The Bingara Roxy and 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' in the Media

 

Celebrations at the Bingara Roxy were featured on the ABC's Landline. The show aired on Sunday 8 May 2011, and was repeated the following Monday. To watch the Landline episode featuring the Bingara celebrations visit the ABC Landline Website.

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The Bingara Roxy was featured on ABC Radio National.

Listen to the Bush Telegraph talking to Peter Prineas - author of Katsehamos and the Great Idea, Sandy McNaughton - manager of the Bingara Roxy Theatre complex, and Bob Kirk of the Bingara Historical Society ABC Radio National.

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The Bingara Roxy was featured in the documentary 'As Australian As' with actor John Wood. Author Peter Prineas features in the documentary, discussing the story of the Bingara Roxy, as revealed in 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea'.

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'The house that papou built: Prineas, Katsehamos and the building of the Roxy'

George Poulos speaks to PETER PRINEAS, author of 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea', a new book about Greeks in Australia in the years of the First World War and the Great Depression.

This article first appeared in the 'Greek Australian Epsilon' magazine
Vol. 1, Issue 10, 9 August 2006, published by Hellenic Publishing Pty Ltd.

George Poulos: What led you to write 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea'?

Peter Prineas: I discovered, late in 2004, that my grandfather, Peter Feros, and his partners George Psaltis and Emanuel Aroney, were involved in the 1930s in developing the Roxy Theatre in the NSW country town of Bingara [near Inverell]. I was aware that papou had been in the cafe business in Bingara, but the cinema venture was a surprise to me. There had been newspaper reports of the restoration of the Roxy by the local council, and about the Premier, Bob Carr, going up there to open the place. I was attracted by the mystery of this rather wonderful Art Deco theatre, standing dark and empty for forty years. It seemed an interesting story waiting to be told.

It was not generally known who built the Roxy Theatre?

It was generally known that 'some Greeks' built the Roxy but I thought men who were in business in Bingara for 12 years, and responsible for the town's largest building, deserved more recognition than that. At the re-opening of the Roxy in May 2004 the surnames of my grandfather and his partners had been mentioned, but a Sydney Morning Herald report got even that wrong. If the stories of these old Greek-Australians are not to be forgotten, we need to be recording and writing them. When I visited Bingara I found that the Roxy management were very interested in the history of the theatre. At the 70th anniversary celebrations in April 2006, the Roxy hosted the launch of my book, and the Mayor of Gwydir Shire Council, Mark Coulton, dedicated a plaque and a photographic display to the three founders. The Bingara Roxy now has a special place in the heritage of Australians of Greek ancestry. We need such places.

How did you settle on the title for the book?

The story strongly suggested the title. Peter Feros and his brothers shared the family nickname 'Katsehamos'. Back in Kythera the nickname identified the Feros family - my mother's side - from the many other families named Feros. 'Katsehamos' means literally 'sit down on the ground or the floor' but I suppose it might also have the sense 'calm down!' or 'get back in your box!'. The other element in the title, 'the Great Idea', or 'Megale Idea' refers to Greece's vision of reclaiming Constantinople and her Byzantine glory. That was the great national project up to 1922 when the Katsehamos men were young, and between them they fought four wars for the Great Idea. Eventually, it drove them to leave Greece. When Peter Feros went to Australia, he became entangled in another 'Great Idea', the Roxy Theatre in Bingara, perhaps another case of over-reaching with unfortunate consequences.

How long did you work on 'Katsehamos'?

I spent a little over a year writing it. I had a deadline as I had promised the manager of the Roxy, Sandy McNaughton, that the book would be ready for the theatre's 70th anniversary in April 2006. I have been reading about Greek and Australian history, and the eastern Mediterranean, for years, so there is a lot of background reading in 'Katsehamos'. Researchers can do wonderful things with the internet these days. I logged onto the Ellis Island site and found images of passenger manifests - in copper plate handwriting - recording the entry of the Feros brothers into the USA in the early 1900s. Australia's National Archives website gave me immigration, naturalisation and military records, and I was able to view some of them as images on screen. Getting records from Greece was not as easy. Greece has seen many upheavals and perhaps records have been lost.

Tell me about your early life.

I was born in 1948 in Junee NSW, which is on the railway line halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. My parents ran the 'Allies Cafe'. On my way to school I would see the railway yards full of steam engines shunting and puffing clouds of smoke. Years later I would joke to my kids that I was born in the steam age. But it was also the atomic age and the Cold War, and you only had to step into the Junee picture theatre, built by Nicholas Laurantos, to see newsreels of ever larger and more terrifying nuclear explosions. We lived in Junee until I was about nine or ten years old. Then we moved to the north shore of Sydney, a rather different place. My father, Jim (Demetrios), took over a milk bar in Lindfield from his brother Peter, and we lived in a nice home in Roseville.

What about Greek cultural influences?

Children have a desperate need to be accepted in the playground, so I spent my early years rejecting my Greekness and forgetting what knowledge of the language my parents and grandparents gave me. My mother, Katina, pined for things Greek, and on Saturday evenings she would get me to go with her on the train to Redfern, where we would brave the imagined dangers and enter the soot-blackened Lawson Theatre to see the Greek films showing there. Mum was always singing the praises of Greece and I would always be defending Australia: "See what nice buses they have in Athens!" she would say, and I would reply: "Yeah, because they can't afford cars!". When I was about 13, efforts were made to set up a Greek school at Crows Nest but it didn't really get going until years later, so I had no formal education in Greek.

Were you happy with your education?

Not the Greek side of it, obviously. I have good memories of a couple of my teachers at Junee. I finished my primary education at Lindfield and went on to Chatswood High. School snobbery was intense in Sydney and new schools like Chatswood were low in the pecking order. I was a poor student until I matured. I did the Leaving Certificate and then worked for a year in the Post Master General's Department as a clerk. I sat for the Leaving Certificate again as a private study candidate and got a scholarship to Sydney University. I started an Arts degree in 1967 but I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I had honours in geography and history but I didn't know anybody who made a living as a geographer or a historian and I didn't get much guidance. I enrolled in law. I could do law as I could use words.

What was life like for you in the 1960s?

I liked sixties music as much as anyone, but I was never part of the flower generation. I was an awkward Australian-Greek youth. When it came to Vietnam, it was a different story. I was good enough to be sent to Vietnam. I opposed the war and marched with the rest of them, but my number was drawn out of the barrel. The newspapers were full of stories about well-educated draft resisters but I did not have the background for that. My father believed the Vietnam War was about keeping Australia safe from communists, and with his experiences in Greece in 1945-46, he was in favour of it. I was not required to present myself to the army until I completed university. I went for the medical examination late in 1972 and passed, but before I could put on a uniform, Whitlam won the election and ended conscription.

What led you to work in the environmental field?

When we lived in the country we would go on long drives to visit Greeks in other towns. I hated getting to a cafe just like the one we'd left, but I liked seeing the bush on the way. I wandered over the hills around Junee and in Sydney I was attracted to the bush at Middle Harbour and then the Blue Mountains. Soon I wanted to save the wilderness. About 1970, I was introduced to the Colong Committee which had its meetings at Milo Dunphy's architect offices at the Rocks. I liked Milo, who put me to work as a volunteer in his environmental campaigns. My interest in bushwalking had taken me to Tasmania and Lake Pedder. In 1972 I had an article about the Lake Pedder issue published in the 'Sunday Australian'. To me it seemed idiotic to destroy Lake Pedder for a small amount of electricity, but not enough people cared so Lake Pedder went under. In 1974 I became a full-time environmentalist. I went to work for the National Parks Association.

'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' creates a strong sense of place. You obviously like writing about landscapes.

The interest has always been there. I like to know about the rocks and landforms, plants and animals, human settlements, climate, the various processes at work, how they influence one another. Working as an environmentalist gave me a grounding in this. Earlier, my writing was mostly about landscapes. I wanted to give the necessary information about places, to describe them, while keeping the reader interested. This can be a challenge because if you fall into technical language the ordinary reader will lose interest.

Your writing has a fluidity and professionalism about it. Have you written other books?

In 1978 I published 'Colo Wilderness' with the photographer Henry Gold. We did that as part of a campaign to protect a huge area of bushland in the mountains north-west of Sydney around the Colo River gorge. Dick Smith bought copies of the book and presented one to each member of the State Parliament. Neville Wran's government later established the Wollemi National Park there. In 1983 I published 'Wild Places' again with Henry Gold. That was a bigger book covering all the wilderness areas in eastern NSW. I later worked on a number of publications for Reader's Digest Books. These were a popular type of book with nature, heritage and tourist themes. I wrote or edited similar books for other publishers. 'Katsehamos' is more like the kind of writing I would like to do at this time in my life.

In your book, you acknowledge other authors, such as Hugh Gilchrist, author of 'Australian and Greeks'. How did they influence your book?

I had to rely on other works to provide some of the context for my story. Gilchrist has done so much to illuminate the history of Greeks in Australia and he gives a wonderful account of important events in Australia and Greece over the period covered by my book. Gilchrist's work provided a scaffold for building the particular personal narrative that I wanted to write. However, when he dealt with the Balkan Wars and the First World War and the events at Gallipoli and Salonika, I felt the Greek perspective did not come through. There were extracts from the diaries or letters of Australians but sometimes the voices did not seem to me to be particularly Australian. In the case of Salonika, they seemed more like British voices, even imperialist voices. I wanted to give a sense of what Greek-Australians might feel about these events.

'Katsehamos' gives an account of the two Balkan Wars through to the Asia Minor War in 1922. Also, you suggest that the Gallipoli campaign raised tensions between Greeks and Australians. I found this interesting as I was learning about this history for the first time.

Australians know about Gallipoli, but at the level of national mythology, not history. Most high school students could tell you something about the events at Gallipoli in 1915, but few could tell you what happened there in the years before or after. Greece's neutrality at the time of the Gallipoli campaign was a sore point in relations between Greeks and Australians, and ignorance of what was going on in that part of the world kept this going.

In writing the story do you think you might have overlooked the happier moments in the lives of the Katsehamos family?

The story of the Roxy Theatre at Bingara ended in disappointment for the men who conceived and built it. But there were happy times. People married and raised families, built homes and businesses, and most of them lived long and useful lives. Perhaps the 'Katsehamos' story reveals a difference in Greek and Australian culture in those days. Greeks tended to view failure as shameful, something not to be mentioned. Australians, on the other hand, were not averse to stories of failure: look at Burke and Wills, and Ned Kelly, and Gallipoli. Disappointment and loss were part of the culture and what was important was to maintain your dignity. I'm not sure if that is the case today.

Does the book offer anything to the debate about muliculturalism?

When you consider the mob violence that occurred in 1915-16 and at other times, it helps to put the recent events in Cronulla into perspective. I think there is always a risk of this sort of behaviour when politicians try to gain some advantage by targeting, however subtly, a particular cultural minority. On the other hand, we can't run the country as a hundred or more separate communities. We need a unifying culture. We will have that as long as everyone feels they have a stake in it. I suppose 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' is a contribution to creating a more inclusive national story.

What do you say to those intending to write about the lives of their Australian-Greek forebears?

Get on with it. Write that first draft of the story. Once that's been done the task will seem less daunting.

Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Katsehamos and the Great Idea

 

Britain's Greek Islands

 

Wild Places