The cultural pioneer

The life of Stathis Raftopoulos was celebrated at the launch of Kyriakos Amanatides' book Stathis Raftopoulos MBE - Poet. A contemporary Ulysses in the Antipodes

The Greek Australian community has Stathis Raftopoulos to thank for many things; and love, marriage and generations to come are some of them. As the pioneer of Greek cinemas in Australia, Stathis gave young Greeks a forum to meet, and eventually, to fall in love.
“In those cinemas, a lot of young people got to know each other; young men would meet young girls which led to romance and eventually to marriage,” author Kyriakos Amanatides says with a smile, about a man who gave so much to the Greek community of Melbourne, and Australia, but also to his island home, Ithaca.
On Sunday, Kyriakos’ labour of love, the book Stathis Raftopoulos MBE – Poet. A contemporary Ulysses in the Antipodes was launched to a packed audience at the Ithacan Philanthropic Society in Melbourne. Everyone gathered to celebrate a man who did more in his lifetime than many of us could ever possibly imagine.
“He was a gentleman in the real meaning of the word,” Kyriakos says about his friend Stathis.
“He was generous, kind, cooperative; he had a combination of qualities you don’t often find in the one person. And, on top of that – and I should stress – a gifted poet. And he had a fantastic and unusual memory – he could recite his poetry without reading.
“He was one of the most prolific poets within the Greek community, not only in Melbourne, but in Australia.”
The book was born from a need to tell Stathis’ story. In the first chapter, Kyriakos explains his contribution to the cultural tapestry of the Greek community, and then in the second chapter he highlights Stathis’ career as a poet, and show that the community needs his poetry to understand who we are, so we know where we are going.
“The poetry of Stathis has been misunderstood and underestimated simply because people formed their views of this poetry from his public recitals,” Kyriakos tells Neos Kosmos.
“Yet, if one studies his six poetry collections, one finds some beautiful lyrical poems, some exceptionally beautiful poems and the vast majority of people are not aware of those poems.”
In the second chapter of the book, Kyriakos says he “attempts to bring the attention of the reader to his poetry in order to restore him as a poet of worth” and one of the first Greek Australian poets. His first poetry collections Eleftherias Apanthisma (Ελευθερίας Απάνθισμα) was published in 1943 – the first collection to have been published in Australia and in Greek. In that respect, he was a pioneer.
“One aspect of his poetry I feel is very significant, is that it portrays certain members of the Greek community in the ’40s to the ’60s who played a major role within the community, and [his poems] are the only written testament of those people.
“If it wasn’t for Stathis’ poems, we would have known very little – if anything – about major members of the community who made very significant contributions in various areas.
“In the ’40s and ’50s in Australia, there were only two newspapers printed, one in Victoria and one in Sydney. There were no newspapers from Greece, yet when you read Stathis’ poems – especially in his first collection – he was so well informed of developments in Europe, specifically in Greece during the war, and at that time he was only 21-22 years old.”
Stathis Raftopoulos migrated to Australia when he was just 13. His family worked in Merbein, Mildura then eventually settled in Melbourne, Victoria. It was in Melbourne he began to explore the cultural contribution he could make to the community. In 1949, he gave Greek Australians an avenue to connect with the motherland; he gave them cinema.
The first projection of a Greek film was made at Nicholas Hall in Lonsdale Street, in 1949. Following that, Stathis – alongside Panagiotis Yiannoudis and Andreas Papadopoulos – formed the Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures Company. Together they bought a dozen cinemas in various suburbs of Melbourne and began screening Greek cinema.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, and ’70s even, that was the major weekend entertainment for families,” says Kyriakos.
“You would see whole families with their children going to the theatre to see Greek film, because at the time there was no television and when it was introduced there were no Greek programs, so this was their only connection with the motherland, and that was one of Stathis’ major contributions to the Greek community.”
In addition to this, Stathis served in the Australian Armed Forces for some two-and-a-half-years. He was an entertainer, magician and businessman as well as poet and importantly, philanthropist. Never forgetting his homeland, his contribution and philanthropic work for Ithaca went on throughout his lifetime. One of the reasons Stathis was coined the ‘contemporary Odysseus’ by the author was because “his constant longing for the homeland was running through Stathis’ veins”. He even donated a bust of Odysseus to Ithaca but also erected an obelisk there, among many other things.
“What Stathis did in one lifetime, it would take many to do in theirs,” Kyriakos says thoughtfully. A couple of months prior to Stathis’ passing in 2003, he gave the author three volumes of his memoirs. 600 pages of handwritten notes and memories, penned by the man, recording all his experiences from the village in Ithaca up to the year 2000. And notes on the Greek community of Melbourne – not documented anywhere else.
In the speech made by Mr Pagalis at Sunday’s launch, he said: “the first observation one could make about this book is that the author handled the files of Raftopoulos with tender care and love. In other words, the author displays respect for the late Stathis’ live achievements”.
“With clear vision and crystal clarity, Kyriakos Amanatides completes the colourful chart of Raftopoulos’ biography with a background rich in historical and social facts of the Melbourne Greek community.”
You can get a copy of Kyriakos Amanatides’ book Stathis Raftopoulos MBE – Poet. A contemporary Ulysses in the Antipodes from Tsonis Bookshop, 10 Belford Road, East Kew, or call (03) 9859 8318.