London

How a marble bust of Guy Lombardo found a new home on this London, Ont. lawn

After being sold at auction, a massive marble bust of famed London, Ont. big-band leader Guy Lombardo now stands on a front lawn on Lorne Avenue with some saying the statue should take a place of prominence during the Juno Awards in March.

Sold at auction 2 years ago, the bust of of 'Mr. New Year's Eve' now stands on Lorne Avenue

This marble bust of famed London-born bandleader Guy Lombardo was commissioned by the late Douglas Flood for his ill-fated Guy Lombardo Music Centre and Museum. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

London's long, complicated relationship with Guy Lombardo took another surprising turn this week, when a large marble bust of the legendary band leader was spotted on the front lawn of a house in the city's east end. 

Long before the hip-high statue popped up on Lorne Avenue, the story of how London has marked its Lombardo legacy is a tale marked by lawsuits, fights with city hall, speed boats and Auld Lang Syne.

First, back to the beginning. 

Guy Lombardo was born in London to Italian immigrants in 1902 and would become one of the biggest names in the big-band era with some estimates putting his record sales at 300 million. By the time he died in 1977, some believe Lombardo to be the highest-selling Canadian musician ever. 

For decades, his band played live broadcasts on radio and television that would ring in the new year to an audience of millions, earning Lombardo the moniker "Mr. New Year's Eve." His band's eloquent recording of Auld Lang Syne still plays as the first song of the New Year in Times Square.

"He wanted this famous person from London to be remembered" - Barry Wells, friend of Lombardo super fan Douglas Flood

And while his musical accomplishments were formidable, London has had a troubled time finding ways to properly honour Lombardo. 

It's at this point that Douglas Flood enters the story. 

Flood, who died in the spring of 2016, was a big Lombardo fan. He was also a history buff who was immensely proud that Lombardo hailed from London. 

"He wanted this famous person from London to be remembered," said Barry Wells, a longtime heritage advocate in London and a friend of Flood's.

Fights with the city

Flood had an immense collection of Lombardo memorabilia and, for a while, ran a Lombardo museum located on Wonderland Road. The museum also had on display Tempo VII, one of Lombardo's many racing boats. 

The city and Museum London also played a role. But, as deep as his passion for the Lombardo legacy ran, Flood could also be cantankerous and combative. 

The Lombardo museum opened in the early 1980s and, by the late 1990s, Flood was accusing the city of failing to properly support the museum. There were lawsuits that ensnared everyone from a business partner of Flood's to some of Lombardo's U.S. relatives. 

"It was a drama that went on for decades," Wells recalls. "It just blew out. It was like the Lombardo museum got hit with a scud missile."

Timothy Lewis with the bust of Guy Lombardo. Lewis, a friend of the late Lombardo aficionado Douglas Flood, bought the bust in 2016. He eventually plans to have it moved to his backyard. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

The museum eventually closed in 2007. Flood reclaimed many of his contributions to it, including the massive marble bust he had commissioned years earlier. 

Surrounded by a garden of flowers and placed on a stone pedestal, the bust eventually found a home in Flood's yard in Lambeth. In 2012, the Toronto Star reported the statue had been defaced by vandals who drew a swastika on its forehead and a Hitler moustache on the upper lip. In its story, the Star said the vandalism had been reported to London Police as a hate crime.   

In 2015 Flood, still embittered by a city he felt failed to properly honour Mr. New Year's Eve, began to sell off his collection of Lombardo items. 

It's here that a new character enters the story. His name is Timothy Lewis, also a friend of Flood. And like Wells, Timothy Lewis has praise for Flood's ebullient civic pride but also acknowledges his friend's well-earned reputation for surliness. 

Known as Mr. New Year's Eve, band leader Guy Lombardo helped millions ring in the new year with live broadcasts started in 1929. Lombardo died in 1977. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

"His heart was always in the right place," said Lewis, who got to know flood during Lewis's time working as a postmaster in Lambeth. Lewis now works at the Cobbletog Antique Market on Exeter Road.  

'That's Doug Flood's statue'

Lewis recalls looking through items for sale on the Gardiner Auctions website when he saw a familiar face looking back at him.

"I went 'Oh, that's Doug Flood's statue of Guy Lombardo," Lewis recalls. This was the summer of 2016, months after Flood's death.

Lewis put in a bid and was surprised when it turned out to be the winning one. 

"I felt a connection to Doug Flood," he said. "Even though he could be a pain in the ass. That was probably more why I bid on it than a piece of history. I bid on it more because of Doug Flood than because of Guy Lombardo."

Lewis won't say what he paid. He will share that it cost him more to move the statue from Lambeth to his front lawn in east London.

Although it's been there for more than two years, it wasn't until someone posted about the statue this week on Facebook that people with some knowledge of the Lombardo statue saga started to weigh in. 

Lombardo's next stop after that is anyone's guess. 

"Whoever gets the house after I kick the bucket, they have a choice," said Lewis laughing. "They either keep him or not. It's a package deal."

Next stop Junos?

All joking aside, Barry Wells would like to somehow find a way for the Lombardo statue to take a place of prominence in March when London hosts the Juno Awards.

He also suggested the bust could play some role in a tie-in to the Grand Theatre's upcoming production of a musical celebration of Lombardo's New Year's Eve legacy.

Lewis says he's open to loaning out his Lombardo, so long as someone else is willing to properly tackle the move.

"I think after all this, it would add a nice touch to the Junos," said Wells.


You can listen to the radio version of this story by clicking on the play button below. 

CBC reporter Andrew Lupton tells the story of how a large marble Guy Lombardo bust found its way to London's east end. 5:43

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