I always wondered how my Uncle Ed knew so many famous (and infamous) people. He would always say, “They’re just people I’ve met along the way.” He was one of the most successful bootleggers in South Jersey during Prohibition. Pretty sure there was a tie-in, but he would never admit it. This is a story about a couple of famous folks he knew.
I’m old enough to have grown up with Guy Lombardo, a/k/a “Mr. New Year’s Eve,” on the television every New Year’s Eve. His band’s (The Royal Canadians) rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” became synonymous with ushering in the New Year at Midnight, Jan. 1.
I would “bump into” Mr. Lombardo on three separate occasions in my young life, four actually if you count the posthumous revelation later in this story.
I was mostly raised by my Uncle Ed. When he came back from flying in World War I, he couldn’t find any jobs. Seems returning veterans always had a difficult time reintegrating into the workforce. Since he had his own airplane (which he built), he was approached during Prohibition to fly the “good booze” into the country from Canada. Although it was about 4 stops one-way to fly into Canada from Southern New Jersey, it was a relatively easy task to bring back booze since there was no radar or people checking cargo coming in from our Northern borders back then.
Eventually, he bought a second plane and 5 boats to bring in liquor from offshore. He was caught 4 times but the jury, made up of mostly his customers, would never convict him. As a major supplier of “good booze” for South Jersey, Philadelphia and Delaware, he got to know many famous people, many of whom I would get to meet. He claimed that he paid tribute to Joseph Kennedy while he was running booze. He said everyone who did had to pay “Uncle Joe.”
After prohibition, he pursued his passion, inventing. Had a few successes. His big hit was the Compass Course Finder, which became the standard in marine navigation before the advent of radio tracking. My mother and I lived in his house. He lived in the basement where his workshop was located. He spent the last few years of his life trying to invent a time machine. I never spoke to anyone about this. As the smart, fat kid, I was already getting my share of grief. No sense giving the bullies more ammunition. No, he never succeeded in traveling through time and passed away quietly from a stroke in his 90’s.
Ed and I always watched Guy Lombardo on New Year’s Eve when I was young. One year, when I was about 8 or 9, he took me to a men’s store in Philadelphia and rented me a kid-sized tuxedo. He already had a pretty snazzy one himself. He said we had tickets to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City for Guy Lombardo’s televised show.
When we got there, we were given a table near the band and Guy came over and spoke to my Uncle. He was introduced to me. I was impressed. He was one of the first celebrities I ever met. We had dinner and then they meticulously cleaned off the tables for the broadcast. Ed danced with several older women during the show. I just sat there. Even then, I didn’t dance. Uncle Ed was tripping the light fantastic with every lady he could. The whole thing was even more elegant in person than it looked on TV.
When the show was over, we made the 2 ½ hour drive back to Williamstown. Uncle Ed hated to spend money on hotels. He never needed much sleep. When I got back in school, a couple of my friends said they saw me on TV New Year’s Eve. It was my first time “on-the-air.”
Fast forward a few years. Monroe Township had the nation’s first Little League Band (that’s the photo). I was one of the first members. I stunk at baseball but played a pretty good trombone. Well…at least I was a better musician than an athlete. It didn’t take much.
Our band was asked to play at the New Jersey Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I was 13. The band who played right before us was Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians. When we were setting up, I said hello to Mr. Lombardo. He remembered me and asked about my Uncle Ed. That really impressed me. Our World’s Fair gig went pretty well. Nobody booed, and at that age, I considered it a win.
In a couple of years, Ed and I were regularly taking flying day trips with my (honorary) Uncle Arthur. He was a successful broadcaster and had a few really nice airplanes. One was a magnificent twin Beechcraft, which he mostly used. We would fly from Teterboro, New Jersey to Boston for an early Sunday dinner and then fly back. Uncle Arthur liked to drink. After we took off, he would come back to where I was sitting and play ukulele while I played guitar. Even though Ed was only single engine certified, he’d fly the plane while Arthur drank and played music with me.
One Sunday, we flew to a small airport near Chestertown, Maryland. I was about 13. A large, black limo that was waiting picked us up. They said they were going to play cards and have a steam and massage. They dropped me at the park in Chestertown, gave me money to eat and said they’d be back in a few hours. I even played baseball with some local kids while I was waiting. Today, I’d be on the back of a milk carton and probably the star of a future NBC Dateline.
Maryland had very strict blue laws then. Luckily, there was a little 5&10 with a lunch counter. The rest of the store was roped off but the lunch counter was open. I even had enough left over to buy a model kit, once I convinced them to let me check out the toy department. I’m sure they didn’t think the cops were going to bust them for selling model plane to a 13-year-old.
A few hours later, the same limo picked me up at the park. I was sitting on a bench putting the model together. When I got in the car, I noticed another occupant. It was Guy Lombardo. The men said they had played cards, gotten a steam and massage. They all seemed very mellow. Ed flew most of the way home as Uncle Arthur slept while we flew back to Teterboro. We made a few more trips to Chestertown in the next couple of years. I made out pretty well financially, since Uncle Ed and Uncle Arthur were always trying to outdo each other with the money they gave me when they dropped me off in the park.
In the mid-1990’s, I was looking at buying the AM radio station In Chestertown. They wanted too much money for it, but I was negotiating with the owners trying to get them to agree to a reasonable price. While doing my research, I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast right outside of Chestertown. I found out it was rumored to have been an illegal casino and brothel in the 1950’s and 60’s. The owners said it had been frequented by many celebrities.
Damn! Ed and his friends probably got laid! I knew he was a horndog since I had caught him with a couple of hookers during our travels. But Uncle Arthur and Mr. Lombardo? Who knows, maybe they just played cards and hit the spa. But hey, we all have needs. It was no harm, no foul whatever they did.
Yes, I probably shouldn’t have been left alone in Chestertown. But Ed did that regularly, even once when we were in Nicaragua. They were different times. And no one ever approached me to get into their car to look for their dog or anything else. Maybe I was too ugly for the molesters? Of course, I did have a .45 caliber derringer with me at all times. Ed gave it to me in case of trouble. I guess he figured I could handle myself. I felt like Paladin.
Never bought the radio station. I think they finally lowered the price substantially after AM radio was literally proclaimed to be dead. By then, I had no interest.
To this day, I do get a little aroused when I hear “Auld Lang Syne,” especially when they play it in the massage parlor. (Wish the place in Chestertown hadn’t been closed in the early 1970’s. Hey, a man has needs!)
© 2020 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.