HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny Lombardi was distracted by a few people slipping envelopes through the bottom of the locked doors at Mary Mother of God R.C. Church.
Lombardi was on the altar a few months ago reading a Bible passage during the mass which was being live-streamed by the church to comply with the COVID-19 shutdown order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy, which has since been lifted.
Afterwards, he asked Father John Rozembajgier, pastor of the church, about the women at the door.
"Father told me that was one of the few ways the church was able to make money during the pandemic," Lombardi recalls.
No masses meant no offerings to help pay bills or keep the lights on. The pastor said things were getting a little tight.
Lombardi, a seasoned comedian, magician and ventriloquist who performs as "Gemini" is a regular on the comedy club circuit, Atlantic City's casinos and is familiar throughout central New Jersey for performing at fund raisers. He's also a parishioner and because of the COVID-19 restrictions, he had been unable to do what he does best - working with live audiences, making people laugh.
His familiar haunts - nightclubs, casinos, street fairs, civic groups and local clubs - were dark.
With time on his hands, he conceived a children's TV show, produced in the basement of the church at 157 Triangle Blvd., to entertain homebound families and kids, while also appealing to the community to make donations to help the local food bank.
Rubber-faced, quick to laugh and blessed with a distinctive Brooklyn accent, what you see on "Studio at the Hill" is Lombardi in a local hybrid of classic black-and-white TV children's shows - Mr. Rogers, Soupy Sales, Uncle Floyd, Sandy Becker, even Bozo the Clown - all in the name of the Lord.
There is a link to a GoFundMe account on the website - https://studioatthehill.com/ - which includes links to the episodes and biographical information on Lombardi and others involved in the production.
Fast-moving, with off-camera laughter and chatter, the show features Lombardi performing magic tricks, cracking jokes and sharing his family of puppets with the audience. There are interviews with the mayor and other prominent local residents, movie reviews for kids, advice on safety and courtesy and other things kids need to know.
And though the COVID-19 lockdown has been lifted, Lombardi and company intend to continue with the show.
Also featured on-camera are co-producer Caz Bielen and Lombardi's assistant Susan Lento, an actress and vocalist.
Father John signed on to the concept without hesitation and is featured on the show in one-on-one conversations with Lombardi. In one episode, the comic engages the priest in a conversation about his work behind the camera working as a cue card holder on the "David Letterman" late night comedy show while he was still attending college at the University of Scranton, before he went to divinity school and became a priest.
"It brought back great memories for me," Father John said.
"It's a great opportunity to be able to put something together that is not only fun but faith based and relaxed," he added. "It's been a great success, we've been able to help people in the neighborhood with food and resources."
Father John promotes the Studio at the Hill episodes beginning at 1:48 of the video link below:
Following are background capsules on those involved in the production of "Studio at the Hill:"
Johnny Lombardi, aka "Gemini" is a top headlining comedian, accomplished ventriloquist and award-winning magician. He was voted "#1 Family Act" in the Catskills and is one of the best magicians in the tri-state area. Gemini has performed on Fox5, NBC, Showtime, and at hundreds of comedy clubs, casinos, resorts, and theaters across the country. Gemini is now a top headliner at The Borgata Casino, Dangerfield's, The Parx Casino, and Caroline's on Broadway, combining comedy, magic, ventriloquism and audience participation into his shows.
Caz. Bielen, produces commercials, and programs for clients worldwide. Winner of 3 International Telly Awards and 5 Cable ACE Nominations for Work in Video and Web Production and Editing. Best Documentary, Children's Television Program, Best Public Service Announcement, Best Regional Television Commercial. Producer Director of Live Princeton and Rutgers Sports. Current Producer Host of Hillsborough Open for Business, Hillsborough the Good Life and Pay-Per View Report in the past.
Susan Lento is a New York=based member of the Actors Equity Association and graduate of Muhlenberg College where she studied Theatre with an Acting Concentration. Susan is the Social Media Manager and Creative Assistant at Gemini Comedy Entertainment. She also teaches acting and voice at the Hunterdon Academy of the Arts in Flemington. She was last seen as Annabeth Chase in the National Tour of "The Lightning Thief" the musical. She has also done voiceover work for Nickelodeon, Universal Kids, and Adidas. Her training includes stage combat, on-camera acting, classical verse, scene study, improvisation, and vocal performance. www.susanlento.com
Lombardi will be back on the altar Sunday morning at the 11:30 a.m. mass reading from the Bible.
"This is all new territory for me, I'm a theater, casino act nightclub guy, but God works in mysterious ways and this is one of those ways," Lombardi said