Ballroom memories rekindle, but will the music ever return?
Generations after its glory years and now clad in weeds and warped boards, the Cobblestone Inn will have at least one more moment in the marquee spotlight, as the storied ballroom at Lakeside is inducted into the Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame this weekend.
"The Cobblestone is such an obvious choice, because it played a strong and continuous role in the early days of rock and roll," said John Senn, president of the Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Music Association, and a former performer at the Cobblestone with perhaps Iowa's most famous pioneer pop recording act, Dee Jay and the Runways.
"The Cobblestone was always a special place. There was just something about it and the Lawrence family that ran it, and being right on the lake made it that much more unique. All the name acts running through the midwest in those days wanted to play the Cobb."
For Senn, it is especially troubling to see the ballroom sitting empty. "It's sad to see any ballroom lost, but this one especially was a great ballroom. I spent my early days there, and seeing the Cobblestone fade away bothers all of us who were in the music business in those days. Part of our history and our youth is disappearing."
Not only will the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame present a plaque to the Cobblestone and place it on the "Wall of Fame" in Arnolds Park, the group will pledge to support any effort that may get it reopened, Senn told the Pilot-Tribune, including making an effort to raise funds for such a project. "We would love to see it come back, and we would be happy to try to help," he said.
Geraldine "Jerry" Lawrence Dahlen of Storm Lake will accept the Hall of Fame honors at the ceremony, representing her family, which was involved in the creation and operation of the ballroom from 1929 until it closed in November, 1986.
Lawrence was surprised when she learned of the honor for the ballroom, which she ran in its latter years after the death of her former husband. "I guess I kind of felt it was all back in the past - it's been so long since it was open, I guess I didn't anticipate that it would be remembered that much all these years later," she said.
The branches of the Lawrence family plan to come together for the ceremony for the first time in a long while, she said.
For Jerry, the event rekindles memories she hasn't revisited in years. "My fondest memories of the Cobblestone are the people I met there. It was a hopping place in its day, and so many good people had a lot of good fun there. It was my pleasure to meet them."
She especially recalls visiting with jazz great Louis Armstrong, and remembers him as a gracious man off the stage as well as a dynamo on it. "You just had to see Louis," she said.
When the rock era came, Jerry said she was surprised by the quality of the young stars. "There were just the nicest young people in those bands. I didn't anticipate that it would be that way, but I do remember so many of them as being wonderful people to meet and talk to."
The former owner said that she would like to see the Cobblestone reopen, but feels she is getting too old to be part of such an effort. "I'm hoping that the ceremony will introduce people to some of the spirit of the music from the past," she said.
The 2003 Hall of Fame Induction Spectacular and Concert takes place Sunday night at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, where the Hall of Fame opened its new museum and headquarters this summer. For more information, call 712-332-6540 or see the web site www/iowarocknroll.com.
This year's crop of inductees also includes The Everly Brothers, formerly of Shenandoah; Keith Knudson of LeMars, the drummer for the Doobie Brothers; Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Michael Lehmann Boddicker, Cedar Rapids; singer Brenda Lee; a handful of classic early rock bands such as The Dark Knights form Emmetsburg and the Sensational Soul Company of Estherville/ Along with the Cobblestone, the Inwood Ballroom of Spillville will be inducted.
The show this weekend includes a record collectors and collectibles show at the Roof Garden, starting at 11 a.m. Sunday, with a celebrity memorabilia auction in the pavilion at 3 p.m. An autograph party will be held from 3:30-4:30 at the pavilion, free of charge. The induction ceremony and concert from from 5:15 to midnight at the Roof Garden. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children under 16. Tickets ordered in advance can be picked up at the museum the day of the concert. On-line orders end Thursday, but credit card ticket purchases can be made up to the show by calling 712-332-6540.
The Cobblestone saw the boom of the big band era, classic blues and jazz artists, the birth of the rock 'n' roll movement.
Laura and Willard Lawrence, along with her brother Jake Figi formed a partnership in December of 1928 to operate a bathhouse and store on the shores of Storm Lake. There wasn't much for the young people of the area to do in those days so the little store soon became the favorite gathering place for young couples.
It was this situation that prompted the partners to build the first Cobblestone Inn. On New Year's Eve of 1929 the first dance was held in the small hall that accommodated 50 couples. From those humble beginnings the famous Cobblestone Ballroom was born. It could hold upwards of 1500 people for dining and dancing.
After Willard's untimely death in 1936, Laura continued the partnership with Jake. A fire in 1945 completely destroyed everything but the main ballroom. The partners built a new main dining room with several private banquet rooms and a modern kitchen able to handle banquets of 1000 or more.
Two years later, Laura's three sons bought out Figi's half of the business and joined their mother in operating what became one of the finest dining and dancing spots in the Midwest. They employed 39 people plus extras for special events.
During the "Big Band Era" many nationally known bands appeared at the Cobblestone such as: Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Kaye, Jan Garber and Big Tiny Little.
Laura Lawrence retired from active participation in the business in 1957, turning it over fully to Orville (Shorty) and Willard Junior (J.R. or "Junior"). They became the proprietors just in time for the rock and roll era to arrive. For the Cobblestone, that happened on Sept. 21, 1958 with CYO dances that started with records and turned into regular Sunday night Teen Hops with regional and national bands. That continued until the early 1980s.
The ballroom's datebooks reflect appearances by Myron Lee & the Caddies, Johnny & the Hurricanes, Bobby Vee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, the Rhythm Aces, the Charades, the Fabulous Flippers, Spider and the Crabs, Dee Jay & the Runaways, The Senders, Red Dogs, Baby and the Rumbles among countless others.
J.R. passed away in 1976 and his wife Geraldine (Jerry) took over his duties in the family business. Shorty died on 1987.
Iowa Cultural Affairs Director Anita Walker toured the Cobblestone in 2001. "Oh my gosh - this is just like walking into a time capsule," she said of the experience. "You have such a treasure here - and all the parts are still here for you to put it back together again. It can be an amazing attraction, she said.
The 5,300-square-foot maple dancefloor stands intact, a microphone still resting in its stand in front of the dusty stage that hasn't been used in almost 20 years. Colorful wall murals survive, along with big band era posters and hundreds of antique fittings, from early Coke machines to a Coast Guard hat left behind at some long-forgotten dance.
"This is a living museum," agrees a historical expert send by the Sanford Museum in Cherokee to investigate the building. "Every nook and cranny here holds the history of the region."
"If these walls could talk, you better believe they would have some wild stories," says Brad Botine, Storm Lake, who serves as a caretaker to the structure on behalf of the owner.
George Tomsco of The Fireballs remembered when his band played at the Cobblestone in the summer of 1959.
"Any Midwest tour always included the Cobblestone," he said. "You remember the name and going to the Cobblestone, along with the Surf and Val Air.
"If you were a musician, the Midwest ballrooms were a good place to play," he said.
Steve Brown, former director of the Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Music Association, remembered visiting the Cobblestone in 1969 and 1970, but said ballrooms across the state have had a "rough go" since then.
"All ballrooms have amazing personalities with all the history that goes into them," Brown said. "It's too bad to see them sitting like this. But it's difficult to keep going with the changes in lifestyles. It would be tremendous to buy this and open it up again and make it a viable operation. Everyone from garage bands to major names played these ballrooms back in the day. They're an important part of not only Iowa's history but the country's."
The Cobblestone stands very much the same today as it did when the doors were closed in the 1980s. Glasses and dishes are stacked in the kitchen. Pads of order slips bearing the name of the Cobblestone Inn and the upstairs-bar the Circus Lounge sit next to cash registers. A coat rack next to the dance floor has a nylon jacket, on the back, "Cobblestone Inn and Ballroom, Lakeside, IA."
The Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce has explored the possibility of establishing a charitable corporation to accept tax-deductible donations to preserve the ballroom, but so far, all efforts to reopen the site have met with frustration before getting started.
"Right now we are waiting for the master plan for a proposed State Park at Storm Lake to see if the Cobblestone might somehow be included," said chamber managing director Marilyn Monson. "Other than that, there is no active plan or committee at work on it. We do have people come in and want to see the Cobblestone saved, but so far that has not developed into any kind of formal campaign."
Walker urges the community to get the building listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and seek preservation grants toward reopening it.
Dr. Wendell Petty, a former Storm Laker now living in Colorado, is the owner of the Cobblestone, and has indicated a desire to sell the long-unused building, preferably for a community use. He said there has been some interest in the site, including that from developers who would hope to use it for condominiums. Using it for assisted living space for senior citizens was also proposed, but no deals have been made.
Lakeside resident Burt Bonebrake said it signaled the end of an era when the Cobblestone closed. While the council of the small town has talked about trying to do something about the vacant building, it has proved too bug a job for the tiny community to take on, although it has set about beautifying some of the grounds surrounding the ballroom site.
"In my opinion, it would be well worth it to have someone or a group of investors come forward and put the work into the project, because the Cobblestone has great potential," said Bonebrake. "I am surprised that someone has not already picked up the ball and make a run at reviving the Cobblestone."
A cobwebbed calendar affixed to the wall inside the Cobblestone still marks the day the music died - November 8, 1986. But for one shining weekend, all of the memories and romance will come flooding back, and the "Cobb" will belatedly gets its honors for its role in music history.
Whether the story of northwest Iowa's most famous ballroom will end there, is still to be decided.