Rock collection: Richters share memories, history with Roof Garden poster collection

Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Sue and Emil Richter stand by their Roof Garden posters, on display now in the Iowa RockNRoll Museum in historic Arnolds Park. (Photo by Andrea Kemp/DCN Staff)

When Sue Richter uncovered a pile of forgotten posters while tackling her spring cleaning duties at the Three Sons in Milford, she knew she was on to something.

Richter, a Lakes area native and wife of Emil Richter, an owner of The Three Sons, couldn't believe her luck.

I said to Emil 'Oh this is a prize,'" Sue Richter recalls.

And Emil?

"He had forgotten he even had them," she said.

Gone but not forgotten

Almost two decades after unearthing the posters, Sue and Emil Richter are lending their posters to the Iowa RockNRoll Museum in Historic Arnolds Park for an exhibit on display through the end of February.

While the posters are now on view for public reminiscing, Sue Richter says she's always kept the memories of her Roof Garden days at the forefront of her mind.

"Us girlfriends (would) get together, we'd wash our hair, put it in rollers," she said. "Hairdryers back then used to be big bonnets with hoses on them and then a portable machine. Well to heck with that noise, we would take Nancy Neighbors' brand new GTO convertible, top down, and we would ride around the lake. We would start about, oh, 8:30 in the morning for a dance that didn't start until 7 or 8."

Unfortunately, the relentless Iowa humidity made the day's beautification efforts wilt quickly.

"By the time you would get there, obviously it wasn't air conditioned, it was hotter than blazes, your hair was (ruined), you were drenched in sweat," she said. "The band would take a break, and everybody would come off the steps, we'd go down the State Pier and jump in the lake. I mean, you were already drenched, didn't make any difference. That was our summer."

Emil remembers the iconic Roof concerts more simply as the slated activity for every "Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night" of the summer.

While the specifics of their concert nights vary, the two do agree on their favorite acts from the bygone ballroom.

"The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison had to be a couple of the great ones," Emil Richter said.

Rockin' research

For Sue, unearthing the collection in 1992 was only the beginning of her work to preserve nearly a decade of memories cherished during the Roof Garden's "Rock 'n' Roll years."

"Because there are no dates -- there's months but no years -- this young woman spent countless hours at the Spirit Lake (Library) going through microfiche, going through ads, finding out what year, who played, so she could catalog them chronologically," said Mick Buckley, IRRMA executive director and museum curator.

Thanks to her relentless research, each of the 54 framed posters is complete with the month and year of the billed performance, with such highlights as Willie Nelson, Bobby Rydell, and the Beach Boys.

'You can have them all'

Thanks to the Richter's dedication to preserving and honoring the Roof Garden's history, Buckley had no problem securing the collection in its entirety for the showing.

"Sue said 'yes' and Emil said 'how many do you want?' " Buckley recalls. "I said 'all of them,' and Emil said 'you can have them all.' And that's where it started."

Sue and Emil Richter are not strangers in the area of Lakes area memory preservation. Emil Richter is known as the unofficial "sign maker" among Okoboji Community Schools, and can be seen climbing a ladder, paintbrush in hand, to update markers at the city limits any time the school's jazz band, debate or sports teams earn new accolades. He's also known among his fellow Milord firefighters to be the "on call scrap booker," clipping news articles, pasting in photos and taking an accurate account of all things historic in the realm of the fire department.

Sue Richter, an active community volunteer, has Save the Park and Sustain the Park fundraising credits to her name, all work, she says, to attend to the need to preserve the area's history.

"The Roof Garden made fabulous memories for us, for my generation," Sue Richter said. "That's why it's important that the Park and the Roof Garden and the museum continue to make memories for other people, for the next generation. To me it's about making memories and persevering the memories you have and sharing them with others."

Keep on rockin'

Any doubts the couple had that collection would spark nostalgia among museum patrons was put to rest during an opening night reception, held January 26, and has continued since.

Buckley noted attendance during the exhibit's first weekend had nothing to do with the surrounding weekend festivities.

"We had a steady stream of people in here on Saturday, and I think we would've had the same amount of people if the Winter Games had not been going on," Buckley said. "This was their destination."

Buckley said many youngsters who viewed the exhibit were surprised when they recognized the names of some of the acts that passed through the Roof Garden.

"The kids look at the posters and go 'you mean they were here?'" Buckley said.

Emil said his chance to dance the night away, and rock the Roof is one that hasn't been able to pass through generations.

"I mention to people today ... (that) out of 200 ballrooms in Iowa there's 15 left," he said. "I think the only dances kids go to anymore are a high school dance or else a town celebration where they have a street dance, but there aren't any of these ballrooms left that have this kind of stuff."

Sue Richter said while she enjoyed being able to share memories with museum goers, their recollections only solidified her prior knowledge of the Roof Garden's sentimental value.

"I think we've always known that," she said. "As you visit with people in the store, in the park, or any place, somehow the Roof Garden weaves its way into the conversation."

For Buckley, the importance of the Roof Garden's "Rock 'n' Roll days" are clear.

"To the locals and visitors, the Roof Garden was such a wonderful thing, and an opportunity for our kids to see all of the big names -- and I do mean all of them," Buckley said. "They all came through here, they all played at the Roof Garden. We went there, we saw them and we danced to them."