Portrait of Johnny Lombardi at 80. Photograph courtesy of Theresa Lombardi

Portrait of Johnny Lombardi at 80.
Photograph courtesy of Theresa Lombardi

Eighty-five-year-old Johnny Lombardi takes the stage to open the 35th CHIN International Picnic at Toronto’s Exhibition Place on June 30, 2001. Wearing his usual picnic attire—a CHIN Picnic T-shirt and baseball cap that conceals his baldness—the founder of CHIN multicultural radio greets the crowd in Cantonese: “Nei ho ma” (How are you?).

With a big smile on his face, Lombardi gestures animatedly, nailing his well-rehearsed punchlines. He tells the crowd that the Italians and Chinese are similar because both groups like to eat a lot, and jokes that his radio stations’ call signs are for the Chinese, since CHIN is one letter short of China. And he says he appreciates the Chinese for producing pasta, recounting how when Marco Polo went to China he saw people eating noodles and dumplings. When Polo returned home, Lombardi says, he recreated the dishes, thus inventing pasta. The audience loves him, laughing and applauding his tale, though for many in the crowd, English is a second language.

Lombardi then crouches in front of a vividly coloured lion head and uses a paintbrush to dab in its eyes, so as to awaken its spirit. He leaves the stage to the sound of a drum pounding, so the lion can start its dance. Accompanied by a photographer, he scoots to the next stage in a golf cart—he’s had some trouble walking these past few years.

That would be the last time Johnny Lombardi, “the mayor of Little Italy,” would rouse the lion: on March 18, 2002, he died from complications of pneumonia.

The tributes flowed. Mel Lastman, then mayor of Toronto, said, “I don’t know of anybody that had the spirit and enthusiasm that he had.” Former Ontario premier Bill Davis spoke of Lombardi as “a great Canadian.” An Italian immigrant whom Lombardi had befriended, Angelo Varrecchia, declared, “For everybody, he was a father figure.” And Joe Pantalone, then a city councillor, stated, “He stands as tall as the CN Tower in terms of what he gave to this city. He was one of the first to show that being different has value, to make it popular.”

But perhaps the best articulation of Lombardi’s contribution came in a Toronto Star editorial:

“Long before multiculturalism was a policy—or even a well-known word—the ebullient entrepreneur…was peddling a vision of Toronto as a mini-United Nations.

“The meeting place for the city’s ever-changing blend of voices and cultures was Lombardi’s radio station CHIN, founded in 1966, when languages other than English were rarely heard on Toronto’s airwaves.

“But CHIN was more than a broadcast outlet. It was an affirmation that the music and laughter and conversation of the city’s many ethnic communities belonged together. It was a noisy, high-spirited experiment in ethnic diversity….This city will miss him. Its heart is bigger because of him.”

 

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The city’s heart was definitely smaller when Lombardi was born on December 4, 1915, the first child of Leonardo, a labourer, and Teresa, a homemaker, who had moved to Toronto from Italy in 1912. Like many children of the poor immigrants who crowded into substandard housing in the core of the city, Lombardi spent much of his early years hustling for money, first shining shoes outside the now-closed Shea’s Theatre downtown, and later folding and addressing the weekly La Tribuna Italo-Canadese for $2 a week. By the time of the Depression, still a teenager, he was playing in big bands, including his own, Johnny Lombardi & His Orchestra.

The music stopped in 1942, when Lombardi enlisted in the army, seeing action as a sergeant in the 7th Canadian Infantry in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, but not, to his relief, Italy (he didn’t want to fight against his own blood). On D-Day—June 6, 1944—he was part of the Canadian forces that landed on Juno Beach; years later, he would be immortalized in a Heritage Minute that depicts Lombardi playing Ruth Lowe’s “I’ll Never Smile Again” on a cornet amid the chaos on shore.

 

LOMBARDIorchestra

Significantly, after the war ended, Lombardi was stationed in Zutphen, Holland, where he organized entertainment for soldiers waiting to be discharged. Back in Toronto in 1946, he was pressured by his parents to settle down and do something more stable than being a musician. So using his savings and veteran’s allowance, he opened a grocery  store with two partners on the corner of Dundas Street West and Bellwoods Avenue, in the midst of the growing Italian community. Later he would confess, “Boy, we had a rough time. Things were still rationed. We couldn’t import anything from Italy, and besides, I didn’t know anything about the grocery business.”

But Lombardi knew how to promote. In 1948, an advertising representative from CHUM radio approached him about advertising the store. Business was slow, but ad time was too expensive. Instead, Lombardi convinced CHUM to sell him an airtime slot every Sunday, then plugged his own store on a show billed as “Music, Mirth, Melody, from far-off Sunny Italy.” By the mid-1950s, it was airing daily.

By that time the grocery store had relocated to 637 College Street, and Lombardi had married Lena Crisologo and had two children: Theresa, born in 1950, and Leonardo (Lenny) in 1952. (The caboose, Donina, would be born in 1966.) They lived around the corner from the College Street store—the flagship in what was at one point five locations—in a modest house on Clinton Street.

Despite speaking self-described “atrocious” Italian, Lombardi was becoming a community figure. Newcomers would visit the store for advice about life in Canada and he would stand behind his cheese counter, listening and offering solutions, introducing them to bank managers if they wanted to buy a house, or connecting them with the right people to find a job. As Lenny recounts, his father would also sometimes intervene with authorities, like the time when three crying women came knocking at the Lombardis’ door, their husbands having been arrested for loitering. Many immigrants were living in small apartments—often shared with other families to save money—with no room to socialize. So groups of Italian men congregated on the sidewalks, something they were accustomed to doing in Italy. Lombardi went down to the local police station and explained that this was just how Italians relaxed. The men were let out.

Lombardi wasn’t just solidifying his reputation as unofficial mayor at this time. From an office in his supermarket, the walls covered with photographs of him with officials and celebrities, he operated his many business ventures: in addition to the grocery chain, he also owned the Italo-Canadian Advertising service, which sold space on his radio show, and was a shareholder in Bravo Records and Music Publishing, a distributor of Italian music.

And he returned to his postwar role as impresario, bringing in big names from Italy—Aurelio Fierro, Angela de Parde, Sergio Franchi—to perform at venues such as Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens. His businesses, though seemingly unrelated, were all intertwined. He publicized concerts on his radio program, directing listeners to his grocery store to buy tickets. Typical of his genius for cross-promotion is a 1957 pre-Christmas advertisement in the Star that touts both food specials—large panettone for $2.59—and a Renato Carosone concert. But Lombardi was starting to think of an even bigger venture.

 

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It’s another picnic. This one, on the Labour Day weekend, 1966, is not as well documented as the 2001 event, nor as well attended. In contrast to the estimated 200,000 who attended that event at the Exhibition, 5,000 or 6,000 people, predominately Italian, have taken the ferry to Centre Island for the one-day spaghetti-eating contest.

“The crowd didn’t know what to make of it, seeing this spaghetti being cooked in big pots out in the open,” Lombardi would remember of the contest. “I hate to say it, but it looked terrible. In order to get anyone to enter, I had to sit down and try the spaghetti myself. I would taste it, then turn the other way and spit it out when no one was looking. Eventually, we got 50 people to join in. The winner made away with a much-deserved refrigerator.” Lombardi has planned this gathering in part to celebrate the June 6 debut of CHIN 1540, “Music of the World.” But he has another motive, too. “He realized that it would answer the skeptics and show that he had listeners,” says his daughter Theresa.

Proving listenership is not the only obstacle he’s faced. If he’d had his way, his station’s call letters would have been CHOW—reminiscent of ciao. However, it turned out CHOW was taken.”But I didn’t mind,” he would tell reporters gamely. “After all, in Europe, chin-chin is a familiar drinking salutation.”

There’s also the matter of airtime. CHIN can only broadcast from 6:30 a.m. until sunset—during the rest of day, the slot is taken by an American frequency. And during its hours of activity, by federal law, the station can devote just 15 percent of its time to programming in languages other than English or French, which translates to two slots on the weekends: 12:30 p.m. to dusk on Saturday, noon to dusk on Sunday. Into these times Lombardi packs shows in Italian, Yiddish, German, Polish, Ukrainian, and Portuguese.

Despite the obstacles, Lombardi would later say that “1966 was the year everything came together.” By 1968, he would also have an FM station, CHIN-FM, which could broadcast 24 hours a day.

 

CHINribbon

Typically, Lombardi located his studios above his College Street store. Outside, a blinking neon sign displayed Lombardi’s name above the station’s call letters. The approximately 20 employees had to enter though a doorway beside the grocery entrance that led to a narrow stairway permeated by the smell of Italian meats and cheeses. “We were in such closed, cramped areas,” Lenny remembers. “There was no air, no windows—just skylights.”

 

CHIN-AM was not an immediate success. Early in 1967, McDonald Research released a report saying not a single person was tuning into the station before 8:30 a.m. The announcer for the show that started at 6 a.m. was essentially talking to himself. (A column by Barbara Frum said that Lombardi responded by saying “He knows for a fact that there are at least 200 devoted listeners. That’s how many relatives he has, and apparently every last one of them wouldn’t dare listen to anything else.”)

Listenership was also an issue for CHIN-FM. In 1967, FM radios were not very common in homes, and most cars on the road picked up only AM frequencies. Lombardi’s entrepreneurial sense kicked in, and he began selling small FM radios at his supermarket for around $30.

If 1966 was the year that things came together for Lombardi, 1969 was when they seemed to start falling apart. First there came a failed bid for a city alderman. The Liberal Party nominated him to run for a seat in his ward. However, after being accused of double-crossing another Italian candidate, he chose to run as an independent in a nearby area, and lost after his last-minute switch.

Then came a bitter blowup in 1970 with his partners in the station, James Service and Johnny Longo. Service thought the station should concentrate on English programming, to promote immigrants’ integration. (Service also accused Lombardi of “using the company to pay for very private bills, private photographs, private airplane travel.”) Lombardi wanted to uphold the original multicultural vision. After the CRTC renewed CHIN-AM’s licence only to the end of the year, it ultimately ruled it would “maintain the policy that this frequency should be used for programs serving the needs of the diverse language groups.” With his win, Lombardi was able to gain full control of CHIN-AM, but not before another licence-threatening incident involving a Serbian announcer who suggested that the Yugoslav consul should be assassinated. Lombardi would recall this time as “the hardest of my life.”

“[Johnny] was very flamboyant, his personality was show biz-like,” says Zelda Young, host and producer of CHIN’s Jewish show. “He was larger than life.”

Even when describing his impoverished background—”We were looked at as kids that couldn’t afford shoes”—Lombardi was still on. A 2002 documentary on his beloved College Street, Portrait of a Street, shows him talking about life during the Depression, using his hands to enhance stories. “At 14 years old, I had my first taste of sirloin steak. And I lost my virginity! By eating steak,” he starts laughing. “It was a wonderful taste I’ll never forget.” Though he’s in his 80s, he giggles like a teenager at his own jokes.

“At 70 years old he acted like he was 50,” says Lenny. “He had presence in every sense of the word. He would go flat out all the time.” Whether he was at the station or one of the affairs he attended almost every night, Lombardi was always schmoozing, always greeting everyone with a big smile on his face. “He had a bad joke for every occasion,” said Citytv chief Moses Znaimer after Lombardi’s death. Evenings, his children would accompany him to events—often three or four in a night. His only break from work would be going home to change clothes. He attended political rallies, grand openings of businesses, fundraisers. “You name it, he was front and centre,” says Lenny.

Instinctively media savvy, if he thought he would be photographed, he’d wear his signature CHIN baseball cap—even paired with a tuxedo. At the station, he exhibited “gentleman’s style”—always in shirts and ties on weekdays, and “smart casual” when making rounds on weekends. But he cared about more than just his appearance. Carmela Laurignano, now vice president of Evanov Communications Inc., who spent roughly a decade at CHIN, says he was always available to people, not just his employees, and “usually more reachable than some of us.” He would return phone calls within the hour, and she remembers him sitting on a bench outside the grocery store giving advice to people who sought him out.

“He was a people person,” says Lenny. He remembers one of the times he accompanied his father to a funeral home to pay respects to an Italian family. The two arrived to find there were three funerals that day, with three Italian families, so they went to see all three. “He always had time for everybody,” says Lenny. Especially his employees. “It was really a family and he was the father,” says Laurignano. “We liked the job, but we worked there because we loved him.” She adds, “He knew everything about everyone.” Though some staff only came in for their programs, Lombardi would often address them by name.

The downside of his style was his tendency to micromanage. Lombardi was a delegator, but still wanted to be involved in every aspect of the program, including song selection. He also had a tendency to relish a politically incorrect stance. Almost from the start, the annual CHIN picnic featured a bikini contest. In the 1990s, feminists targeted the antediluvian event, but Lombardi was unrepentant, protesting, “There’s nothing wrong with a bikini contest.” It stayed.

Still, perhaps Lombardi’s greatest gift was recognizing talent, according to Laurignano. “The station was a breeding ground for lots of people,” she says. She was one of them, starting as a part-time receptionist during university and eventually becoming vice president, sales, marketing and promotion, before leaving in 1993. “I’m an ethnic woman and I became the VP of a company,” says Laurignano. “There are not a lot of women executives these days. Imagine it back then.”

Johnny Lombardi’s idea of multiculturalism was validated when the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the Multiculturalism Policy of Canada in 1971, which encouraged citizens to maintain their own cultural traditions. “Johnny Lombardi was the father of multiculturalism. But there was no name for it before Trudeau,” says Zelda Young.

 

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Lombardi had a personal impact on all the staff at CHIN, but his influence extended further. There was the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s ethnic broadcasting policy of 1985, for example. Before this, licences for ethnic broadcasters were evaluated on a case-by-case basis, forcing applicants to jump through hoops. The policy created a clearer framework for new applications.

CHINradio

Another sign of Lombardi’s success is CHIN’s current home: a six-storey complex at 622 College Street, into which the station moved in 1991. Reportedly costing as much as $18 million, the building contains stores, professional offices, and, on the top three floors, the headquarters for CHIN Radio/Television International (CHIN produces eight hours a week of ethnic programming for Citytv). An atrium brings in natural light; it’s very different from the cramped, windowless offices above the grocery store. “We quickly got used to it,” says Lenny. “But not my dad.” Everyone from the old station, including the security guard, moved across the street, but Lombardi wasn’t ready to leave. His office walls were covered with photos of famous friends. He told his children that he wouldn’t move until his pictures did. Over a weekend, they mapped out the pictures in his office, moving them to the walls in his new one. By Monday, his new space was set and Lombardi finally made the move, leaving behind his original studio for good.

What he didn’t leave behind was his work ethic, even after a heart attack at 73. He would say, “I can’t stay quietly reading a book at the cottage. I get bored. I’d be thinking of how I can make a deal on this or that. I don’t do it for the money. Not any more. It’s the challenge. I’m a hustler.” Perhaps, but he was ultimately a well-honoured hustler, receiving the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, and being inducted into the Broadcast Hall of Fame. The CHIN picnic continued—bikini contest and all—with crowds as large as 200,000 flocking to the grounds.

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Lombardi was set to make an onstage appearance the day he died to celebrate the licence approval for CHIN’s new Ottawa station, but collapsed before making it. The call letters for the new Ottawa station—CJLL, for Canadian Johnny Lenny Lombardi—represent Lombardi’s continuing legacy. Though the programming has changed to reach new immigrant groups—the single biggest block of time is devoted to Chinese shows now—much about CHIN Radio remains the same. Lombardi’s office on the sixth floor is untouched, its wall-to-wall pictures dominating the room. The message of staying true to your roots, but being a proud Canadian still informs the programming. And each year, the crowd at the opening ceremony for the CHIN Picnic is greeted with “Nei ho ma” before watching a lion dance. The only difference is that Lenny is now taking his dad’s place to dot the eyes of the lion.

Photographs courtesy of Theresa Lombardi.