Letter from the Editor

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What a Waste...

Over the past few years, I've written stories about how a middle school music class dedicated a semester to studying the Cobblestone Ballroom, how an author wrote about the historic site, how the Iowa Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame museum featured it in a major exhibit and honored it with an inclusion in the hall, and how the state's top cultural official Anita Walker toured the place and fell in love with it, terming it a "time capsule" and potential treasure for all Iowans.

Storm Lake doesn't miss many opportunities, but it sure has so far let one big elephant in the room slip by in the form of the Cobblestone. Other than a few short-lived nibbles, there has been no real effort to obtain and do anything productive with it.

Not long ago, I drove by and noticed that the wood from the marquee overhang had collapsed in a heap in front of the doors of the long-vacant landmark. I felt sad at that - it deserves better.

Though I'm not of a vintage to have known the place's glory days from Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vee and Johnny Cash, I have always felt a certain kinship for this spot and the romantic role it has played in the history of our community. It's also just down the street from me, so I'm forced to watch it slowly disintegrate into an eyesore instead of being on the National Register of Historic Places as it should be.

Everywhere I go, I hear people saying that with its new emphasis on tourism, and a near $40 million investment in a major resort, Storm Lake needs to find things for visitors to do and see to make our efforts successful. And yet, just down the road, we have a potential resource that no one has even been willing to consider.

Experts from outside the community have been enthused by the opportunity here and urged Storm Lake to do something to save the Cobb, but it has pretty much been ignored.

It happens that my son was in that middle school class that studied the Cobb. The kids may be more attuned to the screamo stuff they play on the college radio station than Glenn Miller or Johnny and the Hurricanes, 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.

(Come on, come on, you had the Motley Crue t-shirt and the Bee Gees albums, admit it.) And whatever you listened to at 16 or so, you thought was all the music you would ever need. Do you 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.

The Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame museum put together a great exhibit on the Cobblestone - 45 miles from here, when our own historical society hasn't really tried to get involved.

Storm Lake yawned when the cultural official said we should go after grants to reopen the Cobblestone. What, that old place?

Most recently, author Bill Burge came to town to research the Cobblestone as a setting for a possible book or 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 behind in a corner - I still wish I knew the story behind that night.

In doing a Hall of Fame series recently on some of our 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. The people I've spoken to who grew up around here and went on to find fame elsewhere, 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, Storm Lake or county officials have ever really wanted to get on board. It would take time, 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.

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 enough to try to get it back into local hands.

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 a luxury suite are going to think of a boarded-up landmark just a stroll down the trail.

The people with the memories aren't getting any younger, and a majority of Storm Lakers now have never known the ballroom as anything other than a vacant old building. Eventually there will be no choice but to knock it down. More room to park RVs, or a few more cookie-cutter condos, maybe.

What a waste. I'm glad that music teacher taught about the Cobblestone, though. At least a bit of our musical heritage will live on through those kids.