Guy Lombardo – Boat Racer, Band Leader and Businessman
Guy Lombardo will always be remembered for his Royal Canadians’ performance of “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. Lombardo’s musical future was assured when he was given a violin and music lessons as he became old enough to read music. Living close to the Thames River which runs through London, Ontario where he grew up, young Lombardo always had a boat. It was his link to racing. Of all the fans who listened to him on the radio and watched him on TV, most didn’t realize how important boat racing was to him.
As the first born son of Italian immigrants in Canada, Lombardo and his brothers Carmen, Victor and Lebert, took music lessons and practiced in the back of their father’s tailor shop. Senior Lombardo was a tailor who was also a singer but his enthusiasm for music centered on his sons. The senior Lombardo envisioned his sons working together in musical careers.
Gaetano and Lena Lombardo came to London, Ontario for the promise of a job as a tailor. As his tailoring business grew to eleven employees, senior Lombardo moved into a bigger shop and moved the family into a larger, nicer house. There was money for luxury items like the hydroplane with a powerful engine that put young Guy Lombardo on the fast track to a boat racing career. He started racing in 1939 and was winning major races in the 1940s and 1950s, winning the Gold Cup in 1946.
In an attempt to win another Gold Cup in 1948, Lombardo, driving Tempo, was behind a boat named Hurricane at the starting gate. He planned to get up to 125 mph and cut across Hurricane’s wake. When the race started, Hurricane’s rudder and prop failed and it drifted directly in front of Tempo, leaving Lombardo, now moving at 125 mph, with two choices. He could hit Hurricane at high speed and probably kill the other driver and himself or head toward the pier where the spectators were. He spun his wheel and turned off the engine. Tempo did a sliding stall before it flipped over, sending Lombardo to the hospital with a broken arm – not a bad outcome given the choices he had.
Guy’s brothers were still in grammar school when they started playing at local events in London. To complete their orchestra, a nephew became their drummer, their sister became their singer and a neighbor became their piano player. At twenty-one Lombardo saw more of a future for his orchestra in the United States and found work for them in Ohio. He hired an agent and paid to get radio time to get the orchestra known in the area. The agent suggested uniforms and a name change for the Lombardos. They rejected the uniform suggestion but were willing to change the name to “Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians.” Their agent moved them from a small playhouse in Chicago to the Palace Theatre. By 1929 they appeared at the Roosevelt Hotel and later moved to the Waldorf-Astoria. Their records were selling, they appeared on TV and Lombardo appeared in several movies. The Royal Canadians played at Presidential Inaugural Balls, colleges, small towns and big cities.
As Rock & Roll took over the music business in the 1950s, the audience for the Royal Canadians’ style of music got older and the genre went into a decline. “As one door closes, another one opens,” my grandmother used to say. For Guy Lombardo, whose music was becoming less popular, the door was opened by Robert Moses, who wanted Lombardo to produce family entertainment style musical shows at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre. In six weeks Lombardo put “Arabian Nights” together. While the show was popular enough to run it for a second year, high cost overruns and bad weather combined to cost the Lombardos $300,000 of their own money to put on the show.
After giving Moses his decision not to sign a contract for the third year, Moses had employees follow Lombardo with a contract across the country as the Royal Canadians performed from New York to Las Vegas. While Moses’ people popped up wherever Lombardo was playing, Moses was working on sweetening the deal. When he sent Stan Polek, head of operations at the Marine Theatre, to Las Vegas, Moses had confirmation that he could offer Lombardo a better package. Polek came back with a signed contract and in the future the Lombardos would be covered for any financial loss up to $250,000.
From 1954 to 1977 Lombardo was the executive producer for the Jones Beach Marine Theatre. He put Broadway productions together that expanded the role of boats and water in every way he could, having the unique arrangement of a stage with a 100 foot wide lagoon between it and the audience on the shore. Performers came to the stage by boat or through the underwater tunnel. Some of the scenes were on barges powered by outboard motors. The moat had the potential for Lombardo’s entrance at the start of each show. As he stepped off the boat he had driven from a boatslip under his house on a Freeport canal, either someone took the boat away and Lombardo started leading the orchestra as he stepped off the boat or, sometimes he conducted the first number from Tempo’s cockpit. Either way, his entrance focused the attention of the crowd on him and provided an aura of intimacy – quite an accomplishment considering it was an outdoor event with thousands of people in the audience.
“Show Boat”, “Song of Norway”, “South Pacific” and “Hit the Deck” were a few of the shows he put on, enabling them to use a Viking ship, a Chinese junk and gondolas. Hit the Deck incorporated a real speed boat race. Every night the show went on, it included a race with real race boats and experienced boat racing drivers. How would that work, you may wonder. Al Grover explained how the race drivers got their jobs in “Hit the Deck”. First, they had to buy a boat from Al Grover so they would have comparable boats and motors. Then, they signed a contract promising to race every night for ten weeks. Getting paid for something you love to do was a win-win for the drivers. Some of the drivers that participated in the Hit the Deck races were racing stars Sonny Werner, Bill Ahrens, Paul Degl, Al Grover and Don McErlear.
The original Tempo, built in 1935 for MCA president, Jules Stein, was a 41 foot double diagonal, triple planked mahogany boat, bought by Lombardo in 1941. It was a windshield model with a small trunk cabin, powered by Packard engines and was called a sedan. Lombardo’s favorite boat seemed to be his Tempo VI, designed by Adolphe Apel and built in 1936 at the Ventnor Boat Works in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was a three point hydroplane with 2 forward sponsons and 1 rear pad. The first owner called it My Sin after his wife’s comment that it was a sin to spend that much money on a boat. Powered by a custom-built G50 horsepower V-16 Zumbach Miller motor, My Sin won the Gold Cup in 1938 and 1941. When Lombardo bought My Sin he changed the name to Tempo VI, changed it from a two-seater to a single seat and later repowered it with an Allison aircraft engine. In 1955 Lombardo bought Tempo VII, the 29 foot boat designed and built by Les Staudacher. Lombardo shared the driving with Danny Foster, a former competitor.
Lombardo’s last race behind the wheel was in 1955. He had planned a test drive with the Tempo-Alcoa, an experimental jet craft in partnership with the Aluminum Company of America, hoping to set a new speed record on Saginaw Bay in Michigan. Luckily, they tried a radio-controlled test run first. The boat did over 250 mph before it exploded and was completely destroyed.
By 1960 Lombardo was committed to producing musicals at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre every summer and kept his orchestra busy with other dates during the rest of the year. His business interests were widespread and would have been enough of a career without music and racing. He owned restaurants in New York and Florida, a music publishing business, and he had real estate and Texas oil businesses. He was involved with Robert Moses and Walt Disney in the planning of the New York World’s Fair. He still made time for racing, although no longer driving, and was Honorary Chairman of the President’s Cup Regatta for many years. He was consulted by TV producers about boat racing films they made.
You might expect a really busy person like Lombardo not to have time to help a stranger, but he was full of surprises. On a day Lombardo was home in Freeport, a boy he thought to be nine or ten years old, paddled up to his dock and asked if he could tie his boat up until he could get his outboard fixed. They didn’t know each other but it was OK with Lombardo. That night a heavy rain sank the boat at Lombardo’s dock. By the time Lombardo looked at the outboard after pumping out the boat, it was clear it could not be fixed. Lombardo went to Al Grover looking for a replacement – not a new one, just an equivalent working motor that would make the boy and his boat whole again, something he could use for the rest of the summer.
I asked Al Grover, who finished first in the 1959 Around Long Island Marathon, what is it like when you’re ahead in a race and almost at the finish line – you’re pretty sure you’re going to win – what does that feel like? Al said that for him, it felt as if the boats behind him were getting closer. He said when you’re out in the ocean and hit a big wave and come crashing down from that wave, you come home black and blue. You say a lot of prayers and make a lot of silent promises for the future. He remembers starting the Around Long Island Race tired. It took longer than he thought to get the boat rigged and ready. They were up late the night before so he started out without enough sleep. After seven hours of pounding, he was so exhausted that his wife went to the celebration party and he went to sleep.
What happened to the legendary boat racer Lombardo and his boats? Guy Lombardo died in 1977 in Texas where he had gone for heart surgery. His Tempo was bought by George Kressele, who spent 17 years restoring it before selling it to Mahogany Bay, a company in Minnesota that rebuilds, restores and sells vintage wooden boats from varnished mahogany speedboats, small Higgins and Chris Crafts to the beautiful old 1940s and 1950s Hubert Johnson lapstrake skiffs. Tempo VI crashed during a race and was restored by Joe Frauenheim. It currently can be seen in the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Seattle.