Writer fascinated by ballroom's storied history
Interest in the long-boarded-up Cobblestone Ballroom is rekindling this season, thanks to a new exhibit at the Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame and a well-known writer researching the famed site for a possible project.
The Hall of Fame, located at the amusement park in Arnolds Park, has been seeking a Cobblestone exhibit for some time.
"There were so many musical greats at the Cobblestone, and we knew that a collection of autographed photos of the musicians that once was featured on the Cobblestone walls still existed. We just wondered what happened to them," said Doris Welle, executive director of the Hall of Fame. "We finally tracked it down."
James Gaes, Storm Lake, a friend of the Lawrence family that operated the Cobblestone, had purchased and preserved the collection. Welle reads off the names with reverence - Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Lawrence Welk and many, many more.
"There is an authentic signed photo of Louis Armstrong. We know it is real because collectors tell us that when he would sign, he would only sign something with green ink. Anybody who has a black Louis Armstrong autograph has a fake," Welle said.
The exhibit includes a collage of historic photos of the Cobblestone donated to the museum by the Lawrence family after it closed in the mid-1980s, news articles and more. "These date to the time when Conway Twitty was playing there as an early rock-n-roll idol, and bands like the Notorious Noblemen were packing in the crowds. It is a really neat collection," Welle said.
From the Cobb archives, fans will find young hell-raising musicians Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
The Cobblestone is a legendary spot in Iowa's music and entertainment history, Welle says.
"It was such a beautiful ballroom, the way it was built, with the great fireplaces and the circus murals and all, really totally unique. The musicians who played there, from big bands to rock and roll, are really incredible. Everyone wanted to go to the Cobb."
The exhibit is open from 11-7 daily, and until 8 p.m. on weekends at the Hall of Fame. Admission is $1 for adults, children 12 and under are free.
For Bill Burge, the old Cobblestone still has a story to tell.
The Iowa-born writer who commutes from St. Louis to New York, says he "suffers from the disorder of insatiable curiosity."
Burge has been researching the Cobblestone for a potential writing project.
"I'm not sure what it will be yet - fiction, non-fiction, a mystery, or even a movie script," he told the Pilot-Tribune this week. "There are so many facets to the ballroom's story."
A strange band of the 1920s first led the writer to the Storm Lake landmark. In an antique store, he stumbled across a 1928 poster advertising a concert. It showed a group in traditional German dress.
Slowly he reassembled the story of Oscar Fiddlepoop and the Rosebud Kids. The band included the German immigrant and his six musically-trained children. Oscar, the father, had a big sense of humor and eventually took on his nickname, Fiddlepoop, for the band. Having broken their base drum, they finally located one with a priest at the Rosebud Indian Reservation where it was used with a defunct kids band. Being too poor to change the writing on the drumhead, Oscar simply renamed his band.
Researching the group put Burge on the trail of the midwestern ballrooms they would have played, and for the first time, he heard about the Cobblestone.
Burge ran an add in the local media inviting people with stories on the Cobblestone to contact him. And they did.
"I've probably had 30-40 calls, averaging at least an hour long. They are just great stories, huge memories. I have a stack of research already to work with and I'm sure that I'll be able to form it into some kind of project, I'm just not sure what form it may take yet."
The stories are not unfamiliar. Growing up as a teenage bass player in Charles City, Burge spent his share of time around the area's ballrooms.
"We had jam sessions until the sun came up. I met so many bands and musicians, that it never occurred to me that this was not the way life was supposed to be," he laughed. "If I was growing up in New York, that would never be possible."
One day he was sitting at a table in the middle of the night in one smalltown local ballroom, when he noticed a man studying the same business law textbook he used in junior college. They ended up talking the night away about the academic subject.
That student turned out to be Billy "Sweet Pea" Strayhorn, composer of countless jazz classics, including Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" and "Lotus Blossom."
Next week, Burge plans to visit Storm Lake to talk to more people about the Cobblestone, and begin to refine his notes into a literary project.
"I think of it like a snowflake, with the ballroom in the center and at the points, all the people who have worked there, danced there, drank there, romanced there."
There are currently no proposals to reopen or renovate the Cobblestone, but there is interest.
The Lakeside City Council has discussed the project at length, and it has been suggested in Pilot-Tribune letters and editorials that it be considered as a possible site for the new Senior Center. State cultural officials have toured the building, which is preserved much as it was the day it closed, with dishes still in the cupboard and a microphone still standing beside the stage, and encouraged the community to make a project of it.
Outside the community, interest in preservation is also high.
"I hate seeing it sit empty," Welle said at the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. "Iowa has less that 15 ballrooms left, and this one is a true treasure of Iowa history. I think it would be an ideal plan to use it as a senior center and perhaps have music in there on the weekends."
Author Burge notes that his goal is to tell the story, not to tell the community to renovate the ballroom.
"It could happen though, sure, if somebody has the money, time and the bright idea," he said. "With your AWAYSIS and dredging, a lot of money is being poured into Storm Lake and your town will have a lot of attention. In a situation like that, things can happen. Of course, you could build a new senior center cheaper and more efficiently, so a project involving the Cobblestone would have to be a labor of love."