Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Stathopoulos Family: Artisans in Early 20th Century Greek America

Left:  Epi Stathopoulos.  Right:  The Stathopoulos Family in America.  


THE STATHOPOULOS FAMILY:
ARTISANS IN EARLY 20TH CENTURY GREEK AMERICA


Published in The National Herald, February 14-20, 2015 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos, TNH Staff Writer

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We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 



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One of the most enduring fallacies within Greek-American studies is that Hellenic sojourners never brought any traditional crafts to North America.  Nothing could be further from the documented truth.  As a case in point we need only look at two generations of the Stathopoulos family to see not only the presence of traditional Greek artisans in the United States but also how those unique skills and talents ultimately merged into an American legend.

As in most things Greek, we must first situate our historical account in the kinship of the extended Stathopoulos family.  Our tale begins with Nicolas Stathopoulos who was born in the village of Kastania near Sparta and in the fullness of time a successful lumber merchant.  In 1877, for reasons not now known to history, Stathopoulos moved his family to Smyrna.  One of Nicolas’ children was Anastasios, who was himself born in Kastania in 1863, and it was his son who became an instrument maker.

Anastasios Stathopoulos was a luthier.  “A luthier is someone who makes or repairs lutes and other string instruments.  The term is used interchangeably with any term that refers to a specific, or specialty type of stringed instrument, such as violin maker, guitar maker, lute maker, etc…  The craft of making string instruments, or lutherie, is commonly divided into two main categories:  makers of stringed instruments that are plucked or strummed and makers of stringed instruments that are bowed.”  Anastasios and his wife Marianthe, who he had met and married in Sparta, ultimately had five children:  Epaminondas, Alexander, Minnie, Orpheus and Frixo.  

In 1903, the Stathopoulos family fled persecution in the Ottoman Empire and immigrated to the United States settling first at 56 Roosevelt on Manhattan’s Lower East side.  Anastasios Stathopoulos and his sons continued their instrument making business producing a succession of high quality and especially beautiful ouds, laoutos, bouzoukis, along with mandolins and violins.  As their business grew the Stathopoulos clan set up a showroom and factory at 247 West 47th Street in New York where they were advertised as a “manufacturer of musical instruments, and repair services for violins.”  Aside from the showroom and factory the entire Stathopoulos family lived in the upper stories of this same building.

On June 6, 1906, a classified advertisement in the New York Tribune for A. Stathopoulos claimed that the company possessed “the secret to repair your violin.”  But the real secret involved was the sheet beauty both in the sense of sound production and physical appearance the Stathopoulo instruments possessed.  As one contemporary luthier has written about Anastacios Stathopoulo:  “A fine example of his early work is a 1907 mandolin that was inconspicuously sitting on a shelf in Epiphones’s Nashville offices.  Although its basic design is quite similar to other bowl-back mandolins of that period, it clearly shows the skills of a very experienced luthier, sporting intricate inlay and purflings made of mother-of-pearl and ebony and a carved solid tortoise-shell bridge and pickguard (www.harpguitars.net).”

An ongoing contradiction in the existing writings on the Stathopoulo Company was to do with the number of American patents Anastasios Stathopoulo held.  On March 25, 1909, Anastasios, “not yet a U.S. citizen and a subject of the King of Greece, residing in New York”, patented a “new, original and ornamental design for the Mandolin” (Pat. 40,010), its most striking feature was the cello-style scrolled headstock with a carved animal’s head that would appear on several instruments.  Anastasios Stathopoulos’s 1909 patented mandolin design and brings the whole story full circle back to the beginning, when a Greek immigrant wanted to make the “highest quality instruments” designed to stand out from the crowd (www.fox-guitars.com).”

Yet various accounts reproduce the label found inside each Stathopoulo instrument that read:  “A. Stathopoulo Manufacturer, repairer of all kinds of musical instruments Patentee of the Orpheum Lyra New York 1911, USA.”  So, we must assume that the elder Stathopoulos held at least two if not more patents.

 In 1915, after a long illness, Anastasios Stathopoulos died and his eldest son, Epaminondas, (born 1893 in Smyrna) took over leadership of the company.  One of the very first actions Epaminondas, who was known as Epi by one and all, took was to change the company name (and label inside each instrument) to “The House of Stathopoulo, Quality Instruments Since 1873.”

Epi had completely embraced America.  He attended and graduated with honors from Columbia University and was not only a musician but someone who avidly followed all the musical hot spots and trends that New York City, in the 1920s, could then offer.  A strict follower of fashion, Epi, was known outside his family as “the Duke.”  A tell-tale sign of Epi’s attunement to ongoing musical developments was made evident in 1923.  Epi phased out all the old world style mandolins and introduced the “Recording” line of banjos.  In post-World War I America the banjo was the nation’s most popular instrument.  An immediate financial success in 1928, the company took on the name of the “Epiphone Banjo Company.”  In that same year the Stathopoulos family produced their first guitars under the name Epiphone.

It is Epi Stathopoulos’ marketing sensibilities that today impress most writers:  “1916, at the age of 23, and only a year after his father’s death, Epi had filed his first banjo patent (1,248,196), followed by two more in 1920, and was granted a fourth in 1929.  Epi was well aware of what instruments Americans wanted to play and with great foresight; Epi got the jump on their Michigan-based rival Gibson by driving into a new market for this uniquely American instrument, the banjo.  Realizing that they would not fare well against Gibson in the mandolin market, and knowing that manufacturing traditional Greek instruments was a market with limited potential, Epi and his brothers started exclusively manufacturing high-quality banjos.  In 1923, the Stathopoulos brothers, Orp;hie, Friko and Epi (short for Epaminondas), combined his nickname, which is also a Greek prefix meaning “at the center”, with “phone”, from the Greek word for voice or sound and the Epiphone Banjo Corporation was born.  Unfortunately, little is known about pre-Epiphone era between 1917 and 1923 by way of catalogs, brochures or advertisements.  A 1920 trade magazine “The Violinist” barely mentions the Stathopoulos Shop on West 39th Street, despite its self-proclaimed “forty years of experience” as a dealer and importer of “old and new violins.”  It would take several years before the name of Epiphone became synonymous with high-quality instruments like the Recording banjos of the 1920s and their legendary Masterbilt archtop guitars of the 1930s (www.fox-guitars.com).”

Epi Stathopoulos died in 1943.  Control of the company went to his brothers, Orphie and Frixo.  The partnership lasted only five years when Frixo sold his share of the company to his brother.  Orphie continued to run the company until in 1951, a four month long strike forced a relocation of Epiphone from New York to Philadelphia.  The company was bought out by their main rival, Gibson in 1957 for a mere $20,000.

I am no aficionado of the American guitar but even a passing glance at the available publications on the Epiphone line of guitars such as Walter Carter and Jim Fischs book length study, Epiphone:  The Complete History (New York:  Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995) conveys the enduring influence of this one company.  Two examples I especially found interesting is the fact that in the famous “Dueling Banjos” scene in the 1972 motion picture Deliverance, actory Ronny Cox plays an Epiphone acoustic gitar.  All three of the Beatles – John, Pal, and George - all played the Epiphone Casino when they invaded the American pop scene.  Today, Stathopoulos and Epiphone musical instruments are sought after collectables selling for literally thousands of dollars . . . assuming you ca locate any for sale.

We have to not only collect Greek-American history but also learn to recognize when real events surrounding Greeks may have inadvertently affected other documents.  It is widely claimed that another instrument maker Clarence Leonidas (“Leo”) Fender (1909-1991) the creator of the Fender Stratocaster Guitar, was also a Greek-American.  This seems unlikely given that Fender was born in California to Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood, owners of an orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton, California.  I can only assume that the prominence of the Stathopoulos family in the world of American instrument makers and Fender’s first name have created this urban legend.

While on the other hand Lester William Polsfuss (1915-2009) worked nights in the Epiphone factory in New York City to create the prototype of the guitar that would one day carry his Americanized name, the Les Paul.

Let us not forget that Greek-Americans around the country still treasure their family’s original “A. Stathopoulo and Company” instrument(s).  After hearing just this one story about just one family who is ready to say that Greeks have never influenced the history and culture of the United States?