Steve Frangos and Greek American Studies
by Dan Georgakas
Steve Frangos is the great maverick of Greek American Studies. While in graduate school, Frangos concluded that Modern Greek Studies programs at that time did not have much interest in Greek American history and culture. He felt academic discourse was mostly commentary on commentary, rather than the mining of raw data that was more suitable to his temperament. Given those perceptions, he decided his work would focus on showing how Greek Americans expressed their identities and personalities in their own words, images, and daily life. He would approach archival material with a similar orientation: determining the manner Greek Americans had expressed themselves in the past and the nature of their impact and interaction with mainstream American culture.
From the onset, Frangos was intent on sharing his findings with the general public. Consequently, he has mainly published in newspapers, with less frequent appearances in scholarly publications. He has often worked with local groups to create oral histories, community histories, and museums. He believes the building of archival collections should be a primary goal of scholars of Greek America.
A pioneering element in his work is his investigation of popular culture, which has included identifying numerous individuals and events previously unknown. While his accounts have a generally positive evaluation of Greek Americans, he also has written candidly of various scoundrels wherever they appear.
Frangos’s first breakthrough work involved music in Greek America. He has written most eloquently about the musical cafes in New York in the early years of the twentieth century. These “Greek” cafes turned out to be frequented by a rich ethnic mix of Armenians, Arabs, Balkan peoples, and Turks, as well as Greeks. The clubs usually were run and owned by female singers. The songs were rendered in Greek, Turkish, and Ladino versions. Frangos has catalogued recording dates and recording firms involving all the major musical artists of that time. He has donated a host of musical tapes and historical records to Indiana University.
Even more innovative has been his discovery of the role Greek immigrants played in early vaudeville. These range from the first tattooed man who starred in popular entertainment to Greeks performing historical tableaus. Frangos also has documented that the Middle East shows at famous world fairs were mainly organized by Greek entrepreneurs. George Pangalos, for example, brought together a mixed company of Ottoman subjects to play various roles in the 1893 Chicago World Exposition. Two Greeks had the starring roles, but the majority of musicians and dancers were from Syria.
Frangos has continued his exploration of popular entertainment through to the present era. He has written of Catskill Greek bands similar to their Jewish counterparts, famed speakeasy singers, film comedians, ballroom dancers, musical groups in the 1950s, and current performers who are not “stars” but have solid popular and professional recognition.
Allied with his passion for popular entertainment has been Frangos’s exploration of Greek participation in mass food culture. He’s written of ice cream venders, candy makers, and yogurt manufacturers. Among many unusual findings is his account of Greeks who introduced marshmallows to America. He almost always backs up his general statements with an intense portrait of the individuals involved, persons usually well known locally but unknown nationally. In a similar fashion, rather than writing of Greek candy stores or diners abstractly, he has produced accounts of countless specific enterprises. Again, owners discuss their origins, how they ran their enterprises, and the response of the public.
The subject matter of his weekly column in the National Herald is unpredictable. One week he might write about the Malbis plantation, a communal farm in Alabama, while offering a portrait of dancers who perform at famous night clubs in the next. He is the first scholar to bring to light a proposed Broadway musical on Greek workers by Mark Blitzstein, creator of the legendary The Cradle Will Rock. He often corrects myths about Greek America, falsely glamorized individuals, and key songs tied to Greeks but composed by others or vice versa.
Among his scholarly works is a brilliant essay on The Greek Slave, a sculpture created by Hiram Powers in 1847 as a response to the Ottoman’s massacre of Greeks on Chios.1 Frangos establishes that there are six versions of the entire statue and countless busts and three-quarter size replicas. In an age without radio, television, or the movies, art shows were mass entertainments. At least 100,000 Americans viewed the full statue. Support for Greece was greatly enhanced as expected, but the sculptures also became a propaganda vehicle for the movement to end slavery in America. This reaction is largely unnoted in formal histories of Greek America or studies of the abolitionist movement. The essay is an example of Frangos putting Hellenic-oriented events into an American context.
Other formal scholarly projects include publication of Greeks of Michigan2 and “Diaspora Studies—The Hellenic Diaspora,” a bibliography coedited with Alexandros Kyrou.3 Frangos also has contributed scholarly articles to the now-defunct Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora. This work includes a landmark essay on the Magafan Sisters, Greek American muralists whose work included numerous projects for the WPA on structures still in public view.4 Most of his scholarly publications have been in conjunction with members of the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA). Frangos also has often assisted members of the MGSA in archiving their works and has worked in tandem with them on various publishing projects.5
Many of his works cite newspaper accounts of Greek life. These may or may not be accurate, but they offer a precious database for how Greeks were perceived and identify topics that need further exploration. Frangos also has called attention to the sense of Greek culture available in church yearbooks and similar materials printed for a local parish or the general public. A note in a church yearbook from Pittsburgh may have a greeting from the Greek president of a local coal miner’s union previously unknown. A cluster of florist ads in a Brooklyn yearbook establishes a Greek entrepreneurial presence in areas other than food.
Frangos often takes issue with theories about diaspora Greeks or Hellenism in America that he feels are based on abstractions and speculations rather than solid data. Put more positively, Frangos offers hard data on which sound theory can be built. He states that he sees himself more as a witness than as an analyst.
Rather than citing more of the hundreds of topics Frangos has addressed, it is sufficient to say he is the most prolific researcher ever in Greek American studies. Steve Frangos is the first scholar to whom I turn when I am queried about a topic regarding Greek America that stumps me. His columns often provide details that reinforce, correct, or revise my own speculations. Many others do likewise, including filmmakers. We often say of a colleague who has done good work that they are one of a kind. Steve Frangos is truly that: one of a kind. The MGSA has provided an invaluable service to the field by making his newspaper work readily available to scholars and the general public.
1. Steve Frangos, “The Greek Slave,” in Founded on Freedom & Virtue: Documents Illustrating the Impact in the United States of the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1829. Edited by Constantine G. Hatzidimitriou. Caratzas: New York/Athens, 2002, 377-380. Includes photos of the statue.
2. Steve Frangos, Greeks of Michigan. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004.
3. Included in Stratos Constantinidis (Ed.). Greece in Modern Times: An Annotated Bibliography of Works Published in English in the Twentieth Century in Twenty-Two Academic Disciplines. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
4. Steve Frangos, “The Twined Muses: Ethel and Jenne Magafan,” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 31: 2, 2005, 69-94. Includes illustrations.
5. These individuals include Alexander Kopan, Helen Papanikolas, Tina Bucuvalas, Charles Moskos, Constantine Hatzidimitriou, Alexandros Kyrou, and myself. As an associate of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Frangos had a major role in preparing a special issue honoring Papanikolas, including compiling a bibliography. He was also instrumental in arranging for a special section of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora prepared by Tina Bucuvalas’s dealing with the sponge divers of Tarpon Springs.
Dan Georgakas is director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College (CUNY). He is editor of the Policy Journal of the American Hellenic Institute, executive editor of the Journal of Modern Hellenism, and a former co-editor of the now defunct Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora. His scholarly works are augmented by a semi-monthly column in theNational Herald. His My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City (Pella) is available in English and Greek.