The Rendas: First Generation Immigrants Dancing Swing in St. Louis

Eva (nee Giaraffa) and Joe Renda, born in 1922 and 1923 respectively, were life-long St. Louisans and purveyors of the dialects of swing dance known today as Imperial Swing and St. Louis Shag. As children of Sicilian immigrants growing up near Downtown St. Louis’ Little Italy district, the Rendas’ story resonates with a larger narrative of immigrants whose love for dancing with jazz became a part of their identity in the United States. 

Like Tommy Russo, the Rendas grew up in the the populous area radiating from Carr Square just north of Downtown St. Louis where Eva’s father, Carlo Giaraffa, sold coal and ice to the neighborhood using a spruced-up horse and cart and Joe’s family operated a grocery and meat market, and also sold spaghetti and other goods to regional roadhouses. 

The Thomas Rizzo Produce Stand at the Union Market near Carr Square exemplifies the initial occupation for many Sicilian immigrant families. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection. Block Brothers Photographic Studio ca. 1919.

While at the time the neighborhood may have appeared immoveable, 96 percent of the households on North Ninth Street, in the heart of Little Italy, had changed occupants between 1921 and 1926. For most, the enclave served as a sort of halfway house, not a fixed destination.

It’s no surprise that occupants made any effort they could to move out of the overcrowded and unsanitary district. Many Italian immigrants opted to move to The Hill, a neighborhood which remains one of the most resilient Italian immigrant enclaves in the United States (and which will be explored in a future post through the story of dancer James Merlo) while others, like the Rendas, moved outward, north and west, from Downtown as they became more affluent. Today scarcely more than the street names bear any resemblance to Downtown’s former northside immigrant hub.

While constant change defined the urban landscape and one’s place in it, dancing offered social cohesion for young second-generation immigrants. Dances sponsored by fraternal organizations such as DeMolay International and the Elks, as well as high school hops, enabled young adults to socialize, Joe recalled. As devotees of swing music, his friend group graduated to dances in the ballrooms, including The Riviera Club, owned by political giant Jordan Chambers, the “Black Mayor of St. Louis.” The Rendas described learning with friends and by watching the best dancers, many of whom competed in Big Apple contests on movie theater stages and ballroom floors.

Mike Renda and Virginia Shy competing in Springfield, Missouri

One such contestant was Mike Renda, Joe’s older brother by two years, and a prize-winning swing dancer in St. Louis during the late 1930s. In fact, when Mike was drafted to serve in the Army in 1941 he was working as a “prancing usher” at the reputable Loew’s Theatre, a gig he may have landed through winning dance competitions. Mike regularly partnered with Ruby Kindred as well as Virginia Shy, who won the Big Apple Championship with Tommy Russo, another second-generation Sicilian from Carr Square, in 1938. Mike Renda and Virginia Shy are pictured in an iconic Shag pose–knees up, smiles wide, and Mike’s index finger pointed skyward–after taking 2nd place in a jitterbug contest in Springfield, Missouri in 1938. Tragically, Mike was killed in World War Two in 1944. 

Joe was also drafted into the army in 1941 and was stationed as a radio and searchlight operator in Canoga Park, California, near Hollywood. Incidentally, this put him within hitchhiking distance to the celebrity-infused Lux Theater and the Palladium Ballroom, where he could social dance to bands like Harry James’ on Monday nights. He also remembers walking by Lucille Ball as she worked in her home garden. 

After the war, “we danced constantly,” Eva recalled. She worked in a dress-making factory, and Joe worked at Universal Film Company and they started dating while going out to the grand ballrooms such as the Club Plantation, modeled after Harlem’s Cotton Club, featuring Black artists for a white-only clientele. As legend has it, Duke Ellington met Jimmy Blanton in St. Louis after Blanton had performed at the Club Plantation with the house band, the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. Tune Town (formerly the Arcadia Ballroom), which hired sought-after traveling bands like Count Basie for week-long engagements, was another hot spot for swing enthusiasts like the Rendas. 

In 1948 Joe and Eva were married and held their reception at Northside Turner’s Hall in the Hyde Park neighborhood of St. Louis (a decade later jitterbug champion Teddy Cole would host dances at the Northside Turner’s Hall featuring Ike Turner and His Rhythm Kings). The Rendas spent the next several years raising a family and managing a Dairy Queen franchise, among other business ventures, before Joe began a long-term career at McDonnell Douglas, which became part of Boeing aerospace manufacturers. 

Many of the ballrooms folded in this post-war era, shrinking both the size of the bands and the venues that held them. Still, the Rendas remained active, even competitive, dancers and music enthusiasts, befriending the Gateway City Big Band, jazz educator Charlie Manese, and musician Jim Bolen, who frequently invited Eva and Joe to dance with the band at venues such as the Casa Loma Ballroom as an extension of the band’s performances.

In 1992 the Rendas competed in a nation-wide swing dance contest for dancers aged 50 and above. The contest was part of the Geritol-sponsored Big Band Bash featuring music by singer Helen O’Connell and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. The Rendas won the regional qualifying contest in Chicago, Illinois, and advanced to the Grand Finals at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City where they competed against seven other couples. Eva was 70 and Joe was 68, and they placed 3rd. Amusingly, the winners of the previous year’s Big Band Bash in 1991 were famed swing dancers Marge and Hal Takier from Los Angeles.

Here is a clip of the Rendas discussing their interpretation of the Shag and how skilled dance partners could make it a “show-stopper,” so long as they were rhythmically unified with the band and with one another. Joe passed away in November 2019 and Eva in April 2020, ages 95 and 97 respectively, making these interviews all the more invaluable.

Special thanks to Diane Renda, daughter of Eva and Joe, for providing key biographical details and for giving permission to use family photographs. 

Works Referenced

  1. Renda, Eva and Joe. Interview. By Christian Frommelt. January 21, 2012.
  2. Renda, Eva and Joe. Interview. By Christian Frommelt and Jenny Shirar. January 7, 2012.
  3. Mormino, Gary Ross. Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis 1882-1982. University of Missouri Press. 2002. 

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