Early Greek Australians: A glimpse into the Easters of our past

A journey to Greece might be out of the question this Easter, but a trip down memory lane to Easter celebrations of times past is always a great way to see where we’ve come from.

Running through issues of Neos Kosmos from the 1970s, we remembered the hey day of Greek migration as a rush of migrants from Greece and Cyprus inundated Australia. As a result, Orthodox celebrations were plentiful.

The photos show visits by numerous top Greek performers such as Stamatis Kokotas and Manolis Angelopoulos, who enjoyed a great popularity among Greek Australians.
Greek Australians were active in trade with shops like Zorba, Copacabana, Neraida and Green Hill resort of the late George Samartzis.

Babis Stavropoulos, a colleague and contributor to Neos Kosmos, remembers the many feasts organised by Samartzis, who advertised in Neos Kosmos with an add titled: “Celebrate Easter at the Village”. An indeed, in those days, the village had come to Australia.

In April, 1974, the dictatorship ended after seven years. It was during this time that Andreas Papandreou, the leader of the Panhellenic Liberation Movement (PAK) visited Australia, touring Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. He drew crowds everywhere he went and the attention of local media – making the mainstream news, too.

“Apotheosis” was the way Neos Kosmos described his visit as 3,000 people rushed to hear him speak at Richmond Town Hall, hanging from his every word and hankering for the vision of Greece which he represented at the time. The late Gough Whitlam was a personal friend of the late statesman and welcomed Mr Papandreou to his residency in Canberra when he was the then prime minister of Australia. This all went on despite the objections of Greece’s military dictatorship.

In 1975, Nikos Dimopoulos captured footage of Greek Australians celebrating Easter for the first time. An associate of Finos Film for many years, Mr Dimopoulos had worked for this iconic company which dominated the Greek film industry from 1943 to 1977 and is remembered for catapulting the Golden Age of Greek Cinema. Mr Dimopoulos had participated in more than 70 legendary films, such as “The Aunt from Chicago”, “Law 4000”, “My Friend Lefterakis”, “Vertigo” and then some.

Following success in Greece, he migrated to Australia in 1970 where he worked in television. He passed away in Melbourne in 2012.

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Neos Kosmos publisher Dimitris Gogos with former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, Greek statesman Andreas Papandreou, former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam and NK correspondent/senator Takis Kaldis. Photo: NK archives

Community spirit

Photos from 1976 which graced the pages of Neos Kosmos speak for themselves, showing how the diaspora managed to transport Greece to Melbourne, enjoying Greek Australian entertainment as though they didn’t have a care in the world though the challenges were many and the migrant story was fraught with difficulties.

Easter Sunday 1974 fell on 14 April, at a time when the newspaper circulated as a biweekly every Monday and Thursday. On 18 April, an article titled “Greek Melbourne”, used the polytonic system in its article showcasing the Greek community’s Easter presentation.

Crowds gathered at Evangelismos, St Demetrios in Prahran, St George in Thornbury and other churches in Australia.
In one of the photos is famous singer Stamatis Kokotas, holding his lambada candle at Easter mass in reverence, side by side with his Greek-Australian brethren.

During this visit, around 4,500 fans squeezed into festival hall to enjoy old and new songs.

The article notes: “Easter ’74. The Melbourne sky was shady all throughout Holy Week and on the night of the Resurrection, but this did not hold back Hellenism as thousands rushed to churches on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.”

On Sunday morning of the same year, thousands of lambs were cooked in the yards of Greek houses, while many headed to Greenhill.

A doxology was chanted in the morning, followed by a Greek celebration with all the trimmings.

The weather was drizzly, but apart from that the mood, spirit and cheer was not missing.

In 1975, Easter was on 4 May and covered in the issue of Thursday, 8 May – using the polytonic system yet again. Much like previous years, crowds gathered at local churches with photos showing Mr Dimopoulos filming at Agios Demetrios in Prahran. “Filming Greek Easter” read the headline, while the story stated that for the first time in the history of Hellenism in Victoria, Easter would be filmed and documented for posterity by Mr Dimopoulos, one of the finest film operators of Greece, who also collaborated with Australian television. In the film, Yiannis Gerostathis, otherwise known as John Geros, performed with Australian Juliana O’Dwyer.
Mr Geros had appeared in more than 20 episodes of “Homicide”, “Matlock Polis”, “Division 4” and encapsulated iconic roles, whereas Juliana was a stage actress.

Once again, gloomy weather did not manage to dampen the spirit of Greeks who crowded to churches.

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Orthodoxy’s heyday in the Antipodes

In 1976, Easter fell on 25 April, the same day as Anzac Day, and Neos Kosmos reported that there were greater numbers than ever before in churches during Holy Week.

People literally poured out onto the streets from churches before heading to Greek nightclubs. In one of the photos, Ioannis Stamatopoulos and Ilias Kouyias from Sydney joined their Melbourne friends and enjoyed themselves at Dilina, and in another photo, N. Stamatoulis and N. Zaharias, came from Adelaide for entertainment with Angelopoulos at the same nightclub.

Others headed to Klimataria or Neraida, from Labrochette for jazz to various festivities. On Page 4 of that year, Neos Kosmos documented that 1 May (Protomagia) celebrations would take place at St Michael’s Church of England Girl’s Grammar School at Redan Street, St Kilda.

Lucky draws and raffles were advertised, and prizes included transistor radios and the like.

Trio Hellenic had just started their appearances at Copacabana, whereas local Greek Australian singers Johnny Greko, Vana and Lia Raftopoulou had their own following.

Greeks relied on the paper to better navigate the country they had chosen to be their new home. Collingwood Legal Service offered free advice regarding the new laws for light work, people like Anna Kouloumenta, an elderly woman, and her 70-year-old hard-of-seeing husband turned to the newspaper seeking charity.

At a time when television reigned supreme and the internet seemed like science fiction than a staple of the future, people rushed to cinemas to enjoy films from their homeland. National and Kinema at Richmond and Albert Park drew crowds. “Rena Off-Side” was screened at the Astor whereas Anna Fonsou played with Andreas Barkoulis and Christos Nomikos at Victoria.

Do you recognise yourself or a friend, relative or acquaintance in any of these newspaper clips? We’d like you to share your story. Email us at editor@neoskosmos.com.au