Letter from the Editor

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What a Waste...

The other day, we ran a story on a middle school music class that dedicated a semester to studying the Cobblestone Ballroom and all of the music that happened there over several eras. I was happy to share my files and contacts on the place with the teacher.

I realized later that my son happened to be in that class. The one who along with his sister can't get enough of the screamo stuff they crank out on the college radio station.

He may not appreciate Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstong, Johnny Cash or the Fabulous Flippers (all Cobb alums, just to name a few) now, but someday, I think he may be glad for being exposed to some of the depth and diversity and history of American music. Every generation has its own music and can't imagine the tortures of listening to their parent's tunes, but time has a way of making us realize there is more to music in the big wide world than our own tiny time capsule of top 40's.

Did you listen to, what, Hermins Hermits? The Doors? The Dead? KISS? The Bee Gees? Duran Duran? (C'mon, you had the Poison t-shirt, admit it.) MC Hammer? Nirvana? Whatever it was, it was going to be all you ever needed. Still think so? It's cool that this old ballroom could be the vehicle in school to make all kinds of music history relevant.

And it is interesting that middle school children can see the value in a vacant ballroom when a community hasn't.

It's not like the evidence hasn't been stuck in our faces. The Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Cobblestone a few years ago, and launched a great exhibit of its performers just last summer. That's 45 miles from here, when the history is virtually ignored here where it happened.

The state's highest-ranking cultural official has toured the building and raved about what a treasure it is an how it should be saved while that is still possible, but Storm Lake basically yawned and lifted not a finger to capitalize.

Last summer, author Bill Burge came to town to research the Cobblestone as a setting for a possible new book or even a screenplay. "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," he told us.

He ran a tiny ad asking people to call if they had memories of the place. Within a few days, he had been overrun with more than 40 calls averaging an hour long. That's a lot of stories waiting to get out. An author who works in New York with no Storm Lake ties wants to see the Cobb reopened, but people in its backyard studiously ignore all possibilities.

Personally, in one spellunking trip inside the old building, I noticed a World War II-era sailor's hat left in a corner - I still wish I knew the story behind that night.

In doing a Hall of Fame series this season on some of the local music heroes - Rusty Davis, Tommy Bolin, Dee Jay and the Runaways, The Fortes and all the rest, the Cobblestone is always a common thread. For the people I've spoken to who grew up around here and gone on to find fame elsewhere, they always ask about the Cobblestone. For all the change in the community, to generations it remains the great landmark. I'm a bit embarassed to tell them the truth. People who have not lived here for 40 or 50 years can see the the importance of such a place, but those who live right here look right past it.

A few local people have tried to stir interest over the years and have finally given up trying to climb that mountain of apathy. Some ideas have come and gone, without anything really ever getting started. Neither the chamber of commerce, the Lakeside City Council or the historical society has ever really wanted to get on board. It would take effort, and money.

It's not impossible, you know. The Surf Ballroom is an example that a vacant dancehall can not only be restored but made useful again as an entertainment venue - the Clear Lake hotspot was named Iowa Attraction of the Year in 1995.

Let's face it, as a community we had every possible reminder that we have a potential treasure here, but we just don't care.

It's just an empty old building going to pot. We drive by now without even seeing it. Who needs our history when we can build grand new buildings just down the way?

I do wonder what people staying in the $189 luxury suite are going to think of a boarded-up landmark just a stroll down the trail... will they wonder why we never made an effort?

Honestly, it doesn't look good for the Cobblestone. The out-of-state owner hasn't made any visible efforts to do anything with the building in years. The place is decently-preserved with contents largely left right where they were 20 years ago, but time is taking a steady toll. More and more of the people with first-hand memories of its glory years that might motivate a project are leaving us or getting on in years. Some sources say there may be asbestos involved from earlier renovations, as well as some water damage. The community's interests have gone in other directions.

Eventually, there will be no choice. And if it falls down or gets knocked down, another chapter in Iowa's ballroom history will be gone for good.

That will be a shame, especially if we can't do any better than more RV parking or cookie-cutter condos on one of the grandest laefront sites in Iowa.

The really sad thing is that if the Cobblestone does go down, most of the people in Storm Lake won't even notice. The young adults of today, even if they grew up here, don't know it as anything other than a vacant old building. Newcomers, some from other countries, probably wonder why a sad, empty hulk blocks the view of the lake.

And the children in Storm Lake today think of music as something that comes out of the iPod, CD player or digital cable - with no idea of the romance and excitement of having entire genres of music born live on a stage right in front of them.

It's a good thing that one Storm Lake music teacher is trying to teach a little bit of that to her kids.

At least they will know what we lost.