Roof Garden to mark centennial this summer
The current Roof Garden welcomed its first concert guests in August of 2019. (File photo)
Renovations to the Roof Garden Ballroom in Arnolds Park were heralded in 2019 as the capstone to the third phase of Historic Arnolds Park's restoration plans. Now, park officials are preparing to put the spotlight on the iconic dance hall ahead of its centennial anniversary.
Jon Pausley, CEO of Historic Arnolds Park Incorporated, said the park is planning a 100th anniversary concert series — featuring everything from classic performances to modern-day country artists — and visitors will be able to buy centennial apparel as well as take photos in front of a special 100th anniversary backdrop.
The park is also collaborating with the nearby Iowa Rock 'n Roll Music Association this month to provide self-guided walking tours of the grounds. The tours will begin at the ballroom's entrance, move to the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Museum and end in Preservation Plaza at the precise location which once marked center stage in the original ballroom.
"You can stand in the place where some of the classics were performed," Pausley said. "I think you will be surprise to find how close the proximity is to our new stage on Preservation Plaza. Arnolds Park will continue to hold a rich tradition of live music in the Iowa Great Lakes."
A man named Peck
Time Magazine was just a few month's old when the Roof Garden held its grand opening in 1923. The now-iconic Lakes Area venue was built by Alonzo Peck, and it was expected to be the largest in the state — some accounts claimed it would be "the second largest pavilion of its kind in the U.S."
Peck had moved to Spirit Lake in 1886 and opened a dental office in Spencer, according to archives of the Spirit Lake Beacon. He married Hattie Sanford in 1906 — Sanford, a widow of 14 years at that point, was the daughter of Wesley Arnold, who founded Arnolds Park. Peck sold his practice in 1907, having been injured in a fall from his office window a few years prior, and the Beacon said he gained an interest in the original Arnold Estate. The extended family continued to develop the surrounding property, building shoreline cottages, an ice cream parlor, soda fountain and souvenir shop.
By 1909, Peck was already advertising dances and live orchestras at the Arnolds Park Hotel. And, in May of 1914, the Milford Mail reported Peck had "a large force of men installing the roller coaster and making many improvements in the park."
But, unbeknownst to many, the merriment of the growing amusement park was coupled with grief for the Peck family. The same edition of the Mail said Peck's wife had recently undergone surgery — later reports would specify she'd been diagnosed with cancer — and her daughter Mary Sanford had been quietly married at home in light of her mother's ill health.
But Hattie Sanford Peck died in Galesburg, Illinois, on May 30, 1914, after seeking treatment there.
"She was doing so well that she urged her husband, Dr. Peck, to return where he was so much needed at the park, and the doctors said it was entirely safe to do so," the Beacon said. "But in the night following, signs of sinking were observed, and through heart failure the patient painlessly entered into eternal rest."
Peck himself didn't learn of his wife's passing until he reached Emmetsburg, at which point he headed back to Illinois, the Beacon said.
The road to the Roof Garden
A full page ad in the Spirit Lake Beacon announced the Roof Garden's grand opening in June of 1923. (File photo)
Work began the next year to bring electricity to the park. Peck remarried the year after that — the community paraded the new couple back to the park for a banquet and a night of dancing. The Majestic skating rink was built in 1919, and in 1923 it was reported Peck had blueprints in hand for his proposed Roof Garden — estimated to cost $10,000.
Tom Tourville, co-founder of the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Music Association, said the original Roof Garden was built as a summer attraction for those who visited the Lakes Area by train. Four different railroad companies had decided to extend their lines through Dickinson County by 1881, and visits to Arnolds Park became popular enough to merit a full-fledged station there around 1900, according to local archives. Tourville said one of the railroad copmanies even put money into the Roof Garden's development.
"It was a beautiful wooden structure," Tourville said. "It didn't have air conditioning or heat — open the windows, let the cool lake breezes supposedly cool you down — and it was a summer destination for all the touring big bands."
The Roof Garden held its grand opening on June 21, 1923. Al Gabel's Broadway Entertainers had been booked for opening night — billed as the "finest orchestra in the west." The night was marked by torrential rain, according to the Milford Mail, "but as soon as the showers passed, people began to drive in from all parts of the country, and the new pavilion was soon filled to almost capacity." An estimated 400 couples were dancing on the floor — which was wide enough to fit about four modern semi trailers lined up end-to-end — and park officials say patrons at that time recalled the deck literally rising and falling in rhythm.
"The beautiful moonlight effect, produced by four spot lights of differing colors thrown onto revolving mirrors, produced a result hard to describe," the Milford Mail reported.
Peck gave up management of the park in 1934 and moved with his wife to Burbank, California. He died about six years later, but the Roof Garden would go on to attract orchestras led by musicians like Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
Paving the way for rock 'n' roll
Ownership of the ballroom changed in the 1950s, according to Tourville, while the public's musical tastes were shifting in favor of an emerging rock 'n' roll trend.
"One thing that was common about ballrooms in this time period was that all ballroom owners were former big band musicians," Tourville said. "So they were all about the big bands, and they wanted big band in their ballroom or nothing. But the three new owners didn't care about that."
The amusement park credits Darlowe Oleson, who both owned and operated the ballroom around that time, with business savvy adaptation as popular music evolved.
"Darlowe was a businessman who knew ballrooms could not continue on with just big bands," park officials said in a statement. "There had to be a way to get teens in the doors – thus, rock 'n' roll."
But Tourville noted there was still a degree of social stigma associated with rock 'n' roll music in those days.
"To begin with, they didn't use the name rock 'n' roll, because they were a little scared of the reaction of moms and dads and the business community," Tourville said. "So they were teen hops, sock hops, dance shows, teen dances — anything you could think of to kind of hide what was going on behind the curtain."
Archives of the Spirit Lake Beacon said teen dances at the Roof Garden began in 1954. Local service groups and clubs sponsored the chaperoned dances, and later hops were covered by the Musicians Union through royalty fees the teens paid when purchasing vinyl records. The Beacon archives said most of the tunes at the teen dances were popular ballads of the day but noted the bands did include some "jazz and faster music in their selections" as the evenings progressed.
"It brought in kids from all over the region, and this park pretty much became a huge Mecca for teens," Tourville said. "And of course as teens go, so goes mom and dad. So tourism just grew and grew and grew during that time period, and music was a big part of that."
By June of 1958, the Milford Mail said up to 1,200 teens were coming to the dances, and Oleson estimated the ballroom was drawing from 57 communities in four states.
"So, when it came to the '60s and getting the Beach Boys, the Turtles, the Yardbirds and the Byrds into that ballroom at Lake Okoboji, it was all because of the network that had been built years before into that rock and roll world," Tourville said.
Destruction and rebirth
That musical network eventually attracted The Buckinghams, who were scheduled to appear at the Roof Garden in June of 1968, but but Mother Nature evidently wasn't a fan. A tornado ripped through the Arnolds Park area the night of June 13 that year. The Roof Garden wasn't spared as the twister tore up the amusement park and nearby resorts. Robert Buhrows, skipper of The Empress excursion boat rode out the storm near the amusement park as he sheltered in the boat's wheelhouse, and he told the Beacon, "the top of the Roof Garden just exploded."
The Buckinghams were forced to postpone their Lakes Area appearance for about two months.
A new steel roof had been installed on the Roof Garden about a week before the Buckinghams' return — dances were temporarily held in the nearby Majestic Roller Rink but returned to the Roof Garden the first week of August that year, according to local archives.
Some 20 years later, the Roof Garden was burned in the fall of 1988 as part of a fire training exercise, but the ballroom would rise from the ashes less than a decade later. Developer Chuck Long and a group of investors put an estimated $400,000 into creating the New Roof Garden, which debuted in 1997 — the Guess Who, which had played the Roof Garden in 1965, assisted at the new ballroom's Memorial Day ribbon cutting.
But there was more to come.
Restoring a legacy
The New Roof Garden was demolished in September of 2018 and rebuilt from the ground up as part of a major improvement plan at Historic Arnolds Park. Park officials celebrated the completion of the restored ballroom in early August of 2019.
Organizers said architects designed the building to mimic the original Roof Garden in both style and scale. The interior became an open, two-story space — the original Roof Garden's dance floor was on the building's second story, but organizers opted for the opulence of a more open design. In addition, the project installed modern sound equipment and acoustic features to continue attracting top musicians and maintain the ballroom's legacy as a live music venue.
"I can tell you that every man and woman that worked on this project put their heart and soul into what they did," Jeff Vierkant, former CEO of Historic Arnolds Park, said ahead of the ballroom's first concert. "They haven't just built a building. They've built a legacy that will be here for generations to come."
The Roof Garden welcomed Tommy James and The Shondells as the first performers in the newly renovated space. The concert had been sold out about a month ahead of time, and organizers expected it to be the highlight of the park's 2019 season. The band is scheduled to return July 15 to the nearby Preservation Plaza in Arnolds Park as part of the free Live at the Lake concert series.
Today, the Roof Garden hosts not only concerts, but various community fundraisers and even private events, such as wedding receptions. Pausley said he feels the Roof Garden's future will be one marked by memory making.
"The legacy will primarily be music but, with live music, and other special events in your life, comes memories," Pausley said. "I think the continued legacy of the Roof Garden will be a place where great experiences take place and memories are made for a lifetime. I know that has been true of the original Roof Garden, and I believe it will be true of this one as well for generations to come."