Johnny Lombardi

The Great Communicator
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Johnny Lombardi: The Great Communicator

Johnny Lombardi: The Great Communicator is an award winning biographical documentary produced in 2004, by Lenny and Grace Lombardi and airs on Rogers OMNI, CHIN Tv, and CityTv.

​The documentary tells the story of a great Canadian, Johnny Lombardi, the son of poor Italian immigrants – a man who developed, defined, and thoroughly embraced the concept of multicultural broadcasting.  In fact it would be fair to say that the multicultural society we all take for granted today may not have been possible without Johnny’s pioneering efforts.  

​The documentary is an insight to the man who pioneered multicultural broadcasting in Canada. 

​Born to poor immigrant Italian parents in 1915, he grew to be an important and unforgettable public figure. He worked as a young boy to support his family through the great depression.

​He served his country as a Canadian soldier in WWII.

​He was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. And as the pioneer of multicultural broadcasting in Canada, he gave voice to millions of new immigrants.

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“I hope we will all help preserve the vibrancy of multiculturalism in the City. A blend of traditions, languages and beliefs. It is this diversity that makes a community strong.”

Johnny Lombardi

“My father’s dream of broadcasting was to be far reaching, touching the lives of millions of people across Canada.  His station CHIN Radio would define multiculturalism and shape a nation. You can find CHIN’s DNA in all multicultural broadcasting throughout Canada.  All this from the humble beginnings of a son born to a poor immigrant family from Italy”

Lenny Lombardi

Early Life

Johnny’s life spanned many careers including musician, Canadian soldier, grocer, impresario, and broadcaster.  All of which influenced and shaped him into a great communicator to the many and varied walks of life and cultures he served.


JOHNNY LOMBARDI was born on December 4, l9l5, in a tenement house in downtown Toronto.  His father was a labourer, and barely made enough to put bread on the table.  Their home addresses were many, moving when rent couldn’t be met, but eventually settled in the Bellwoods/Mansfield/Clinton area of downtown Toronto when Johnny was old enough to work and help contribute.

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Johnny loved music as a child.  During the late 20’s, around 10 years of age, he taught himself to read music and to play the harmonica, the bugle and the trumpet, winning several gold medals.  He studied 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.  He set up a mobile shoeshine stand. He earned money or food by lighting gas lights, burners and stoves from sundown Friday to Saturday,  for orthodox Jewish families living in his neighbourhood and beyond. 

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At age twelve Johnny's first after-school job was as a folder and addresser for an Italian weekly "La Tribuna Italo-Canadese," and soon as a back-page editor, writing his own community column.

 

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 -- parish halls, pool rooms, small clubs, front-room house parties, warehouses, garages -- anywhere you could dance.

In the l930s Johnny left Toronto and joined Benny Palmer's band in London, Ontario, as first trumpet player at $25 per week.  But in early l942, like many of the other young men of the day, Johnny joined the Canadian Army and saw service, 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.  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 came back home, and started a grocery business.  Immigrants from Italy were settling in Toronto in vast numbers, and Johnny’s grocery store started importing specialty Italian foods for the newest ethnic community.   Johnny soon started radio programmes, concerts, park shows, television, and a record label - Bravo Records - to promote Italo-Canadian singers.   Johnny’s first grocery store was located at Dundas and Manning.  Then Clinton and College, and finally in 1952, he moved his store to the iconic 637 College.

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637 College street

A New Chapter

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, Maple Leaf Gardens, O'Keefe Centre (now Meridian Hall) 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. 

It wasn’t easy for Johnny to establish CHIN and become such an important Canadian figure in broadcasting.  Johnny had to overcome a life of early poverty and prejudice, and against all odds, struggle to realize his dream of creating a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-language radio station at a time when the concept of multiculturalism was discouraged.

 

Despite all of this, Johnny rose to become a broadcaster who helped shape and define a vision of Canada that openly embraced different cultures and different languages.  In an interview from 1972 Johnny said, “As I see it, a Canadian is a man who adopts this country, and takes it upon himself to be loyal to this country, and do whatever he can for his country, and I think that he enriches that country with the cultures and things that he learned before he came here.”

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​Johnny’s love of Canada was evident in everything he did, as was his love of people of all backgrounds and stations in life. 

 

The former Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien said,

 

“He was a guy who fundamentally was very comfortable with himself and very comfortable with everybody.” 

 

“We see the United Nations are in Toronto, with this ability to live together in peace and harmony and helping each other and so on.  So CHIN was the vehicle that helped.”

But it’s not just well-known Canadians who sing the praises of Johnny.  Johnny gave a voice to millions through his radio stations which broadcast at that time in over 32 languages and is a vital community resource for many (CHIN currently broadcasts in close to 100 languages/cultures over three radio stations in Toronto and one in Ottawa).  Even more important, for many of those listeners, it was their introduction to Canada, giving them an opportunity to learn about their new country in a familiar language.

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Notable quotes about Johnny Lombardi:

“We see the United Nations are in Toronto, with this ability to live together in peace and harmony and helping each other and so on.  So CHIN was the vehicle that helped.”

 

Jean Chretien, Former Prime Minister of Canada


​“The question is if Johnny hadn’t come along, and CHIN Radio hadn’t come along…how long would we have waited perhaps for the reality of CHIN Radio?  Maybe someone would have filled those shoes, maybe not.”

Sergio Marchi, Former Ambassador & Cabinet Minister

​“It was he who basically pushed multiculturalism.  It was he who began broadcasting in languages other than English and French.  It was illegal at one time here.  And it was he who basically made it so popular and not only non threatening but positive through his interactions in radio, television, multiculturalism.”  

 

Joe Pantalone, former Deputy Mayor, City of Toronto

​“He demonstrated that this was a viable business and not an exercise in folklore or nostalgia.  There was a real demand, because there were real people.  This was a reflection of all the new immigration.  Slowly he was able to convey that not only to the immediate economy around him but to all other institutions that needed to communicate with these new Canadians.”   

 

Moses Znaimer, President, MZ Media

 
​“In those days you weren’t allowed to broadcast in any language other than English or French, but it was still heartwarming for me to hear that somebody remembered his heritage and spoke about it and spoke to the Italian-Canadians who were living here.”

Ben Viccari, President, Canadian Ethnic Media 

​“I think Johnny was one of the founders of multicultural broadcasting in Canada and to the extent that our mosaic reflects the demography of Canada.  I think Johnny deserves to be up there in that pantheon of founders of the elements for our broadcasting system.”

Charles Dalfen, Former Chairperson, Canadian Radio & Television Commission

Johnny Lombardi's awards and recognitions are testimony to his extensive achievements in broadcasting through the years 1965 to 2002:

Awards

  • Broadcaster of the Year Award
     

  • Cavaliere Ufficiale (Official Knight of the Italian Republic)
     

  • Chief Barker's Award from the Variety Club of Ontario - Variety Club Telethons for Handicapped Kids
     

  • Federal Citation of Citizenship
     

  • Toronto Civic Award of Merit
     

  • Entrepreneur of the Year - National Council of Ethnic Canadian Business & Professional
     

  • Family of Man Award from the League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith of Canada
     

  • Hospital for Sick Children Foundation award - Sick Kid's Telethon
     

  • Howard Caine Memorial Award for public service in broadcasting
     

  • Human Relations Award -the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews
     

  • Member of the Order of Ontario
     

  • Member of the Order of Canada
     

  • Officer of the Order of St. John
     

  • Order of Merit from the National Congress of Italian Canadians
     

  • Paul Mulvihill Heart Award by the Broadcast Executives Society
     

  • Ted Rogers Sr./Velma Rogers Graham Award from the Canadian Assoc. of Broadcasters
     

  • Founder, CHIN Radio 
     

  • Founder, CHIN International Picnic
     

  • Johnny hosted Radiothons, Telethons, and sat on the board of several charitable organizations, hospitals, and community awareness programmes
     

  • In 2001, Johnny and son Lenny Lombardi, received CRTC approval for the first full-service multicultural multilingual radio station CJLL in the nation’s capital serving Ottawa and Gatineau regions
     

  • In March 2017, the CRTC honoured Johnny Lombardi posthumously in recognition for his work in Multicultural broadcasting.  Johnny Lombardi was one of just 23 individuals selected for their outstanding contribution to the Canadian Broadcasting system over the last 150 years.  Accepting the honour at a special reception were Lenny Lombardi, Theresa Lombardi, and Grace Fusillo-Lombardi.