Close your eyes and imagine you’re back in 1988 a/k/a the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, and you’re sitting in a seat at one of the area’s hottest bouzoukia / nightclubs. It’s around 11:30 PM and you look around and the place is packed. People are dressed to impress and you’re right in the thick of things. You were lucky you got these seats. You see many people you know and you raise a glass to a couple on the other side of the room, wave to a group close by, and nod your head to an acquaintance. You take a sip of your whiskey and take a drag of your cigarette, which you were permitted to do back then, while your wife is next to you talking with her sister and drinking a glass a wine. Everything is good and you know the show will be great.
The lights dim and the band walks on stage and they start vamping on an intro when the bouzouki player comes out and starts a taximi (solo). You’re excited because you know what song they are starting with and then the “firma” walks on stage… Yiannis Parios, Greece’s Frank Sinatra, a living legend and your favorite singer, comes out waves to the crowd and belts out his first song. The place goes wild and for the next few hours he entertains the crowd like never before. You’re in heaven.
Now open your eyes… where was the hottest bouzoukia back in the 1980s? Athens? No. New York? No. Thessaloniki? No. Upper Darby? Of course! Upper Darby?
Yes, during the 1980s, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, held its annual Greek festival and before the Greek singers started appearing at the Atlantic City casinos, the far-thinking and innovative members of the St. Demetrios community thought outside the box. Bring the Greek singers to the taverna at the Greek festival and the crowds would come. And that’s what they did.
Singers such as Yiannis Parios, Stratos Dionysiou, Stamatis Kokotas, Rita Sakellariou, Katerina Stanisi, Antypas, Giorgos Gerolimatos, Stamatis Gonidis, Angelos Dionysiou, and many, many more, all performed in the church hall turned bouzoukia. The room would be packed, holding people from 400 to over a 1,000. Drinks flowed, cigarette smoke rose to the ceiling, carnations fell upon the singers like an avalanche of white snow, and the hall resonated with the sounds of the bouzouki and singers belting out lyrics to Greece’s most popular and iconic songs. It was a little piece of Greece in Upper Darby (known back then as Mikri Ellada).
The singers would be making the rounds from Boston to New York City and to Chicago and other American cities, and end up in Upper Darby. Here, they were treated like Greek royalty and they gave outstanding performances.
Of course, being a Greek event, there were always a few “glitches.” Like the time Kokotas decided to break away from the promoter and tour the United States on his own. The promoter, knowing that he was headed for Upper Darby, hired a Philadelphia lawyer who found an obscure 18th Century Pennsylvania law that permitted the Constables to “detain” a non-resident of the State from leaving the State if there was an allegation of money due. The Constables arrived to arrest him just as Kokotas was about to start the show, but the church board members convinced them that if they attempted to arrest the singer, a 1,000 Greeks would revolt – it would be worse than 1821! Better to let him finish the show, which they did, then they took him away in handcuffs. That Monday morning, Kokotas appeared in Court with a slew of Greek-American lawyers representing him pro-bono and the case was resolved. He vowed never to return to Upper Darby.
In another concert, the 1,000 Greeks did revolt when Stratos Dionysiou appeared late. Thinking that he was in Greece, where the featured singer didn’t come out until after 2:00 AM, the crowd started grumbling when 11:00 PM rolled around with no Strato. Then 12:00 Midnight and no Strato, then around 1:00 AM the legend walked in, apologized for being late, sang his first song… then, a comment was made and the next thing everyone knew, Dionysiou was being secreted out of the place while chairs and tables were thrown and the crowd, like the villagers with pitchforks and torches in the old Frankenstein movies, were searching for him.
Years later, while my Koumbaro, Steve and I were at Dio Dino’s bouzouki shop in Astoria, an older gentleman walked in, who Dino knew, and told him his bouzouki broke and he needed it repaired for that evening. Dino went in the back room to fix it while Steve and I spoke to the gentleman. After about fifteen minutes he asked where we were from and we told him Upper Darby. The man froze and there was a look of horror upon his face. It was the bouzouki player that played for Dionysiou in Upper Darby that fateful night. He told us that he never feared for his life more than that night and thought he would never get out alive! Ah, don’t you just love Upper Darby.
Of course these are just a couple of colorful stories that are now the collective memories of the Greek community in Mikri Ellada. If only the walls could talk and one could go back in time watching Parios singing his heart out to 5:00 AM, or Sakellariou working the crowd, or Stanisi in a full-length white-pearled gown and the spotlight shining through her. It was something special. Something that happened only in a time and place that will never happen again. It was the hottest and happening bouzoukia anywhere.
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