Joe Warren Davis recently visited the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly played his final concert on Feb. 2, 1959, immediately before he died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
The Surf Ballroom is probably a tourist attraction for rock-and-roll aficionados, but Mr. Davis was not a mere tourist: He plays the title role in the national company of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," which opens at the Mechanic Theatre on Wednesday.
Visiting the ballroom -- as well as the nearby crash site -- "was not the experience I was expecting," the 30-year-old actor said in a phone interview during the musical's engagement in Lansing, Mich. The show, he explains, focuses "on Buddy when he was alive. There's very little emphasis on his death. Being at the Surf Ballroom was very much focused on Buddy leaving the world."
Though that fatal February day was immortalized by songwriter Don McLean as "the day the music died," the stage show brings Holly's music back to life by re-creating two of his concerts. The ++ first act ends with his 1957 appearance at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where he and his band, the Crickets, were booked by a promoter who thought they were black; the finale is the concert in Clear Lake.
A native of Westchester County, N.Y., Mr. Davis says he was always a Buddy Holly fan, but before he decided to audition for the role, he knew only two of his songs. The audition was held on a Monday; over the weekend he learned 28 more.
Although Mr. Davis didn't get the part initially, after a few months he took over the lead in the original London production, which was conceived by two Britishers, playwright Alan James and director Rob Bettinson. After nine months in London, he created the role in Australia.
"Buddy" ran only six months on Broadway, but it is now in its third year in London and is about to begin its second in Australia. The current 40-city North American tour is booked through next October, with stops in such cities as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles coming up.
Despite the allure of these big cities, Mr. Davis says one of the most exciting engagements thus far was the little town of Lubbock, Texas, where Holly was born in 1936. Holly's parents are both dead, but the show was attended by a number of other family members, as well as Lubbock residents who knew him in his formative years. "Having their approval on the show was a big thrill for us," the actor says.
In the course of performing the role internationally, Mr. Davis has noted a difference in audience reactions here and abroad. "London has probably been the most aggressive when it comes to theater response. The English have an incredible fascination with our '50s Americana, especially our rock and roll," he says, explaining that London audiences make repeat visits and dance in aisles almost nightly. In the States, dancing in the aisles tends to occur only after the show has been in a town for a while, and even then, "there's a reserved quality to it."
Yet there's no mistaking the fact that audiences are still interested in the skinny, bespectacled creator of such songs as "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue" and "Maybe Baby." The reason, Mr. Davis believes, is not just because of the individual songs, but because of "Buddy's influence on future rock and rollers." That influence has been cited by musicians ranging from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen. "Buddy was a studio innovator at the time," he continues. "He was constantly experimenting with form."
On a smaller scale, Mr. Davis points out that even when he had his own band -- which he started in a friend's garage in Los Angeles -- "we used to play a few of his songs. I think every rock and roller has at least played one or two of Buddy's songs."
A graduate of Syracuse University with a major in drama, Mr. Davis moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s when he was cast in a CBS pilot, "For Members Only." Based on the movie "Caddyshack," it failed to be made into a series, but the young actor remained in Los Angeles for five years.
For the first three and a half, he found work as what he calls a "teen brat-pack" actor. His credits include the TV shows "Simon and Simon" and "Riptide," and he also played the young Spock in the movie "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." Then came a discouraging year and a half when he had outgrown the brat-pack roles. Finally, he "packed up the car and just left one day" for New York.
Immediately prior to the audition for "Buddy," he had been in two New York productions that required him to play guitar, a skill he acquired as a teen-ager. In Hollywood, he says, "I had been working as an actor [by day] and a musician at night, and I never was able to put the two together." When "Buddy" came along, it was "a dream part."
Now that he has that dream part, Mr. Davis hasn't confined his musicianship to the stage. He has been composing on a portable four-track studio and has assembled a new band made up of fellow company members. In fact, during "Buddy's" travels, the band often pays a surprise post-performance visit to a local club.
Mr. Davis eventually hopes to record some of his new material. In the meantime, he's grateful for the continuing education his current role provides: "I've always said I've been enrolled in the college of rock and roll by doing 'The Buddy Holly Story.' I can't think of a better teacher."
'Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story'
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Jan. 5.
Tickets: $22 to $42.50.
Call: (410) 625-1400.