In his thirty-five years of radio broadcasting in Philadelphia – first at WMMR, now at WMGK – John DeBella has always had a talking point and a charity to go with it. If you’ve bumped into the personable, ultra-accessible DeBella, there has been cheerful conversation regarding finding homes for pooches and an annual “Dog-Walk” in Fairmount Park. There is his "’MGK Turkey Drop," held two days before Thanksgiving on a yearly basis, for area families in need. Who could forget his annual war Veterans Radiothon benefitting the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Center, which, in 2014, got an on-air donation of $10,000 from Rod Stewart?
“When I came back from morning radio 15 years ago and got to ‘MGK, I was very nervous,” says the always frank DeBella. “Would people accept me? I was scared. So I had this conversation with my friend Pierre Robert, in my truck, and he said, ‘just go in there and use your powers for good.’ So I did that, ever since. Look, I’ve done very well for myself because of my listeners, and I really needed and wanted to give back.” So, DeBella keeps coming up with fun events to raise dollars.
There has been comfort food fests, car shows, comedian events, live rock n’ roll parties — all meant to do good with some sort of charity involved. And now, this weekend, the mustachioed radio personality has the juicy red tomato — as Jersey-famed as Springsteen — as his spirit guide when 102.9 WMGK-FM presents “John DeBella’s Tomato Fest” on Saturday, August 19, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pennsauken’s Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, NJ.
Along with local vendors selling their wares, the South Jersey Food Bank will be there for attendees to donate fresh produce and canned goods to help the needy. Donors will be rewarded with an opportunity to plunge a member of DeBella’s radio show in the water-filled dunk tank.
Rotten tomatoes? They’ll be reserved for target practice with DeBella’s face attached to the bulls-eye, all in good fun and for charity. Bobbing for tomatoes? Be prepared to submerge.
“I found it really odd,” says DeBella of the “Tomato Fest’”s 2016 origins. “With all the raving that people do about the legendary Jersey tomato, no one has ever really done an event around it. Really? Really!”
There are countless stands on the way from Philly to the Jersey shore, notes DeBella, and neither they, nor their gorgeous, plump product, get celebrated as they should. “I was driving down Route 42 and got caught in a traffic jam last Spring, and as I’m driving, it’s stand after stand. That’s when it dawned on me – for all the time I‘ve been here, there’s nothing done for the tomato. So I want to do a fest.” So he did.
While last year’s first event was quietly filled with salsa competitions and biggest tomato contests, DeBella laughs at the realization of one glaring omission on their part. “We didn’t have anyone selling tomatoes,” he says with a laugh. “Who celebrates tomatoes without offering them up for sale? So this year, we have plenty of tomato purveyors to go with that ‘biggest tomato contest,’ but – and I’m warning you – they have to be garden grown. If they come with a point-of-purchase label, we’ll get that it didn’t come from your garden.”
There will also be a Bloody Mary bar and a beer garden, a classic car show in the parking lot next to Cooper House Restaurant, and loud, live rock n’ roll (“because that’s the root of everything I do,” says DeBella) from WMGK’s longtime house band, Kategory Five.
“Just the opportunity to throw tomatoes at me should be reason enough to attend,” he says.
If you go:
John DeBella’s Tomato Fest
(presented by 102.9 WMKGK-FM)
Saturday, Aug. 19
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cooper River Park
5300 N. Park Drive
Pennsauken Township, NJ