“The Perry Como of St. Louis” has died.
In the 1950s and ‘60s when he was leading the hottest dance band in St. Louis, that’s how keyboard virtuoso Dick Renna was billed.
For more than a decade, his velvet voice and big band sound were what the swirls of dancers heard at the Casa Loma Ballroom. When the Casa Loma needed a house band, its booking agent called Mr. Renna.
“I told him that I didn’t have a band,” Mr. Renna recalled in David Lossos’ book about the city’s grandest ballroom. “And he just said, ‘Oh, call a few of the guys and get a group together.’ I did, and he gave us a one-year contract. We were there for 10 years. In fact, we set a record run as house band there.”
Since he got his musicians’ union card in 1939, he had been entertaining St. Louis, headlining the show or backing up some of the biggest names in show business. He closed all shows with "Arriverderci, Roma."
Mr. Renna, who had lived in Des Peres, died Wed., March 13 at Mercy after a brief illness. He was 92.
“His death was sudden and devastating,” said his daughter, Ricki Steele.
A memorial Mass will be celebrated Friday, April 12, at St. Clement of Rome Catholic Church.
Have accordion, will travel
Mr. Renna played piano; its brash cousin, the calliope; and the instrument for which he was best known, the accordion. He got his first one when he was 15.
By age 19, he was performing at “lawn parties,” as high-society gatherings were known. He even played at the old Garrick Theatre, a St. Louis burlesque house. World War II soon had him on an entirely different stage: a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific theater.
“Always had my duffle bag and my accordion,” Mr. Renna said. “So, we had music aboard ship, too.”
Surrounded by war, he often preferred lighthearted songs to help lift spirits, like Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes.
“I would play for the guys whenever it was appropriate,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010. "That little French tune from 'South Pacific,' 'Dites-Moi,' is one of my pet songs.”
He became a radio operator and chief petty officer on LST 29. After three and a half years of service, he returned to a war-weary city ready to have its spirits lifted. He obliged, wherever there was good dance floor.
Swing, baby, swing
Mr. Renna became a regular at the Johnny Perkins’ Palladium in East St. Louis and with the Bobby Swain house band at the Chase Hotel. He and Eileen Brown formed a duo and played the Jefferson and Gatesworth hotels in St. Louis and the Mound City Country Club in East St. Louis. He became a particular favorite at the Missouri Athletic Club.
He played for Bob Hope at the Ambassador Theatre, Johnny Carson’s show at the Kiel Opera House, a political rally for Lyndon B. Johnson and a campaign rally for Hubert Humphrey.
Teresa Brewer, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams were among the celebrities backed by the Dick Renna Orchestra during its run at the Casa Loma Ballroom, where crowds sometimes topped 2,000.
It was the Casa Loma in the winter, the S.S. Admiral in the summer, sans air conditioning. For eight years, he took riverboat day trips on the Mississippi. He played the calliope on the Admiral’s roof as it returned to port each afternoon.
He was the music director for the football Cardinals’ home games at Busch Stadium and the composer of the games theme song, "The Arch March."
Mr. Renna and his band of merry men revved up the fans at all three Cardinal stadiums.
During baseball games, the Renna quartet strolled throughout the stadium between innings. The musical ritual began at Sportsman’s Park. He played at the last game there and at the opening game at Busch Stadium in 1966. The tradition continued for only two more years, but in 2005, the troubadour was honored. After hitching a ride with Fredbird, he moved the countdown clock to the 27th day before the demolition of old Busch Stadium to make way for the new Busch Stadium.
One of his strongest bonds to Cardinal baseball was his friend, Stan Musial.
“The day Stan died, I found a picture of him and Dad with their arms around each other,” said another daughter, Jolee Tacheny. “He was happy to remember the times when Stan would take out his harmonica and join in.”
After 43 years as a member of the American Federation of Musicians - St Louis Local 2-197, many of those years on the board, Mr. Renna was elected president of his union, where he served until 2003.
“Our goal is to keep live music going here in St. Louis,” said Vicky Smolik, a trumpet player with the Fox and the Muny, and Mr. Renna’s successor. “He did a lot, and he enjoyed himself.”
To prevent unfair competition, Mr. Renna had long ago put into the bylaws that the president could not perform professionally. He played his last job at Norwood Hills Country Club on New Year’s Eve, 1982. For the next 21 years, his major musical challenge was technology.
Over time, the big touring shows used fewer and fewer local musicians – or any musicians at all. The Bolshoi Ballet and the Ice Capades dispensed with live music. As the head of the bargaining unit for the musicians at the Fox Theatre, the Muny and the St. Louis Symphony, as well as other companies and approximately 800 members, Mr. Renna had a fight on his hands.
In 1988, he helped musicians at the Symphony reach an agreement for a raise and better benefits.
“The Symphony has top tier musicians and they are 100 percent unionized,” said Robert Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “Dick was quite proud of that.
“If you looked up the word ‘gentleman’ in the dictionary, his picture would be there,” Soutier said of the former longstanding Labor Council board member.
For a time Jan Scott, a local flutist, said she was the only woman on the board.
“Dick’s leadership was refreshing,” said Scott, who also publishes the Women’s Yellow Pages. “He was more inclusive.”
In 1998, after a 10-week strike, Mr. Renna was successful in negotiating a five-year contract with the Fox that gave musicians more guaranteed work in long-running touring shows, as well as a wage increase and a pension plan for the first time.
He served on the board of the National LST Association and volunteered with the St. Louis Ambassadors, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis, the Variety Telethon and the United Way of Greater St. Louis. He was a supporter of the St. Louis Symphony and the St. Louis Jazz Club.
Arriverderci, Roma (until we see each other again)
Richard Joseph Renna was born in St. Louis on Nov. 16, 1920, the youngest son of Italian immigrants, Fortunato and Generosa (Pisano) Renna, who enrolled him early in accordion lessons.
"All good Italian mothers wanted their sons to play the accordion," he once explained.
He grew up in St. Louis by the water tower on North Grand Avenue. By the time he was in high school, he and a buddy, Jack Whalen, began entering and winning talent shows. Other contestants soon became resigned to losing.
“Being modest, Dad said it got to be embarrassing when they walked in and someone would joke, ‘oh, well,’” Tacheny said.
The modest prize money was used for streetcar fare to the next contest and more music lessons.
Several years ago, Mr. Renna played the accordion at Suzanne Lagomarcino’s retirement as executive director of the Older Women’s League – and gave his wife’s friend a scarf he had hand-knit.
“He was one of those people that you hate for the world to lose," Lagomarcino said.
He’d met his future wife Bea Mason, while stationed in San Francisco. They married six weeks later at the Navy chapel on Treasure Island. He had proposed on the first date; she accepted on the third, after inquiring whether the offer still stood.
Mr. Renna was preceded in death by his parents and siblings.
In addition to his wife of 67 years, Mr. Renna is survived by his son, Paul (Renee) Renna, Defiance, Mo.; daughters, Jolee (Tom) Tacheny, Mankato Minn., and Ricki (David) Steele, San Jose, Calif.; four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren and four step-great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his sister-in-law, Rose Renna-Guzzetti, of Las Vegas, Nev.
He donated his body to the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
A memorial service and military honors will be at 2:30 p.m., Thursday, April 11, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, 2900 Sheridan Road, Lemay, and a memorial Mass will be at 10 a.m., Friday, April 12, at St. Clement of Rome Catholic Church, 1510 Bopp Road, Des Peres.