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The Music Stopped
Why London doesn't seem to care about Guy
by Christopher Doty

lombardo band 1921There is no nice way to say this. London's inability to stage any significant celebration to honour the 100th birthday of bandleader Guy Lombardo is an embarrassment for his hometown...

An embarrassment because it dismisses one of the best cultural ambassadors this country has ever produced. An embarrassment because we are turning our backs on the rich musical legacy of our community. An embarrassment because it treats one of the great Canadian success stories like a Trivial Pursuit question.

And where does the fault lie? It lies with a city council that has been hesitant to commit taxpayer's money to any sort of lasting tribute to Lombardo. It lies with well-meaning but poorly organized local fans who have been unable to actively and consistently promote the bandleader's legacy. And it lies with Londoners whose ignorance and apathy have helped undermine the reputation of one of the great heros of this community.

You don't have to look any further than our beleaguered Guy Lombardo Music Centre to see what I mean. Constructed on a shoe string budget in 1984, the centre's founders hoped to secure public and private funding to expand and improve the facility. The support never came and the attraction passed from the uncertain hands of the London Rowing Club to the PUC to a volunteer management board.

Miraculously, the centre limped along until last June when the city became enmeshed in an ugly and heavily publicized rift with the Lombardo estate, who used the centre's poor condition as proof London officials didn't care about the city's most famous son. Shortly afterwards, most of the centre's volunteer board resigned, lobbing the facility back into the hands of an unappreciative city hall.

There was more bad news to come for Lombardo fans. In October ticket sales for a Royal Canadians concert were so poor the organizer had to offer free admission with a donation to the Alzheimer's Society. The Big Band festival, originally organized as a fund raiser for the music centre, was forced to scale back its events to a single day.

The only bright spots were a well-attended screening of a restored Lombardo documentary at Museum London and the London Community Foundation's partial funding of a series of illustrative historical panels which, unfortunately, were never realized.

So how did London manage to drop the birthday cake? The fact is that Guy Lombardo's star quality is, at best, dwindling. Yes, his band enjoyed rip-roaring success on radio and television. Yes, he was the most famous Canadian entertainer during the first half of the 20th century. Yes, he sold more records than any big band leader.

But so what? As author Gary Giddins noted in his recent biography on Bing Crosby, the only sales figures that still matter involve artists who still matter.

lombardo music centreDoes this mean London's Lombardo heritage is destined for a landfill site along with all those old dance medley records? Hardly. It is a sign that the Guy Lombardo Music Centre must develop a new focus and a new appreciation of the bandleader, one that talks about his contribution to North American culture in historic, rather than celebrity-focussed terms.

With this in mind, there are three options for city hall as they cope with the future of the Guy Lombardo Music Centre.

The first is to dedicate resources that will help secure proper capitol and operational funding for the centre, including the drafting of a business plan, the hiring of a curator and the construction of proper displays. While city council has always balked at similar commitments, any level of support at this time would prove that London's Lombardo roots are more than platitudes for the benefit of tourism brochures.

The second alternative is to close the building down and disperse its artifacts. While unthinkable to some and repugnant to me, such an action would be a way of clearing the ground for a legitimate museum in London or, more likely, in another community.

However, I'm afraid we are most likely to see the status quo. The city will arrange for a summer student to helm the music centre and let the facility continue its slide into neglect. This choice does nothing to rectify the situation that led to last year's legal hassle and it is, at best, a lazy way to honour Lombardo. However, it does have one advantage - it will create the least amount of attention and criticism.

In the days leading up to the centenary of Guy's birth on June 19th I will be reflecting on the legacies he left his hometown: the dances at Winter Gardens dance hall in 1923, the flood benefit concert of 1937 and the musical scholarship he set up at the University of Western Ontario in 1971.

It is too late to express our thanks during Guy's 100th birthday. What will we be doing for his 101st?