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Famous musicians once rocked at the Roof Garden

Iowa Rock and Roll Museum marketing and development director Becky Peters (left) and Tom Tourville stand in front of some of the artifacts and memorabilia from the Roof Garden ballroom which helped bring rock and roll to the Iowa Great Lakes in the early days of the music. Tourville gave a presentation on the history of both Saturday at the facility.1 / 2
A 1966 Roof Garden poster announces many rock and roll National Hall of Fame acts that played at the Roof Garden as well as local bands such as The Marv Reedstrom Orchestra of Worthington.2 / 2

ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa -- The Midwest was the heart of rock and roll for decades, and many of the biggest acts in the business performed at Arnolds Park Roof Garden Ballroom -- the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Guess Who, the Shangri-Las and the Yardbirds are just a few examples.

"These are classic names. They are the architects, the footsoldiers who built rock'n'roll," said area historian Tom Tourville during a presentation about the Roof Garden at the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Museum Saturday.

In the 1950s, ballrooms were big business, and there were more ballrooms per capita in Iowa than in any other state, Tourville explained.

And the seasonally operated Roof Garden, with its "floating" block-long dance floor on the second floor of the building, was something special. "Floating" simply meant the dance floor was unsupported by the ceilings of the shops on the first floor of the building -- there was space between them.

Before rock and roll held sway at the Roof Garden, big band music was king, and Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey were the acts ballroom owners booked if they could. Rock and roll was edgy -- a little bit too new and a little bit too dangerous.

"Ballroom operators were afraid to bring in rock and roll," Tourville said. "The whole concept was that might be the devil's music."

But not Darlowe Olesen, who ran the Roof Garden. In 1957, he booked Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, who had recorded "Be-Bop-A-Lula" the previous year.

It was the first rock and roll act at the Roof Garden, but it certainly wasn't the last. Olesen had made enough money that he booked a few more rock groups, which also did well. After other ballroom operators saw how lucrative rock and roll was for the Roof Garden, they started hiring rock musicians as well, and rock spread across Iowa like wildfire.

"Darlowe Olesen I call the man who brought rock'n'roll to Iowa," Tourville said.

In its heyday, the Roof Garden had some of the best rock and roll in the United States, aided by Olesen's purchases of several other ballrooms. Because he owned more than one venue, he could book musicians for all of them at once for separate evenings, getting a cheaper price.

And musicians wanted to play in Iowa because there, they could saturate an undivided market, Tourville explained.

Olesen managed to get national acts because the Roof Garden was located at a tourist destination. Instead of needing to book acts for Friday and Saturday night dancing, Olesen booked national performers for Thursdays, saving Friday for local bands and battles of the bands, Tourville said.

By the time of the final rock and roll show at the Roof Garden in 1986, the location had brought some of the most famous acts in the world to Iowa, while still giving a chance at fame to local and regional bands.

Tourville's presentation on the Roof Garden was the first in a series of events at the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Museum.

The next, "How the War Affected Rock and Roll," is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 21 at the museum.