Port in a Stormy Music Scene
With the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s, Guy Lombardo was starting to look like a relic from another musical age, a "square" in the parlance of the day.
In his biography of Robert Moses, "The Power Broker," author Robert Caro opines that the "rigidly traditional arrangements" of Lombardo and his Royal Canadians perfectly complemented the culturally conservative Long Island State Parks commissioner, who had opened Jones Beach in 1929, the same year Lombardo arrived in New York. Nearly a quarter century later, Moses offered the band leader a chance to produce musical shows at his new Jones Beach Marine Theater on Zachs Bay - an 8,206-seat amphitheater, built in 1952 to replace an earlier, wooden structure.
For a man who had sold 100 million records and led one of the world's most popular orchestras, producing retread musicals such as "Song of Norway" in a half-empty theater located in the middle of a lagoon might have seemed a step down. But Christopher Doty, a historian based in Lombardo's hometown of London, Ontario, believes otherwise.
"I think of Jones Beach as a sort of retirement home for Guy and the Royal Canadians," Doty says. "It offered him a port in the stormy music scene of the mid-1950s and onward."
According to Caro, Moses - who used the theater to entertain powerful friends - made sure his producer was well compensated, despite the fact that the shows rarely made money. Lombardo certainly seemed happy, at least to his neighbors in Freeport, where he lived and owned a popular restaurant, East Point House.
"He was well known and well liked," says Freeport historian Cynthia Krieg. "He felt comfortable here."
He probably wouldn't feel that way at Ozzfest, the kind of entertainment you'll find at today's far less square and far more successful Tommy Hilfiger at Jones Beach Theater. A plaque near the ticket office honors Lombardo, who produced his last summer show at the beach ("Finian's Rainbow") in 1977. He died that November.
To the end, Lombardo remained true to his geometric sobriquet: He was a square and proud of it.
"Guy had no illusions about his music and his audience," Doty says.
In a 1968 interview, he was asked why people still enjoyed his music, as out of synch with contemporary styles as it was.
"My boy," Lombardo told the reporter. "If you can't dance to my music, you can't dance."
This article was originally published in Newsday in July 2004. It is reprinted with permission from Newsday. Further reproduction without written permission from Newsday is prohibited.