By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
— Attention Mankato: The producers of the definitive documentary film of the fateful Winter Dance Party tour of 1959 that culminated in the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (as well as their pilot) want YOU.
Or, at least your photos and recollections of Jan. 25, 1959 — otherwise known as The Day the Music Stopped in Mankato.
“We’ve had a wonderful time in Mankato, and we’re hoping to talk to more people,” said Sevan Garabedian, who is co-producing “Gotta Travel On: The Winter Dance Party Odyssey” along with Jim McCool. Together, the pair have spent more than six years re-tracing and documenting the poorly conceived tour that prompted the trio of musicians to charter a plane from Clear Lake, Iowa, to the next night’s show in Moorhead in order to avoid sleeping another night on an unheated bus.
As anyone familiar with Don McLean’s 1971 tribute song “The Day the Music Died” will know, the plane never reached Moorhead. Just six miles outside Clear Lake, a combination of bad weather and pilot error caused the plane to hit the ground at more than 170 miles per hour. All occupants died instantly.
“It really was the end of an era,” said Garabedian, who was born more than 15 years after the plane crash but developed a fascination with the giants of 1950s rock n’ roll as a youth in Montreal. “A loss of innocence.”
Garabedian and a film crew stopped in Mankato in 2009 to record at the Kato Ballroom, where the Winter Dance Party remains the venue’s largest-ever concert with more than 2,400 people in attendance. Garabedian said Mankatoans shared more than 20 never-before-seen photos with him during the stop.
Now, with final production phase on the film just a few months away, he’s hoping to unearth a few more.
“As more time passes, the opportunities to find these photos and stories are lost,” he said. “And in the Midwest, especially this time of year, there is a buzz, a feeling that people remember.”
In a 2007 Free Press article in which Garabedian first issued his call for photos and memories, the late Dianne Cory of Delavan recounted her experience of shooting backstage photos at the Kato with her Brownie camera.
In a 2012 interview about his induction into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame, Jim McGuire recalled his own visit to the Kato Ballroom on Jan. 25, 1959. Already playing in his first rock n’ roll band at the age of 14, McGuire said he and his musician buddies would attend the Kato frequently to “stand by the stage and see if they knew more than we did.”
McGuire said he remembers Holly playing well, but was “disappointed he had to use a capo.” And when Ritchie Valens took the stage ...
“They played the intro to ‘La Bamba’ and I could just about feel my ear drums shattering.”
Garabedian said he hopes to have the film ready for release this year. He said he’s already working with a distributor that is planning to air the documentary on public television and news stations, including PBS and BBC. He’s also hoping to hold movie premier-style events in each of the 11 cities, including Mankato, in which the crew filmed.