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Remembering Appleton’s footnote spot in rock and roll history

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Today marks the 61st anniversary of rock and roll’s first great tragedy.

And I thought it would be worth revisiting Appleton’s minor place in that major piece of American music history.

The books rarely make mention of our city.

But it became an interesting piece of trivia tied to the last days of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson. Appleton’s Cinderella Ballroom was the only engagement missed in the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour. And it adds some context to what happened in early 1959.

In 2009, I spoke to both of the surviving members of Buddy Holly’s touring Crickets at the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. I wrote an extensive piece for The Post-Crescent and I’d post a link, but alas, the link is no longer available.

Drummer Carl Bunch, who went on to become a minister, remembered the crowds and the personalities vividly during our talk. Time didn’t soften his memories of the miserable aspects of touring through the brutal cold that crushed the Midwest.

“It was one breakdown after another and one bus after another,” Bunch told me. “Everyone was tired and irritable because of the weather. No one got much sleep on the bus.”

They were scheduled to play a matinee in Appleton on Feb. 1, 1959. 

Their bus broke down south of Hurley, which forced the cancellation in Appleton. They made it to Green Bay for the night-side show.

Bunch was hospitalized for frostbite.

The tour moved from Green Bay to Clear Lake, Iowa and the young stars died in a plane crash following that show in the early morning of Feb. 3, 1959.

Guitarist Tommy Allsup didn’t shy from talking about a legendary coin flip that changed his life — and just as well could have taken in it.

Buddy Holly chartered the flight in Iowa for his band to get a little relief from the cold, long bus rides. The third member, a guy by the name of Waylon Jennings, gave his seat to an ill Richardson. Allsup flipped the coin with Valens for a seat.

Allsup said it was something he’d thought about every day since. 

“It makes you thankful you’re still alive,” he told me. “Life goes on. I’m still healthy and still play well and I’m thankful for that.”

Allsup passed in 2017. Bunch passed in 2011. 

According to the Feb. 3, 1959 Post-Crescent, Cinderella owner Charlie Maloney expected 2,000 teens for the big event. It was scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. He got the cancellation at about 10 a.m.

Working quickly, he hired a local band and cut the ticket price in half to 50 cents.

Appleton’s place in Winter Dance Party history is trivial, though the cancellation of the show was emblematic of the difficult tour. 

On Feb. 2, 1959, Appleton’s temperature was 22 below zero.

The young performers suffered along the way and it ultimately turned tragic.

“It was just a sad state of affairs,” Bunch told me. “The kids were as crazy as could be, screaming and carrying on. But it was just a really horrible feeling.”

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