Obituary: S. Tony Cardinali / 'The father of ballroom dancing in Pittsburgh'
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S. Tony Cardinali always knew the right moves, whether he was playing professional soccer, dancing with a style and presence that seized the room, or opening ballroom dancing studios.
A native of Italy, he kicked his way across two continents as a pro-level soccer player in France, Belgium, Germany and Canada, but also labored as a factory and construction worker, bulldozer operator and janitor, before beginning a career as a ballroom dancing instructor.
Along the way, he also developed skills in fine dining and wine sipping with a knack and passion for buildings friendships.
A master franchiser for Arthur Murray International Inc.'s Pittsburgh market, he owned the Arthur Murray Ballroom Dancing Studio on Sixth Street, Downtown, for 44 years, and also started the studios in Monroeville, McCandless and Peters.
Mr. Cardinali, 82, of Fox Chapel died Saturday from diabetes complications.
"He is the father of ballroom dancing in Pittsburgh," said John Siefken, president of the USA Dance chapter of Pittsburgh. "He was always promoting dancing, and it always was a passion for him as a teacher, studio owner and franchise owner -- a master franchisee for Pittsburgh and surrounding areas."
Born and raised in Sezze, Italy, near Rome, Mr. Cardinali helped his family survive the Depression years and World War II.
As a boy, living in terror during the war, he and his older brother, Luigi, took risks to help the American troops. The boys would sneak downhill to the valley and give American troops regular reports on German positions, which earned them chocolate. They also picked figs on the way back to the village. To his last days, Mr. Cardinali enjoyed eating figs from his garden, said his son, Tony Karl Cardinali of Coral Gables, Fla.
His mother died shortly after the war ended. His father, Orlando, spent six months working in a Pittsburgh steel mill before returning to Italy with his earnings to help the family.
But Mr. Cardinali took a more circuitous route to Pittsburgh.
The youngest of eight, he joined a French pro soccer team, worked in the Peugot auto factory in France, then played soccer in Belgium and Germany. In 1951, he joined a pro soccer team in Toronto, where Luigi Cardinali had started a construction company.
In Toronto, Mr. Cardinali took dancing lessons at an Arthur Murray studio. Working construction for Alcoa in the Yukon and Alaska, he countered boredom by dancing, and eventually the company paid him to teach dancing to prevent fighting and morale problems.
His love of music, great sense of rhythm and athleticism left Mr. Cardinali with a manly style more reminiscent of Gene Kelly than the finesse of Fred Astaire. Unable to speak the native language well, he thought dance provided him a way to communicate with people, meet friends and impress women.
"Throughout his life -- because he had the immigrant entrepreneurial spirit -- he always felt America was the best country in the world," said his wife, Bonita Cardinali. "Always in the early years he got jobs in all of those countries ... he didn't know the languages, but he always made it work. He couldn't speak with them, but he could dance with them."
Mr. Cardinali would open an Arthur Murray studio in Youngstown, Ohio, and another in Mansfield, Ohio. He met his wife at a studio in Canton, and she eventually helped him operate his two studios.
But after traveling to Pittsburgh to see a movie, Mr. Cardinali fell in love with the city and in 1968 bought a troubled Arthur Murray studio Downtown.
Soon his Sixth Street studio was running successfully with 120 students, prompting him to open the other studios in the region. He eventually would sell those franchises outside of Pittsburgh to others while continuing to hold the master franchise rights for the Greater Pittsburgh area.
"He had a wonderful personality. The students loved him. He had an Italian accent that was hard to understand at times. But he had a charming personality and always was in charge," said Jacques De Beve of Scottsdale, Ariz., who holds the Arthur Murray franchise in Arizona and serves as a traveling consultant for Arthur Murray Inc.
Mr. Cardinali sponsored the Three Rivers DanceSport Championships from 1994 through 1999 along with other dance events throughout the region and introduced a competitive level of dancing to the area.
On April 14, during the Arthur Murray International Inc. Convention in Miami, Mr. Cardinali received the 50 years Successful Franchisee Award for years of service and business acumen.
"He was instrumental throughout the years in motivating a number of employees and people in general to perform their best with their God-given talents," his son Tony said. "That's why he has been successful in many venues. You can't be in it that many years without igniting people's spirit and talent."
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cardinali is survived by two other sons, Mario of Mars and Dino of West Mifflin; a daughter, Claudine Yvette Wonders of Freeport; and five grandchildren.
Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at Weddell-Ajak Funeral Home, Aspinwall, where a funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday. The family suggests memorial contributions to the American Diabetes Association.
First Published October 29, 2012 12:00 am