In its heyday of the 1960s and early 1970s, Sydney’s Greek community was buzzing with a strange mixture of uncertainty and excitement for the adopted homeland, Australia, and simultaneously missing the language and culture they left behind in their homeland, Greece (as well as Cyprus and Egypt). In those early years of these migrants’ integration into the Australian lifestyle, there was a huge demand for Greek social alternatives; Pan Hellenic SC, for instance, was arguably the most popular football club in Sydney.
In Sydney’s Greek night life scene, it boomed, with several clubs opening to cater for the growing demand for live Greek music; after working as factory-fodder throughout the week, Greek migrants just wanted to go out and forget how hard they worked…
One of the Greek night club’s that left its mark on this bygone era was Athina Night Club, in Redfern, run by Panagiotis Skoulis- it operated from the early 1970s to the mid 1908s!
After migrating to Melbourne in 1956 and working for several nightclubs, such as St Kilda Night Club, for years, he came to Sydney in the early 1960s and Maria (nee Drossos), and resumed working in Sydney’s Stage Coach night club, Redfern, where internationally famous actors and singers, such as Shirley Bassey, would visit the club after their own shows. At the Stage Coach, Panagiotis worked his way to assistant manager at the Windsor Hotel.
With this wealth of experience in night life, Panagiotis teamed up with Theo Morris to buy the Patris Night Club in Redfern. At the same time, Maria and Panagiotis were fortunate to acquire a liquor license and bought the Oxford Hotel, on Oxford Street.
Asked about the Greek migrants’ and their relationship with night clubs was like, Panagiotis explains, ’Every few weeks another shipload of Greek migrants arrived in Sydney. If they asked others, ‘Where do you go out at night?” people would reply, “bouzoukia”. The Greek night clubs consoled so many migrants with an environment where they could speak Greek, listen to Greek music, eat Greek food and do Greek dancing.’
After five years at the Patris Night Club, Panagiotis and Maria bought Athina Night Club off Vangelis the ‘Castellorizian’, Redfern; it was open seven nights and the only day it shut was Good Friday! While Maria looked after the Oxford Hotel during the day, Panagiotis looked after Athina- and Maria would help out at Athina once she finished up at the hotel- they were endless days and nights.
Asked about the artists who came through Athina Night Club, and the list goes on and on. As an entrepreneur, Panagiotis branched out in bringing out Greek film stars, who performed at the Elizabeth Theatre, and would later come to the Athina Night Club to socialise- and even get up for an impromptu performance. Just to name a few, they were: Greece’s most famous star, Aliki Vougiouklaki; the dynamic couple, Tzeny Karezi and Michalis Kazakos; and Anna Fonsou.
And what music stars passed through Athina? Stamatis Kokotas, Viki Moscoliou, Stelios Vamvakaris, Loukas Daralas, Beba Blaz and Yiannis Sideris… just to name a few!!!
Asked what motivated him to bring such famous stars to Australia, Panagiotis explains, ‘There were so many Greek clubs- Vrachos/Mykonos, Panorama and Salona, so there was a lot of competition. I thrived on competition and action… for me, can you imagine how exciting it was to bring Aliki to Australia? Whenever we had a slow period, I ring up our travel agent, Andrew Vass, and fly out to Athens to search which star was available to come to Australia. We had to do this to stay ahead of competitors.’
Asked what Aliki Vougiouklaki was like as a person, Panagiotis explains, ‘Maria and I took Aliki all over Australia- Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, so we got to know her very well. In business, she was a tough negotiator and she was a gentlewoman socially. And she was also very generous too; one time, Maria complimented her about her beautiful crucifix… she took it off and gave to Maria, just like that! Realistically, she was very conscious about her performances; she never wanted empty seats, so there were times she gave away some tickets to fill up the theatre.’
Panagiotis admits he had a great team at Athina, especially the resident band with Giorgos Lagoutaris, Fani, Elli Rigas and Marianna on vocals; Mimis Mandylis on bouzouki; Nikitas Naris on Bouzouki; Stelios Makris and Giorgos Foundis on Drums respectively; Peter Damianos on guitar; and Nikos Stefanidakis on keyboards.
By the mid 1980s, the local area’s Greek demographics had changed, these Greek migrants were married and with children by then and had other social alternatives, and random alcohol breath testing was introduced… it was a changing world and Athina finally shut.
Asked if he missed these times, Panagiotis admits, ‘Of course I do, Maria and I were much younger then (laughs). If I was reborn again, I would do it all over again. My life was definitely an adventure, and that is why I enjoyed it so much.’
Follow Vasili’s Taxidi through Marrickville next Friday in print…