May 9, 2012
The town of Clear Lake, Iowa, is synonymous with the names Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Those three music legends died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, right after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. To help the town honor those legendary musicians, a metal fabricator stepped forward to create a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork that is the centerpiece for the town's newest park—Three Stars Plaza.
It’s so easy to fall in love. At least, that’s what a metal fabricator hopes the residents of Clear Lake, Iowa, do with its metal creation.
On Oct. 13, 2011, town leaders, curious onlookers, and local media joined Maria Elena Holly, Buddy Holly’s widow; J.P. Richardson III, the son of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson Jr.; and Connie Valens-Lemos, the sister of Ritchie Valens, for the formal dedication of Three Stars Plaza and its metal structure centerpiece. The public park sits about a block away from the Surf Ballroom, the last place those three rock ‘n’ roll legends performed before the single-engine plane they were on crashed only a few miles away from the Mason City Municipal Airport on Feb. 3, 1959—a day that singer Don McLean recalled in his famous song “American Pie.”
The plaza is a big deal for those in Clear Lake and those who love the music of that era. The Surf Ballroom is now a museum and hosts an annual Winter Dance Party (the same tour name the performers used in 1959) that celebrates the rockabilly sound. Visitors to town can drive up and down Buddy Holly Place, J.P. Richardson Ave., and Ritchie Valens Drive. The artwork is now another visible reminder of the impact those three musicians had on the town—and a metal fabricating company made that possible.
A representative from the Surf Ballroom approached Clear Lake resident Steve Sukup in late 2010 about helping with the monument that would sit in the middle of the park, which was completed in August 2010; he agreed, and the Sukup family took on the project, with initial meetings taking place in December 2010. Steve also happens to be Sukup Manufacturing Co.’s vice president and chief financial officer.
Ben Furleigh, a Clear Lake councilman, helped to approve the initial project, and in his role as a quality engineer at Sukup Manufacturing, he acted as project manager for the job. Brad Ufford, who works in the R&D department at Sukup, did about “90 percent of the fabrication,” Furleigh said. Carl Funk, another fabricator in the company’s R&D department, also played a key role in the artwork’s creation.
In total, about 500 hours over 10 weeks were needed to complete the structure (see Figure 1).
“Initially it started as something pretty simple, but it got more elaborate as the project moved forward,” Ufford said.
The monument, designed by RDG Planning and Design, Omaha, Neb., and Dahlquist Art Studio, Des Moines, Iowa, mimics a spindle supporting three records. This spindle, however, is fabricated to hold much more than three 45s.
It’s a 24-in.-diameter pipe with 0.25-in. wall that stands 15 feet tall and weighs 1,600 lbs. The spindle required several fabricated details (see Figure 2), such as supports for the heavy “records” and room to accommodate the blue neon light, which is also used around the park.
The three records, made from 7-gauge stainless steel, weigh in at 3,900 lbs. To create the 10-ft.-diameter circles, the fabricator laser-cut and then welded together 12 half-moon shapes.
“We TIG-welded it because they wanted to make it look really polished,” Ufford said.
Extra care was taken to ensure that the surface finish wasn’t damaged. In fact, the film that covers the laser-quality stainless steel from Sukup Manufacturing’s Minnesota-based metal service center remained on the material for the entire duration of the fabrication project. To remove the distorted area around the welded joints, Ufford said he used a chemical compound to return the surface finish to its original smooth finish.
The signatures of the three fallen stars are cut into the bottom record (see Figure 3). At night the signatures are lit with the same neon found elsewhere in the park.
Ufford dismissed the idea that this fabrication is any more special than anything else he has worked on, such as restored automobiles. But he did acknowledge that fans of Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper might think otherwise and look upon the spindle and records as a fitting and long-lasting tribute to those legends.
“It’s really sturdy. That’s the way they wanted it because of the winds coming off of the lake,” Ufford said. “It’s not going anywhere. You could have a dance party on top of there.”
Now Clear Lake can do just that. Rave on. Rave on.
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