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Capturing memories made at the Armory

Colleen Bowen and her friend each had a coupleof bucks. They could have paid for their tickets. But when the teenagers arrived at the Armory on London Road for what would turn out to be the most famous concert in Duluth history, "it was early" --...

Colleen Bowen and her friend each had a coupleof bucks. They could have paid for their tickets.

But when the teenagers arrived at the Armory on London Road for what would turn out to be the most famous concert in Duluth history, "it was early" -- so early that no one else was there yet, and "the doors were still unlocked," as Bowen recalled this week, nearly 50 years after the show.

On a whim, and just for fun, she and her friend ducked into a bathroom and made plans to hide out until the concert started, and then to sneak in for free.

"That wasn't the way I was raised," said Bowen, 64, who grew up in Duluth Heights and now lives on the North Shore just southwest of Two Harbors. "If my mom and dad knew, they would have killed me."

Good thing for the world her folks never found out. On Jan. 31, 1959, Bowen, after sneaking into the Armory's cavernous auditorium as planned, worked her way to the front of the crowd, pointed her Kodak Brownie Instamatic camera toward the stage and snapped seven of only 15 pictures known to exist of the famous Winter Dance Party's stop in Duluth. Her viewfinder filled with young rock stars wearing sweaters and jackets and ties: Ritchie Valens; the "Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson; Dion and the Belmonts; Frankie Sardo; and the headliner, Buddy Holly and the Crickets (whose ranks included a very young Waylon Jennings).

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The concert gained legendary status when, three days later, a charter plane crashed in a frozen cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Valens, the Big Bopper and Holly. That day, Feb. 3, 1959, was "the day the music died," as Don McLean so famously sang in "American Pie."

The concert gained epic status when, nearly four decades later, while accepting a Grammy for album of the year, Duluth-born and Hibbing-raised Bob Dylan told an audience: "When I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory, and I was three feet away from him and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was -- I don't know how or why -- but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way."

So why recount all of this now?

Because a trio of indie filmmakers -- Sevan Garabedian of Montreal, Jim McCool of Madison, Wis., and Shawn Nagy of Duluth, whosebuddyhollyonline.com is the Web's longest-running Holly site -- is producing a documentary about the Winter Dance Party and the 11 stops it made before tragedy struck it short.

Interviews are being arranged this winter and money raised. Garabedian estimated the film will cost $85,000 to $135,000 in equipment rentals and other expenses. The men hope to visit the tour's 11 cities this summer, as well as the eight ballrooms, armories and theaters still standing, including the Duluth Armory. They want their film completed by February 2009, the 50th anniversary of the plane crash.

That's where you come in.

"We want fans who were there to get in touch with us and, in the process, hopefully, we'll discover new pictures from that night and stories that have yet to be told," Garabedian said.

The filmmakers have issued similar pleas in other cities on the tour, and "the interview prospects we've found and the buzz and excitement we've created [is already] more than we imagined," Garabedian said.

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A woman in Kenosha, Wis., told the trio she bummed a cigarette from Holly after the show there. A man in Montevideo, Minn., said he bumped into the Big Bopper in the men's room, and they both commented about how cold it was. Other fans said the musical icons went into the crowds after concerts to sign autographs.

"You just don't see that anymore, and that's what we want to show in our documentary, how it was back then," Garabedian said. "We just don't have many anecdotes about Duluth. There has to be a lot more of those sorts of stories out there."

And, Nagy suspects, more pictures like the ones Bowen made public for the first time in 2002, as well as posters or other souvenirs. "A lot of people think there's no value or interest in what they have," he said. "They'd be surprised how interested we are."

The documentary also is expected to shine a spotlight on the Duluth Armory, the heart and soul of the city's entertainment world for six decades. After falling into disrepair, the 1915 structure nearly was demolished. But in 2003, a nonprofit called the Armory Arts and Music Center bought it and cleaned it out, filling 10 to 20 Dumpsters with trash. The group also completed emergency masonry work, repaired the leaky roof, installed security cameras, painted window frames so they wouldn't rot, removed hundreds of live pigeons, as well as 47 garbage bags of bird carcasses and feces, and made grand plans to convert the brick building into a multi-use arts center, concert hall and apartments -- with a tribute to Dylan.

That rebirth isn't happening as quickly as the nonprofit or many others in Duluth would like, but "it is going forward," the group's Susan Phillips said this week. "I can assure the public of that."

The renovations, such as the documentary, will help preserve and celebrate a grand piece of Duluth's past. And a significant piece of Bowen's childhood -- and, I suspect, of the childhoods of many others.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or at cfrederick@duluthnews.com .

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