If you have shopped at Nino Salvaggio’s in St. Clair Shores on a Friday or Saturday over the last 18 years, you have seen him. If you are a Nino’s regular, you may have been on the receiving end of a hug from him. But who is Sam the Dancing Man and how did he come to be the happy and energetic fixture at Nino Salvaggio’s that he is?
Sam D’Anna started work at the early age of 9, landing a job at helping deliver milk for the local creamery and was paid $3.00 a week. He cut grass and also worked at Eastern Market Wholesale. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was 13 and continued his adventures in the workforce.
When he was 14 he finagled his way onto a crew at Gorton’s Fishery in Gloucester. Sam laughs as he admits, “I lied about my age,” telling them he was 16, when in fact he was only 14. “I lasted about four trips because then you had to join the union and I wasn’t old enough… I told them I got another job somewhere else,” he said laughing again.
Not one to sit idle long, Sam then opened a restaurant with his brother who had just returned from the Navy. It was located in Magnolia, Massachusetts. The brothers had a simple menu, “We specialized in lobster rolls, onion rings, hamburgers and hot dogs.” It was just a one-room operation, under a hotel, facing the beach – and the town was only open in the summertime. “It was great,” Sam remembers.
The family was not long for Massachusetts, though, as his family moved back to Detroit when Sam was 16. He returned to work at Eastern Market, this time finding a spot at Gratiot Central Market working in the grocery department. He worked there for a year and a half becoming an indispensable employee. At 18 he decided he wanted to go into factory work, “But I didn’t like it, it was too boring, so I would come back there (Gratiot Central) on the weekends and he (the owner) would say, Sammy, look who I replaced you with, and it was two guys doing my job.” He started back working for $20 on Saturday’s, but a short time later he was drafted.
Sam at Fort Pickett, Virginia, about 1951.
After the service, Sam got married (and has been for 66 years) and went into the gas station business with his brother and father, who had been working at the Hudson Motors plant until it closed. The idea was to make enough to help their father retire. Between 1952 and 1963 they ran four stations the last, a AAA station at 9 mile and Kelly. They sold them off and their father retired to San Diego.
Sam then moved on to delivering commercial laundry. He did so for 8-9 years. “I loved that job, the boss kept saying I’m gonna make you a manager.” Then there was a strike by the Teamsters. “Everyone had to take turns picketing, day or night,” he said. But that is not all they would be asked to take turns doing. After picketing for a couple of weeks he noticed “they would call these guys out… to firebomb the trucks…it was coming to be my turn and I knew it. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have it in me, I’m a lover not a fighter.” He told everyone he was quitting and had a new job. His boss told him he could come back anytime.
Once again Sam found himself with the opportunity to get back in the grocery game. His brother-in-law offered him a job at his store at Chene and Charlevoix. Sam said, “Well I don’t know… and he said, Look if it doesn’t work out, I’ll put you in business.” He worked there until he was 61, when he got throat cancer. “I quit work. I didn’t think I’d live long,” he said. Sam D’Anna survived. Nino Salvaggio would be thankful for that, though he did not know it at the time.
Sam serving up some grub at American Legion Post 570.
About 18 years ago Nino watched Sam give a demonstration at his St. Clair Shores location. Though Sam was in Nino Salvaggio’s, he working for another company, travelling to different stores giving demos. “He was looking at me for about 20 minutes,” relates Sam, “finally he came up to me and says, You gotta come here and work. I said I’m here today. No,no,no the heck with that company, you come work for us.” Though Sam said ‘I don’t know’ at first, it turned out to be an easy decision, as he lives a hop, skip, and a jump from the Nino’s in St. Clair Shores.
Sam has been wooed by the competition and turned them down to stay at Nino Salvaggios. “I look forward to Friday and Saturday. Mario, Joe, Mike, Kurt… there are so many good people. It’s like home.” Over the years he has come up with ‘Sam’s Sayings.’ If you’re a regular Nino’s customer you may have heard them a time or two. Here they are:
“It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.”
“Human perfection is an illusion. No one is perfect. Striving to be your best is what is all about.”
“Stay alive, be honest, love generously, care, and leave the rest to God.”
Words one could live by. The next time you need groceries, or even a quick meal for the family on a Friday or Saturday, stop by Nino Salvaggio’s in St. Clair Shores. Say hi to Sam D’Anna and maybe give him a hug as well. Keep on dancing, Sam.
Sam kicking up his heels at a wedding in 2015.
Sam with some of his Nino’s fans in 2013.