For auld lang syne: Guy Lombardo's history needs a home
Posted December 31, 2012
Before there was Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve, before lip-synching superstars from Lady Gaga to Justin Bieber wowed Times Square, there was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.
The history of New Year's Eve resides in southwest Florida, where descendants of the late, great bandleader try to keep his legacy alive with a treasure trove of memories and memorabilia.
Two nieces and a nephew of Lombardo proudly display historical items from the heyday of the famous band in their homes in Fort Myers and Sanibel, but much more languishes in two storage units in south Fort Myers. The relatives have offered the overflow to three colleges, but there have been no takers. They would like to see the memorabilia on loan to a place that would care for it archivally and display it to the public.
"Nobody wants it," said niece Gina Lombardo, 52.
Guy Lombardo and his orchestra brought the New Year in for millions nationally and internationally for nearly half a century, from the 1929 stock market crash that signaled the start of the Great Depression to America's 1976 bicentennial. They became an institution, synonymous with the ball drop in Times Square. The popularity of their live performances, first on radio and later, on TV, earned Lombardo the nickname "Mr. New Year's Eve."
The band was a partnership between four brothers, Guy, Carmen, Victor and Lebert Lombardo. Carmen was the songwriter, penning many of their hits. He also created the orchestra arrangements and sang. Lebert played trumpet.
The New Year's Eve tradition was stopped only by the death of Guy Lombardo in 1977 at 75. The legacy of the band, its memorabilia and rights to the orchestra, passed from brother to brother, ending with the death of Lebert on Sanibel Island in 1993.
Now they belong to Lebert's children: Elizabeth, who goes by "Liz," 57; Carmen, 50; and Gina. None of the children are involved in the music business. Gina is a high school development director; Elizabeth works as a bookkeeper; and Carmen works at a Sanibel marina.
The items displayed in their homes include photographs, record albums, sheet music, awards, and even the band's framed first paycheck from 1918, for $35.70.
Even more items have been sitting in storage for about 40 years, first placed there by Lebert, Gina said. They include at least 100 manila envelopes stuffed with original band orchestrations hand-written by Carmen; at least 40 boxes of reels of 35-millimeter tapes, plus many loose, large reels of 16mm tapes of the band's 1950s TV show.
The siblings offered it to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and two other colleges, but was told there wasn't room, she said. So Gina, her son, James, and Liz make a pilgrimage to the storage units on Sundays, putting the deteriorating tapes, smelling of vinegar, in archival envelopes and reboxing them. They don't know what to do with the orchestrations, many of them yellowing.
Who's this Guy?
Anyone younger than the baby boomer generation probably has no knowledge of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. But those aged 50-plus remember the crooning singers and big band orchestrations that became known as "the sweetest music this side of heaven."
They sold more than 300 million records. They played at presidential inaugural balls from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, Gina said. The played opening day at Yankee Stadium into the 1970s. They played Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade every year. Guy Lombardo had three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His image was on a Canadian postage stamp.
Guy was born in 1902, the oldest of seven siblings born to Italian immigrant parents in London, Ontario. He put the band together with his brothers and neighborhood friends. They first played in the United States in Cleveland in 1923 and eventually wound up at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The siblings remember running around the Waldorf Astoria in their pajamas while the band was rehearsing for the New Year's Eve show. "It was not just a television show. It was like a family event," Gina said.
Douglas Flood of London called the Lombardo items stored in Fort Myers "priceless." But he has more than 100 items of Lombardo memorabilia in his garage. They are what remains of a defunct museum Flood ran, called the Guy Lombardo Museum and Music Centre. City officials closed the museum in 2009, attributing it to hard economic times and dwindling visitors.
Flood, 83, who has a 3,400-pound bust of Lombardo on his front lawn, fought the closing and is bitter about the city's decision. He said he knows the historic objects belong to the residents of London, and ultimately the Canadian government. But city officials won't get them back until they can house and display them properly, Flood said.
Gina Lombardo said she knows the city of London had difficult choices to make but compromise would have been nice.
The siblings would be willing to give some items on loan to the museum, if it should become a reality again, she said. "I'd love to have it not just in a safe place but in a place they would be appreciated."
They have fond memories and tell great stories about their Uncle Guy, their father, and the band.
Like the Lombardos' friendship with legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Lombardo first met Armstrong in the 1920s in Chicago, where the orchestra was playing in the Granada Cafe. "They hit it off," Gina said. Lombardo wanted Armstrong to come to the cafe and talk. "He tried to slip Louis in through the kitchen," but the manager stopped them. It was the era of segregation. Lombardo told the manager if Armstrong couldn't come in, the band wouldn't be playing at the cafe anymore. Armstrong stayed.
Armstrong once said "in his band in heaven, dad would play the trumpet," Gina said.
In 1927 Chicago, gangsters were in their heyday, and they were often in the audience in the Granada, Gina said.
One day gangsters shot up the restaurant, Gina said. "Everybody hit the deck."
But Guy kept singing.
According to Guy's 1964 autobiography, "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven," the band was live on the radio at the time. Then five shots rang out, and a scream. Two men were slumped over a table, bleeding, and strolling away across the floor was gangster George Maloney, a revolver in his hand. "It was the first and last time he (Guy) ever sang a number on the air," the autobiography reads.
Meanwhile, the Lombardo legacy is finally getting respect from the Library of Congress.
Andrew Whitmore, a volunteer film archivist at the library, just finished a project preserving some of the Lombardo legacy. "I was given a total of nine shipping palettes that were stacked five feet high of different pieces of film, and the film came from various different collections," Whitmore said. "The library didn't even know - it came in, we are thinking, back in the early 1980s."
He and a colleague separated the films, inspected them, researched the provenance and cataloged them. They took the best prints and archived them. Now he's interested in seeing what the Lombardos have in storage.
Whitmore, 30, said he also discovered something about himself in working on the films. "I started out just not knowing who he was, and when I finished it, I was a fan."
The siblings agree hard work and humility were behind the band's success. "They were just regular people," Gina said. "They never took themselves too seriously."
They saw the development of entertainment over the decades, from radio to film to television
The band provided a transition between the music Roaring '20s "flapper" era to the onset of big band, Liz said. Then they provided a bridge once again from Big Band era to the development of rock 'n' roll.
"The main thing is, they were extremely supportive," Carmen said. "They believed you could do anything you set your mind to."
Guy once made a cameo appearance on the '60s comedy TV show "Laugh-In," and said "When I die, I'll take New Year's Eve with me," Gina said. "And for us, he did."
Guy Lombardo timeline
1902: Guy Lombardo is born in London, Ontario.
1917: Lombardo forms a band in 1917.
1923: The band goes to Cleveland to make its name.
1927: Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians take Chicago by storm.
1929: The band brings its first New Year's Eve in at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City with the old Scottish song, "Auld Lang Syne." The tune becomes the band's signature.
1954: Lombardo moves from broadcasting New Year's Eve live on radio to live on television at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
1976: Last TV broadcast with Guy Lombardo leading the band.
1977: Guy Lombardo dies Nov. 5; the band continues ringing in the New Year on TV without him for two more years.
1989-current: The band's name is leased by Lombardo descendants to Al Pierson.
Sources: Christopher Popa, bigbandlibrary.com; brittanica.com; Lombardo descendants
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