straw was when the bus stalled in Duluth, Minn., and Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, was hospitalized due to frostbite on his feet.
Eleven days into the tour, Holly refused to step foot on another bus. The bands rocked their now-legendary performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, before Holly booked the next flight he could find to the tour’s next stop in Moorhead, Minn.
The chartered plane, carrying Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all four people aboard.
Through Don McLean’s hit song “American Pie,” Feb. 3, 1959, would become known as “The Day the Music Died.”
“We cried,” Keating said. “We couldn’t believe it. They were all gone. All of them.”
After being plagued by the cold and flu throughout the tour, band members were well-rested and full of life in Kenosha.
Holly, a 22-year-old Texas native, played all of his hits in Kenosha including “That’ll Be the Day,” ″Rave On” and “Peggy Sue.”
Richardson’s rousing set included his classic hit “Chantilly Lace.”
Valens, a 17-year-old rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, brought girls to tears with “Donna” and blew the roof off with “La Bamba.”
“The Big Bopper was all over the stage,” said Keating, who attended Washington Junior High School at the time. “He had so much energy. He was nuts. He looked like a goofball, but was so much fun to watch.
“Then Buddy came out, and everyone was in awe. Girls were crying like the Beatles were performing. Ritchie Valens was so laid back and quiet. We all thought maybe he was a little shy or something.”
It was one of the most energetic shows of the tour and also the most documented, thanks to the diligence of local photographer Tony Szikil.
The 84-year-old Kenosha resident was working a wedding reception at the Eagles Ballroom that night and knew if he got done early enough, he’d be able to head upstairs and photograph the concert.
As the ceiling shook above, Szikil reluctantly stayed with a demanding bride and groom who refused to let him leave early.
“I was able to get upstairs, but not soon enough,” Szikil said. “At 9:30 p.m., I told the bride and groom, ’I’ll give you a free 8-by-10 for your book, if I can leave. They said, ‘No, you’re going to be here until 10:30 p.m.’
“The floor started bouncing up and down from the concert. I said, ’I’ll give you two 8-by-10s. They said, ‘No.’ I did one going-away shot at 10:40 p.m. and the groom says, ‘One more.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going upstairs!’”
Szikil walked into the ballroom as Holly finished his last song, “Peggy Sue.” His 24 photos taken that night will be forever shared as a stunning, visual remembrance of the famous tour.
Several of his photographs clearly captured an enamored Keating in the front row.
“There’s Ritchie Valens on stage, and there’s me, left of the microphone, clapping my hands with a big smile on my face,” Keating said. “I was famous.”
Information from: Kenosha News, http://www.kenoshanews.com