What you see: A Winter Dance Party concert poster, touting Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, all of whom would die in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959—aka “The Day the Music Died.” Heritage Auctions issued no formal estimate for the poster, but its likely range is between $50,000 and $100,000.
The expert: Pete Howard, consignment director at Heritage Auctions for entertainment and music.
How rare are pre-1960 concert posters in general? I get the impression that the further back you go, the less likely they are to survive. Exactly. There’s a saying: People didn’t save much from the 1960s because they were having too much fun. But people didn’t save anything from the 1950s. I often say many if not most of the concert posters from the 1950s and back were saved by accident, and found by accident.
Found in walls, as insulation … Exactly. “This is cool, I’m gonna save this,” —that kind of thinking didn’t happen until the ’70s.
I understand that five examples of the Winter Dance Party poster survive—three printed with dates before the plane crash that became known as “The Day the Music Died,” and two after. How does this poster compare to the other four? This is the only four-color Winter Dance Party poster. On all the others, the information at the top is printed in black. This is a nice teal color. It’s the only four-color to survive. This is a good one. There are no mint ones.
In a video that appears on the Heritage Auctions lot page for the Winter Dance Party poster, you say the poster is “Arguably the best and rarest rock concert poster in history.” That’s quite a statement. Could you elaborate? What makes it the one that rules them all? It has tremendous, off-the-charts cachet to it. It’s rock’s first tragedy, and the music is still so alive today. The poster is visually charismatic—everyone loves the graphics on it. And the wording: “Parents invited, no charge.” All those elements come together to make it arguably the most collectible or best concert poster. Some prefer the psychedelic concert posters of Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, but for Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, I think there are over 100 first printings that exist. This thing is stupid-rare by comparison.
Concert posters of the era were often printed with a blank space on them where the specific date and venue for the show would be added later. Has anyone found a stash of Winter Dance Party posters with blank tops, which would have gone unused after the plane crash? One would think it [such a stash] could possibly survive. Anyone with a sense of nostalgia and foresight would have saved it. But it was just trash can, trash can, trash can.
Immediately after the plane crash, when the accident hadn’t yet grown into The Day the Music Died, the blank posters would have been seen as so much useless paper, and trashed? That’s right. There could be blanks out there, but they’ve never come forward.
You mentioned the graphics before. Could you say more about them? I’ve seen other concert posters of this type that look terrible—trying to cram too many acts into the space, or using eye-stabbing colors or both. But the Winter Dance Party poster is beautiful. It certainly is, and it’s symmetrical. It plays nicely on the eyes. It was intentional. And the black and yellow–they got away cheaply enough to use one other color than black in the design. It’s an iconic image. A lot of people who know nothing about rock ’n’ roll recognize this image.
The Winter Dance Party poster lists Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens and names their biggest hits, not their newest singles. Would you talk about why that’s important, and how it makes the poster more interesting? Generally, when an artist is on tour, they’re promoting their newest singles. Often the poster designer and the [concert tour] management would put the newest single on the poster. [But] do you want to sell tickets, or sell records? My thought is, if you put the biggest hit on the poster, people think, “Wow, let’s go.” It’s just happenstance that “Let’s sell tickets” won the vote. The Big Bopper’s newest single was Big Bopper’s Wedding. Imagine how silly that would look—Big Bopper’s Wedding. It’s pure happenstance that they used big hits to sell tickets and didn’t focus on promoting the new singles.
How did this particular example of the Winter Dance Party poster manage to survive? This one was not saved by accident. It was taken down off the wall of the Kato Ballroom by a teenage girl who was walking out. She had no idea of investment value, or it being worth something someday. She had a fun time and took it home as a memento. Why more people didn’t do that, I don’t know. Some do and throw it away in later years.
They get older and move out and don’t take it with them… There’s a hundred scenarios for why posters don’t survive. The basement floods and there’s water damage. There’s a vengeful brother or sister. Having taken it down in the first place is unusual. Not screwing up the poster in the decades since is really unusual.
Do we know how, exactly, this particular one managed to survive so well? We don’t know. It was a bit worse for wear, but it was touched up by a paper conservation expert.
The lot notes mention that the Winter Dance Party poster “has been reproduced and bootlegged ad infinitum over the ensuing decades.” Can you talk about how we know this example is a genuine 1959 original? This might be a bit of a complicated answer. After doing something for so long—I’ve been doing this 30 years—an expert like me has a built-in radar detection system that kicks in. It’s almost this unconscious feeling coming over you, merging all the red flags and green flags in your life. Either you feel uncomfortable with the piece, or you feel comfortable and move ahead with due diligence. The fact that it came from the original girl, now a woman, who attended the show and saved it and gave a great letter of provenance, and I examined the piece in person … it’s hard to put into words what you look for. It’s a feeling you get when you examine something. If something is all green flags, no red flags, you get excited. This was green flags every step of the way.
This Winter Dance Party poster is described as a “window card.” What does that mean? The term “window card” is 100 percent synonymous with a cardboard concert poster, not a paper one. It was put in store windows and thumbtacked on telephone poles, where it might last for days or weeks. That’s why they’re tall and thin. [It measures 14 inches by 22 inches.] You can put them up on a telephone pole and not lose anything.
What is the Winter Dance Party poster like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? No, but there’s a feeling of history that comes over you as you hold it. It’s wonderful—the show really happened, and this person [who took the poster off the wall] stood near the stage and watched the musicians. You get an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and genuineness when you hold it.
What’s your favorite detail of the poster? “Parents invited, no charge.” I think that’s just stunning.
Ok, when I was a teenager, I was pretty much a square, but even I would have considered a concert with a poster that said, “Parents invited, no charge” as kryptonite, straight-up. But in the late 1950s, how many parents were hip enough to want to go to it anyway? What’s ironic is that 50 years later, you may as well have said, “Parents invited. Witness rock ’n’ roll history, make everyone else green with envy that you were there, and have a story you can regale your grandchildren with for the rest of your life, no charge.”
Was “Parents invited, no charge” a common phrase seen on concert posters in the late 1950s? I’ve seen tens of thousands of concert posters, and I would guess that I’ve seen the phrase less than five times on a poster.
And the phrase shows up on posters from the late 1950s and early 1960s? Yes. They didn’t put it on Beatles posters, that’s for sure.
Didn’t the concert promoters run the risk of scaring off their target audience by proclaiming that parents were invited to the show? That’s a good point, but maybe… it’s not New York City, where there are four cool concerts a month. This is the dead of winter. Nothing exciting happens in Mankato, Minnesota—no offense—and the biggest hitmakers are coming to town. I don’t think the kids would be dissuaded by a few parents being there.
As of March 27, 2020, the Winter Dance Party poster had been bid up to $19,500, with eight days to go before the auction. Is that meaningful at all, to have such a large bid well before the sale date? Posters like this are driven by emotion. I’ve seen posters sit there, dead in the water in the leadup time, and explode on auction day as everybody jumps in at once. I’ve seen posters jump out weeks before the auction and just not grow much from there. Trying to predict when excited bidders will place bids is folly, but it’s part of what makes the auction game fun–not so much for bidders, but for sellers.
Heritage Auctions did not require a formal estimate for the poster, but if you assigned an estimate, what would it be? It’s hard to mess with a window between $50,000 and $100,000.
This is the first Winter Dance Party poster to go to auction. What comparables—other items that have sold at public auction—would you look to when writing the estimate? I’d look at private sales. That’s often a gauge. Winter Dance Party posters have changed hands privately for $175,000.
What’s the significance of such an important original concert poster making its auction debut? What’s fun about auctioning a Winter Dance Party poster for the first time is, is this going to pull out previously unknown Winter Dance Party posters? When John and Mary Smith in the upper Midwest see the result, they might think, “Maybe it’s time to sell ours.” I once calculated that there’s a quarter-billion garages, attics, and basements in the United States. Quarter-billion, with a “b”. Are there five more Winter Dance Party posters in closets or attics? Are there no more? This auction has the potential to smoke out others.
What’s the world auction record for an original concert poster? It’s $132,000, for a Beatles Shea Stadium poster sold in 2004. I have felt all along that we have a chance of surpassing that.
Why will this Winter Dance Party concert poster stick in your memory? It’s the first time in history one has been to auction. As I’ve said, it’s arguably the coolest and greatest rock concert poster out there. There’s no Elvis Presley I’d want more, no Beatles I’d want more, no Jimi Hendrix I’d want more, no Bob Dylan I’d want more. I’m not taking this for granted. This might be the peak of my poster auction career. It might be peaking right now.
How to bid: The Winter Dance Party poster is lot 89140 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Auction at Heritage Auctions on April 4 and 5, 2020.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.