FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) - 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.
Lead trumpeteer Lebert Lombardo's daughter Gina is heading up the family's efforts.
"Probably a lot of younger people who don't even know who Guy Lombardo is, who would really appreciate the old school way of doing things such as the sheet music being handwritten," she said.
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."
"He [Guy] said that when he goes he's taking New Year's Eve with him, and for the family that's basically how it feels," Gina said.
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 band orchestrations hand-written 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-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.
"We would go to the Waldorf and when we were little my brother and sister and I would be up in the room during the broadcast. As we got older, high school age, we were allowed to dress up and attend the event downstairs," 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 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.
Flood, 83, who has a 3,400-pound bust of Lombardo on his front lawn, fought the closing. 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. 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.
Andrew Whitmore, a volunteer film archivist at the Library of Congress, 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. It had been there for quite some time without inspection. It's no fault of the library. They take in these extremely massive collections. They are the world's largest library, with only a finite number of man hours."
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."
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."
Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com
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