The Surf Ballroom held 2,100 guests in the town of Clear Lake, Iowa, that was home to fewer than 5,000 people.
It was Feb. 2, 1959, and Longboat Key resident Alan Mitchell, then 15, was attending a Buddy Holly concert with his girlfriend, Donna. He was a Holly fan; Donna liked the song with which she shared a name, "Donna."
The next morning would become known as the Day the Music Died. Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash on the way to Moorhead, Minn., the next stop in their Winter Dance Party tour.
“At the time, you don’t know you’re at a historical event," said Mitchell, now 72. “It’s my accidental claim to rock 'n' roll history. At the time, it was just another fun time at the Surf. We just happened to be there.”
Mitchell did not know about the plane crash until the morning after the concert.
“I came to school, and everybody was in the cafeteria crying,” Mitchell said. “They pulled out the newspapers, and it said the three rock 'n' roll singers died. Television would cover it later that day, but back then, there was no way to find out more other than that article.”
“The real impact of it hit 20 years later,” Mitchell said. “With (Don McLean's) ‘American Pie,’ it was probably when I really began to understand the depth of that song and its significance to the history of rock and roll.”
Mitchell eventually became a deejay in Chicago.
“My stepfather helped me put in an illegal radio station on the air in Iowa, and we broadcast from the basement of our house without a license, but that set what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was already on that path, so this particular night didn’t push my interest, but this fit right in.”
In 2009, Mitchell attended the 50th anniversary of the concert at the Surf, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dedicated the ballroom as a historical rock and roll landmark.
“It was a very unique experience because the two of us stood in the exact same spot we had been 50 years ago, watching a recreation of that night,” Mitchell said. “There was a momentary feeling of wondering if this is 1959 or 2009. I felt like I just stepped into a time machine 50 years ago. That was a pretty special night.”
Last month, the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” was performed at Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. There will also be a Buddy Holly-themed concert in Venice at the end of February.
“It’s been 57 years, and Buddy Holly still lives on,” Mitchell said. “I just went to a concert and ended up going to something that was incredibly significant to the history of popular music.”