My dad (thanks to my most-determined mother) was a lovely dancer, and one of the sweetest dances we ever shared was on Canada Day, July 1, when Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians played at London’s Victoria Park Bandshell.
By then, this was the revival version of the famed orchestra, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, led by conductor, Al Pierson, a group that tours to this day: it is scheduled to play two nights in August 2017 at the Stratford Summer Music festival.
That London evening I shared with my parents, dancing to the Royal Canadians, was an evening of terrific nostalgia for mom and dad, who had grown up and courted to the gentle, smooth Big Band music of Guy Lombardo, a London, Ontario-born Canadian known for “the sweetest music this side of heaven.”
Lombardo was one of five sons in an Italian immigrant family. Their father, who had worked as a tailor, loved to sing and ensured his sons had musical training, too: the boys formed their first band in their early teens and rehearsed in the back of their father’s tailor shop. The brothers’ first big gig was a summer of playing at a dance pavilion in Grand Bend, a beach town along the shores of Lake Huron.
After a few years, Guy and his brothers Carmen, Lebert, and Victor expanded their group and formed The Royal Canadians in 1924 although, by this time, they had moved to Cleveland for a two-year residency at a night club. That club’s owner has been credited with shaping the orchestra’s “sweet” sound: slower tempos, muted drumming, and lower volume.
The orchestra rose to fame, and worked from the U.S., for the rest of its many decades but their name, if nothing else, made them Canada’s own. While reports vary, many sources credit the orchestra with selling 300 million phonographs / records over the span of the musicians’ careers. Guy was an early proponent of using radio broadcasts to promote the band’s appearances and their greatest fame came from being the signature sound of new year’s in radio and, later, television broadcasts from New York. Guy Lombardo became known as “Mr. New Year’s Eve”, leading the orchestra for 33 years from New York’s Roosevelt Grill, then later from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. A Lombardo recording of Auld Lang Syne, to this day, is played when the big ball drops in Times Square at midnight Dec. 31.
When I lived in London, there was a Guy Lombardo Museum, which closed a decade ago after many years of poor attendance. It showcased artifacts of Lombardo’s performance career that were dwarfed by the central installation, his hydroplane speedboat: Guy pursued competitive racing for many years and was U.S. National champion from 1946 to 1949.
Lombardo’s story, today, is largely forgotten apart from the remnant New Year’s Eve moment. The creative team at Ontario’s Blyth Festival is mounting a new play written about Lombardo’s early days, which may revive interest, and knowledge, about his remarkable journey.
Guy Lombardo: Mr. New Year’s Eve, by David Scott, is yet another among the dozens and dozens of plays emerging from Blyth — located in the village of Blyth, a 1.5-hour drive north west of London — that reclaim and re-examine moments of Canadian history. The Festival’s mandate is to reflect the “culture and concerns of the people of southwestern Ontario, and beyond.” When it started in 1975, few plays were written on these topics, so developing new work became its prime focus. It’s now launched more than 130 new works about Canadian stories and, at the time of its 40th anniversary, was lauded as “a Canadian icon” in a London Free Press story that provides a great summary of the festival’s achievements and influence.
Blyth’s production focuses on Lombardo’s early years, taking us back to that Lake Huron dance hall. As the show’s description states: “Though his own father adamantly opposed Guy’s love of jazz, and Canadian radio stations showed active disinterest, Guy’s dedication to his craft was all-consuming, and no obstacle could block his path to his dreams. Friend and influential colleague of some of the biggest names in show biz, including Louis Armstrong, Sophie Tucker, the Andrew Sisters, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and others, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians blazed a path from Huron County to the Big Apple the likes of which has never been seen, before or since.”
Main image of Kelley Teahen (in white pants and pink sweater) dancing with her father, Ted Teahen, to Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians on Canada Day in London, Ontario. Photo: Pamela Post.