I’m trying out a new series: Meet-Cute Mondays, where I will delve into the circumstances of how certain ancestors met their spouses, friends, and others. I begin this Meet-Cute Monday with my maternal grandparents, Ruth Mihalovich and Tony DiBagno.
It was about 1945 and popular dance music was in the midst of transitioning from jazz, swing, and big band sounds to vocally led pop confections sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Partnered dance competitions were popular at the time, where couples would compete against each other by performing dances like the Jitterbug or the Lindy hop. These mid and post-war refuges were generally happy, feel-good atmospheres, where people could come to forget their troubles. My maternal grandparents met at one of these dances.
My grandfather, Tony DiBagno, was 18, though he appeared older. He was tall, dark, handsome, and carried himself with confidence. His lanky walk had a graceful rhythm and he possessed a boatload of charm. My grandmother, Ruth Mihalovich, called Ruthie by those close to her, was 26, but appeared younger. She was cute, slightly shy but fun-loving, with a great laugh, a cloud of curly brown hair, and she loved to dance. Ruth would claim that she never knew how young Tony was until they married about a year later.
I don’t know if this was a planned introduction or if it was by coincidence that they were both in the same dance hall that night, but they and the mutual friend who introduced them, ultimately were. She was Clara Trongo, who worked with Ruthie and had gone to high school with Tony. Tiny, pertly pretty Clara was described in her yearbook as a person full of “dramatic energy” who was “always getting into something.” It may have been Clara’s involvement in the high school Grex club, a drama group for aspiring actors and actresses, that allowed an acquaintance to form with fellow Grex member Tony. Their town of Jeannette, Pennsylvania was small, however, and the two teens with mutual Italian backgrounds may have already known each other.
And so Ruthie and Tony met on the dance floor, with a little help from Clara. Sparks flew between Ruthie and Tony and they quickly became a couple.
After Ruthie and Tony married and moved out to California (from Pennsylvania) about a year later, Tony’s good friend Wilbert “Wibby” Casper and Ruthie would narrowly miss winning a dance contest together. There may have been a prize at stake so the group of friends sent in their “A-team.” Ruthie was a fantastic dancer with great legs, if photos are to be believed, while Wibby had won the high school superlative of Best Dancer and was described in his senior yearbook as “a popular male and one of our best dancers about school…spends most of his time dancing to his latest records of Stan Kenton and Les Brown.”
My Grandpap would maintain that Ruthie and Wibby were the most talented couple in the competition, but the pair who beat them out for first place had more friends there and garnered more applause. This ultimately won them the crown and pushed Ruthie and Wibby into second place.
The Rhythm Room in Los Angeles, California was one of the places my grandmother appeared to have gone to at least once (and may have been the scene of the contest). It was a cocktail bar located inside the Hotel Hayward and was the place to be for returning service men and folks who loved to dance. In the 1970s the hotel went by the wayside and the Rhythm Room went down with it. Only about a year ago, the Rhythm Room re-opened in the same location with new owners eager to do right by the old hot spot. The current Rhythm Room sells itself on its rich history as a former jazz club and follows suit. Its reputation today is that of a cool, hip place to go with dim lighting, industrial decor, live jazz bands, a “speakeasy feel” (according to one yelper), and billiards. It’s still a place to go and dance. I would love to go and visit it someday…and dance a jitterbug for my grandma Ruthie.