JOHNNY BARBALINARDO LOMBARDI was born in the dead of winter, December 4, l9l5, in a tenement house situated on the street called Trinity Square, a street still standing behind the Eaton Centre in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Johnny studied music as a child. He taught himself to play the harmonica, the bugle and the trumpet, winning several gold medals. Between the age of nine and ten Johnny set up a mobile shoeshine stand, very near the now non-existent SHEA’s Theatre in downtown Toronto. When there were no shoes to shine, he would love to saunter over to the theatre and, hopefully, as only a child can hope, catch a glimpse of the performers appearing on stage at the time. If he was really lucky, and he often was, he even got a chance to see the acts in their entirety … when a kind soul chose to give a kid a break.
It was during the hungry 1930s that Johnny, at age 10, decided to study music through the charitable and good graces of the Boys “K” Club and Columbus Boys Club, which were service clubs for underprivileged kids. “Ninety percent of the membership in the clubs was ethnic … come to think of it, the ethnics must have had a monopoly on non-privilege,” says Johnny, who is forever grateful to these clubs who gave a kid from the Ward a break. His musical studies paid off and he joined the Club’s Bugle and Harmonica Bands, later forming a boys’ club orchestra playing for coffee and sandwiches. He was also busy that year from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday, lighting gas lights, burners and stoves for the orthodox Jewish families living in his neighbourhood and beyond, for which he would very often receive a piece of homemade honeycake as a reward.
At age twelve Johnny’s first after-school job was as a folder and addresser for the then Italian weekly “La Tribuna Italo-Canadese,” where he earned $2.00 per week for his efforts. He felt he could do more and graduated shortly thereafter to the position of back-page editor, writing his own column entitled “The Snipper-Snooper,” a la Walter Winchell.
When famous dance bands, led by Frank Busseri, Romanelli and others, did not invite Johnny to join them because he was too young, the musically-drawn Johnny, at age l4, formed his own band. For five years he led eight “star” musicians with a repertoire of twenty songs, the original top 20 format. The band played all the hot spots in town (sometimes known as “buckets of blood”) — parish halls, above pool rooms, small clubs, frontroom house parties, warehouses, garages — anywhere you could dance, anytime, to the top 20 tunes. Whenever Johnny got to the boxoffice before the impresario at big dances, he would be paid cash. Otherwise, he’d end up being paid in coffee and sandwiches.
In the l930s Johnny left Toronto and joined Benny Palmer’s band in London, Ontario, as first trumpet player at $25 per week. When the band became a co-operative, he began earning from $l00 – $300 each week, a lot of money even for big bands in those days. All good things come to an end! In early l942, like many of the other young men, Johnny joined the Canadian Army and saw service during WWII, first as a wake-up bugler and a bandsman, then as a Sergeant with the Armoured Corps, Education Corps and Engineers in England, France (Normandy), Belgium, Germany and Holland. He received decorations and honors for the Battle of Britain, France and Germany Stars, Defense Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the War Medal 1939-45. In June 1994, Johnny was invited by the Prime Minister of Canada to attend the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy. In May of 1995, Johnny was in Holland to celebrate its liberation.
At the end of the war he stayed on in Zutphen, Holland for a year as the little Canadian “burgermeister” (little Mayor) and directed entertainment for troops waiting to go home. He was one of the last Canadians to leave Holland in l946. Johnny shared and swapped stories and memories with his former Army buddies at the very first Canadian Army Show Reunion held here in Toronto at the Royal York Hotel on the evening of August l2, l979.
In 1946 Johnny returned to Toronto and started a grocery business. Immigrants from Italy were settling in Toronto in vast numbers, and Johnny’s grocery store imported specialty Italian foods for the newest ethnic community.
Johnny met his wife Lena Crisologo, when she and her mother came shopping at his first grocery store location at the corner of Dundas and Manning. Lena worked as a seamstress at Tip Top Tailors on Lakeshore, piece work tailoring men’s suits, and working side by side with many other Italian women from the neighbourhood. Two of these women were Johnny’s mother Theresa, and his sister Carmela. They liked Lena very much, and thought she would be the perfect young woman to introduce to their bachelor son and brother, Johnny. The “chance” meeting at Johnny’s grocery store was far from accidental, but it led to many more. Johnny was very taken by the beautiful Lena, and they were married soon after, on July 4th, 1949. Their marriage of fifty-two years was blessed with three children and five grandchildren.
Johnny’s grocery business in the 1950’s prospered and grew, and it was moved first to a Clinton and College street corner, and then to 637 College, near Grace Street. Johnny’s wife Lena and his sister Carmie were instrumental in running the Supermarket when Johnny was busy with other interests such as concerts, radio programmes, record importing , food and specialty importing. Johnny’s father, Leonardo, was also a familiar sight to all patrons of the supermarket, passersby on College, and the staff of CHIN Radio/Tv until his death at age 93 in May l977.
Johnny’s impressario career started in the early 50’s with Italian singers brought in from Italy for concerts at the Eaton’s College and Bay store theatre hall, Massey Hall, and then Maple Leaf Gardens, O’Keefe Centre (now Hummingbird) and Roy Thomson Hall. Johnny produced Italian radio programmes on CHUM and then CKFH to promote his supermarket, concerts and community events such as park shows, and he started a record label – Bravo Records & Music – to promote Italo-Canadian singers. In the early 60’s Johnny turned his never ending energy and attention to the new immigrants coming to Toronto from European lands, to make their new home in Canada. With the growing need for more radio time, he applied for a multicultural radio station – and CHIN Radio was launched, opening its studios and offices above the Supermarket in 1966. The rest, as they say, is history.
Johnny Lombardi symbolized an era that is irreplaceable, an era that shall not pass this way again. Johnny lived and worked throughout his 86 years of life with unrelenting energy and enthusiasm, until his passing on March 18, 2002, within the boundaries of ethnic Toronto, downtown at College and Grace Streets, giving him a razor-sharp insight into the pulse and heartbeat of the multi-language communities which CHIN Radio serves.
Toronto and Canada’s very own, I’ll-do-it-my-way Johnny Lombardi, nurtured his love of ethnic broadcasting for over 50 years – Johnny was the founder and host of the CHIN International Picnic – "the world’s largest free picnic” – which will celebrate its 50th Anniversary, along with CHIN Radio, this coming year 2016. Johnny was very much active until his passing, with the radio station, as a concert promoter and impresario, and hosting every Sunday at noon his Festival Italiano di Johnny Lombardi Italian TV programme on CityTV – broadcast live from the CHIN building. He remained a very active fundraiser for several charities, his favourite being the Hospital for Sick Children. Johnny hosted Radiothons, Telethons, and sat on the board of several charitable organizations, hospitals, and community awareness programmes. Johnny is forever remembered as the pioneer of multicultural broadcasting, musician, Canadian soldier, impressario, father, grandfather, husband, and friend to all who knew him.
Johnny Lombardi’s awards and medals are testimony to his extensive achievements through the years: