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Thief Steals 50 Years of Guitarist's Memories : Crime: Tony Romano, who has performed all over the world with Bob Hope since 1941, had his vintage Gibson taken while in Burbank to tape the comedian's 90th birthday special.

May 06, 1993|JIM HERRON ZAMORA and TIMOTHY CHOU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Somewhere, Tony Romano's guitar is gently weeping.

And Romano, 77, was mourning for his guitar this week.

The Dana Point resident bemoaned the loss of a guitar he had played while spending the past half-century in Bob Hope's backup band.

Everywhere Hope entertained soldiers in USO tours, Romano played his customized 1929 Gibson L-5. They played USO tours together from 1942 to 1992, in an estimated 4,000 performances from Australia to Tunisia, Italy to Hawaii. South Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf too.

But on Sunday, the guitar was stolen at the Holiday Inn in Burbank, where Romano was staying while taping Hope's 90th birthday special at NBC.

Romano set the guitar case on the sidewalk in the hotel parking lot and then walked over to get his car.

"When I came back, the guitar that played about 8 jillion nights with Bob Hope was gone," Romano said. "I couldn't say anything but 'Oh my God.' "

Romano bought the guitar in 1931 at Sherman & Clay in Los Angeles with a hard-earned $175 and customized it over the years. A small brass plaque engraved with Romano's name is mounted on the neck of the instrument, which was inside a black case engraved with his name.

"Playing my guitar has been my life since I was a wee boy," he said.

Romano began performing with Hope in 1941 in Los Angeles in a group called the Four Gypsies.

When the United States entered World War II, Hope invited Romano to accompany him to Alaska to entertain troops for the United Services Organization.

"When Hope called, I told him: 'I'm not going. I have enough ice cubes at home,' " Romano said. Hope persuaded him to go, saying that it would only be two weeks.

That two weeks led to four years of continuous touring in World War II and hundreds of trips years later.

Their venues included aircraft carriers and stadiums. Once, on a refueling stop in Alaska, Romano and Hope stood outdoors on a log and gave airmen an impromptu performance--at 42 degrees below zero.

In all their travels, the guitar was always safe--until last weekend when Romano traveled the 50 miles to Burbank.

"We have no clues, no suspects," said Sgt. Ed Skvarna of the Burbank Police Department. "Someone just snatched it."

Romano estimated the guitar's value at $20,000. Guitar experts said it is probably worth far less, perhaps about $5,000.

"This isn't the most valuable Gibson guitar," said George Gruhn, a nationally known expert on rare guitars and owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tenn. "It probably had much more sentimental value."

Gruhn and Skvarna agree that such a customized and well-known guitar has lost nearly all its value once stolen.

"It loses all value as a collector's item," Skvarna said. "A pawnshop would shy away from this. Somebody who knows guitars wouldn't want this."

"The thief could probably only get $100 for this on the street," Skvarna said.

It bothers Romano that the thief probably has no idea about the guitar's history.

"I hope the guy who stole it knows what it is," Romano said. "If someone stole it from me, I could understand. But not knowing who, what or where gets to me."

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