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New Year’s Eve icon’s forgotten ties to Northwest hydroplane racing

Auld Lang THUNDERBOATS? Iconic New Year's Eve bandleader Guy Lombardo (left) of "Auld Lang Syne" fame, was also a huge force in the world of hydroplane racing from the 1940s to the 1960s. (Randall Milligan)

He was a fixture every New Year’s Eve, first on radio and then on TV, from 1929 to the 1970s, but bandleader Guy Lombardo also had a strong, very loud – and sometimes very fast – connection to Seattle.

Lombardo passed away back in November 1977 at age 75, which means you probably have to be about 50 years old or older to remember seeing him on TV with his band, The Royal Canadians. They were the stars of the big show every year, playing “Auld Lang Syne” as the ball came down in New York City each December 31. Lombardo made his final appearance in 1976.

One person who remembers those long-ago TV New Year’s Eves is David Williams. Williams is the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent.

“Guy Lombardo was sort of the guy for my parent’s generation,” Williams said earlier this week. “We had two TVs in the house. My brother and sisters and I would have it on Dick Clark listening to rock and roll, and my parents and my grandparents would have it on some other channel listening to Guy Lombardo.”

Muncey

Lombardo’s niche musical genre was famous for its “sweetness,” with arrangements that were light on the drums, and rich with woodwinds and not-so-brassy brass.

“His music was coined at the time, ‘The Sweetest Sounds This Side of Heaven,’” Williams said, “and it was very mellow and sweet . . . not [like] even the hard rocking, big band stuff like a Glenn Miller, but just a very kind of sweet dance music.”

And so it might come as a surprise that not only was Lombardo a New Year’s Eve icon and a very successful recording artist, but he was also a serious and competitive racing boat and hydroplane driver based out of Detroit.

“He was a big force in the sport in the 1940s,” Williams said. “He won the Gold Cup in 1946. He went to number of national championships throughout the early 1950s” and remained active as an owner into the 1960s, says Williams. Lombardo got hooked on boat racing in Detroit around 1940, Williams says, when that city was a hotbed of boat racing in the eastern United States, and the successful bandleader had the funds necessary to buy a competitive boat.

Since that era is now more than 60 years ago, “unless you’re talking to your grandpa about racing or unless you have a really good memory, you probably wouldn’t know much about that Guy Lombardo was a racer,” Williams said.

This story of the racing bandleader is no secret, of course, and it was well-known back in the day when hydroplane racing was the subject of polite conversation in nearly all socio-economic circles of the Pacific Northwest. Lombardo’s star has faded, of course, since his death, though the London, Ontario native was the subject of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV documentary back in the 1990s that featured some old newsreel clips.

“A terrific pace is set by the bandmaster as he roars around,” the 1940s newsreel narrator says. “Past the checkered flag across the finish line, TEMPO VI is the winner.” In a later clip, perhaps from the 1950s, a different narrator jokes, “One of his crew hands him a screwdriver. Guy uses a baton to tune up his band and a screwdriver to tune up his motor, and does very well with either instrument.”

Williams says that Lombardo never actually raced in Seattle; he was more of an East Coast guy. But old newspaper clippings show that Lombardo did at least threaten to race in Seattle.

When local boat Slo-Mo-Shun IV broke the speed record and won the Gold Cup in Detroit in 1950, that meant the race came to Seattle and Lake Washington in 1951. In many ways, socially and culturally, that summer was when postwar Seattle came of age, and it’s hard to overstate the impact of that Gold Cup race on local culture.

Lombardo and his TEMPO VI, in spite of his stated intentions to compete, were no-shows here during that watershed summer. The same thing happened again in 1952, when Seattle boat Slo-Mo-Shun V captured its second of what ultimately were five straight local Gold Cup wins for Seattle boats.

Meanwhile, by the mid 1950s, some say at the urging of record company executives who were worried about their cash cow, Lombardo stepped back from driving. He still owned a boat that ran the circuit and that did race in Seattle, TEMPO VII, but Lombardo didn’t ever actually drive in a boat race here.

In spite of Seattle missing from his career stats, Lombardo would keep waving his baton in front of The Royal Canadians, and would go on to make at least two significant impacts on the sport and on the Northwest.

Around 1960, Lombardo commissioned a special four-seater hydroplane so that he could take people out on the water for high speed “demonstration” rides. David Williams says that four-seater boat was featured in an episode of the old early 1960s TV program “Route 66” that was set in Florida.

“While he was filming that, a local car dealer in Florida saw the boat and thought it was amazing and bought it from Guy,” Williams said. “The car dealer was named Bernie Little. Bernie Little went on to become the winningest owner in the history of the sport. He secured the Budweiser sponsorship and he brought Budweiser into motorsports and for over 40 years, totally dominated the sport running the Miss Budweiser. And his very first boat came from Guy Lombardo.”

Lombardo also played a part in getting the great driver Bill Muncey – of Miss Thriftway and Atlas Van Lines fame – into the sport. David Williams says that Muncey was from Detroit and was a teenage saxophone player in Gene Krupa’s band when Krupa got arrested for marijuana possession. The whole band got hauled downtown to the police station and had to get bailed out; Muncey had to phone his dad to come and get him.

David William says that on the ride home, Muncey took the opportunity to attempt to alter his son’s path.

“His dad says, ‘You know, we need to get you involved in something that’s a little bit more stable, that’s not going to be around all these jazz musicians smoking pot,’” Williams said.

According to Williams, the elder Muncey asked, ”’What are you interested in?’ And Bill goes, ‘Well, I kind of think those race boats are cool.’ So his dad contacted Guy Lombardo and said, ’Hey, I’ve got a son who’s a jazz musician who wants to learn about hydroplane racing.’ They ended up buying a boat from Guy Lombardo. That was Bill Muncey’s first boat, and [he] went on to become the winningest driver in the history of the sport,“ Williams said.

Elements of the Guy Lombardo legacy are in the collection of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum is Kent. David Williams says they have restored 18 hydroplanes to running condition – including Lombardo’s old boat TEMPO VI – and they stage an exhibition heat with old boats during the Seafair race on Lake Washington. They’ve also run vintage boats as far east as Buffalo, and as far west as Hawaii.

One group inspired by what Williams and his colleagues have done in Kent is based in London, Ontario. Randall Milligan is club director for the Canadian Boating Federation, and is aiming to restore Lombardo’s TEMPO VII boat.

“We’re working with the City of London to, hopefully in the next year or so, get that boat up to our facility, get it restored and then back to them,” Milligan said Monday. TEMPO VII was in a city-owned warehouse for many years, but is now on display at the Jet Aircraft Museum, also in London, Ontario.

Milligan is hoping to generate renewed interest in boat racing history in Canada. He led recent efforts, which culminated last month, to induct Guy Lombardo into the Canadian Boating Federation’s Hall of Fame.

“Guy Lombardo made a great contribution to the sport in North America, not just Canada” Milligan said. “We developed the Hall of Fame to recognize all these people,” from Canada who have made a difference in boat racing, he said. “Guy was always Canadian. His band was called The Royal Canadians. His boats always flew under the Canadian flag.”

Meanwhile, as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve 2019, recordings of Guy Lombardo are likely to be featured in every time zone in North America. And, until recently, a band licensed by Lombardo’s estate was also likely to be playing “Auld Lang Syne” somewhere in the United States or Canada.

But not this 90th anniversary year.

“Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians do still perform and they are led by Al Pierson . . . he has been leading the band since 1988,” wrote Jeff Bush of Phoenix Talent Agency, who books the band, via email. “To my knowledge, they are not working this upcoming New Year’s Eve.”

Thank goodness there’s still Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

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