Johnny Lombardi

John Barba-Linardo (Johnny) Lombardi, pioneer broadcaster, impresario, musician, entrepreneur (b at Toronto 4 Dec 1915; d at Toronto 18 Mar 2002).

Johnny Lombardi

John Barba-Linardo (Johnny) Lombardi, pioneer broadcaster, impresario, musician, entrepreneur (b at Toronto 4 Dec 1915; d at Toronto 18 Mar 2002). Son of Italian immigrants, Lombardi played a central role in the growth and identity of Toronto's multicultural community and of its Italian neighbourhood in particular. Cited in print as "the unofficial mayor of Little Italy "as early as 1959, Lombardi lived most of his life within the district of College and Grace Streets.

A self-taught trumpeter, Lombardi formed his own big band in his mid-teens. He moved to London, Ontario, in the early 1930s to be lead trumpet for the Benny Palmer Orchestra, a position he held until he joined the army in 1942. As army sergeant, he served in France, Belgium, Germany and Holland, and was part of Canada's D-Day invasion troops at Juno Beach. He was also a part-time bandsman, orchestra leader and impresario of troop shows while stationed in Europe.

Lombardi's business career started in 1946 when he opened a grocery store, in downtown Toronto. The sole employee at first, his staff grew to four after the first year. In 1947, Lombardi bought a weekly one-hour time slot on CHUM Radio, where he programmed music and advertisements tailored to the Italian community. He first travelled to Italy in 1956, and by 1957 was presenting regular instalments of "The Johnny Lombardi Italian Show" at Massey Hall featuring popular Italian singers. At the end of the 1950s his grocery store employed over 35 people and he was already a millionaire. In 1962, and for the next 36 years, he presented concerts and sporting events at Maple Leaf Gardens.

On 6 June 1966, Lombardi launched CHIN Radio. Broadcasting to over 30 ethnic groups in Toronto, his was the first station to cater to the city's multicultural communities. In order to show advertisers that his station had an audience and because the Canadian Bureau of Broadcast Measurement would not report on an audience that was neither English nor French, Lombardi started an annual free picnic in 1966. At first a one-day event on the Toronto Islands, it moved to the grounds of the CANADIAN NATIONAL EXHIBITION in 1982 and expanded to four days. A regular feature at the picnic was the sometimes controversial "Miss Bikini" contest, which in the early 1990s drew ire from Toronto's city councillors.

Lombardi's success coincided with a burgeoning Italian population in Toronto. In the late 1950s, the Italian community in the city was measured at 125 000. By 1964, it had ballooned to 250 000 and in 2001, the number had swelled to over 425 000. "Many may have gone back to Italy if CHIN wasn't around to help make them feel at home," said Lombardi in an interview.

Johnny Lombardi was made a member of the ORDER OF CANADA in 1981 and appointed an Officer of the ORDER OF ST JOHN in 1994. Seven months after his death, he was inducted into the Broadcast Hall of Fame by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters.

See alsoTORONTO FEATURE: TORONTO'S LITTLE ITALY.