Monday, April 23, 2018

Bandleader Guy Lombardo's legacy

FORT MYERS — The history of New Year's Eve resides in southwest Florida, where descendants of the late, great bandleader Guy Lombardo 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 Lombardo's heyday 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 archive and display it to the public.

"Nobody wants it," said niece Gina Lombardo, 52, of Fort Myers.

Before there was Dick Clark's "New Year's Rockin' Eve," there was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

The orchestra brought in the New Year 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 in Sanibel in 1993. Now they belong to Lebert's children: Elizabeth, 57; Carmen, 50; and Gina. None of the children are involved in the music business.

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 sat in storage for about 40 years, first placed there by Lebert, Gina said. They include at least 100 envelopes stuffed with original orchestrations handwritten by Carmen; at least 40 boxes of reels of 35 mm 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 were 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.

Anyone younger than the baby boomer generation probably has no knowledge of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. But those aged 50 and older 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.

Guy was born in 1902, the oldest of seven siblings born to Italian immigrant parents in London, Ontario. 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 the 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.

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