Corfu First, ten times or more

The former San Giacomo Theatre, now the Town Hall.

Is it because Corfu – with or without the invaluable aid of Saint Spiridon – was never occupied by the Ottomans? Are we maybe looking at the imprint of four centuries Venetian rule and culture (1386-1797)? Or has the British protectorate (1814-1864) pushed the island to a forerunner’s role in the state of modern Greece? Fact is the island can boast being modern Greece’s number one in various fields. And surely the following list of ten is far from complete.

  • The first theatre (in modern Greece, and even in the eastern Mediterranean). The ‘Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo’, finished in 1720, is now the Town Hall.
  • The first opera in the Greek language, The Parliamentary Candidate was performed in the San Giacomo in 1867. The libretto was written by Ioannis Rinopulos and the music by the Spyridon Xyndas, a Corfiot who was one of the co-founders of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu.
  • The first university, The Ionian Academy, in 1824. (One could argue this is not ‘a first’, as Lord Guilford originally started this university in 1811 on Ithaca and transferred it to Corfu after the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821).
  • The first Governor of modern Greece. Corfu born Ioannis Kapodistrias in 1827 was elected as the first head of state by the National Greek Assembly of newly liberated Greece.
  • The first library. The Public Historical Corfu Library was founded in the mid 18th century in the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Justine in Garitsa. From the end of 1997 it was housed in the southern section of the English barracks in the Old Fortress.
  • The first bank. In 1839 the Ionian State Bank was established in Corfu, to finance trade between the seven Ionian Islands and Great Britain.
  • The first lighthouse (1822) and the first floating lighthouse (1825).
  • The first lady mayor, Maria Desilla-Kapodistrias, from April 15th 1956 till May 9th 1959. She was a grand niece of Ioannis Kapodistrias.
  • The first tennis club. The Corfu Lawn Tennis Club was established in 1896 and can be found in the residential area Kefalomandouko in Corfu Town, at Ioannou Romanou 4.
  • The first cricket club. The first teams in the island were set up after the departure of the British, shortly after 1864. The Corfiot Athletic Club started in 1893 and is still active. The best known cricket ground of course is on the Spianada Square.


Corfu is my Island: thank you mr. David Bowie

David Bowie at the Cannes Film Festival – 1983 (photo by Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock (100574s) )

A rather keen reader in France – Julien de Bellevue again – asked me the other day if I have stolen the title for my blog – Corfu is my Island – from the singer, songwriter, painter and artist David Bowie (1947-2016). Now what could I reply? I mean he is right. I had this one particular song in mind and couldn’t help repeating these lines: “Cyprus is my island/ And when the going’s rough/ I would love to find you/ Somewhere in a place like that.”

Angie Bowie: born on Cyprus
The words are from the third verse of a song called ‘Move On’, from ‘Lodger’ (1979), Bowie’s 13th studio album. It was Angie Barnett, Bowie’s first wife, who introduced him to the island where she was born and she remembers he was “very taken” by Cyprus. A year after the song’s release the singer Bowie and his muse Angie were divorced. So much for beautiful lines.

Bowie on Corfu?
Let’s agree I did not steal the words, but yes, borrowed the idea for my own purpose. For Corfu, that is. Mitigating circumstances, surely? Now what this reader in France wanted to know next: has David Bowie ever been to Corfu? An absolutely irrelevant question, or is it? Anyway I wanted to ignore it, but sometimes things are in the air. The very same day I see this lady on FB – not my medium, but how to avoid it? – reply to an overall question posted by someone about celebrities having visited Corfu. “David Bowie,” she stated clearly.

So for the record, dear Julien, I kindly asked the lady how she knew. She had witnessed it herself, she claimed. “I saw him in 1980 or 1981, in a nightclub near Corfu Town. The one with a swing and swimming pool.” Now I happen to have been on the island in both years, but a backpacker and not a nightclubber I seem to have missed all the fun. “1980 or 1981”: it would fit, Bowie blowing of some steam after his divorce. Meanwhile that “swing” puzzles me. “Boys keep swinging”, that’s for sure. Thank you for all, mr. David Bowie!

Anthony Quinn, how Greek can you get?

Mexican actor Anthony Quinn (left) playing ‘tavli’ with a villager in Corfu’s Pelekas, during a break while shooting The Greek Tycoon in 1977

In 1964 the movie Zorba the Greek (and the soundtrack!) stormed and conquered the hearts of film fans around the world. ‘Zorba’ – based on a novel by Greece’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature Nikos Kazantzakis – won three Oscars. While much appraised leading actor Anthony Quinn had to satisfy himself with a nomination. Although surely his role as Alexis Zorba added enormously to his popularity.

Mexican born Antonio Rudolfo Quinn Oaxaca had played Greek characters before, like in Ulisse (1954) and in the hit The guns of Navarone (1961). Now by his acting and dancing (sirtaki!) in ‘Zorba’ he convinced many cinema visitors that he was at least partly Greek. More Greek in looks and behaviour than some Greeks anyway.

The Greek Tycoon
Still we would have to wait until 1978 to see multitalented Quinn (also film director, painter and sculptor) in his next Greek role. In The Greek Tycoon he is Theo Tomasis, a character based on Aristoteles Onassis. British actress Jacqueline Bisset plays Liz Cassidy, the beautiful widow of the assassinated president of the United States. So we are looking at a romanced account of the courtship and marriage of Onassis and Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy. A relation that begun even before John F. Kennedy became president and lasted for almost two decades.

Negative reviews
The Greek Tycoon (budget 6,5 million dollars, running time: 107 minutes) was met with a lot of critical reception: “As witless as it is gutless” (The New York Times); “You have watched the headlines, now you can read the movie” (Variety). TV Guide rated the movie one star and had only one favourable comment: “If scenery, greenery and lavish living are what you like to see, you may enjoy The Greek Tycoon.” An positive exception is made for the final scene, in which Anthony Quinn’s once more shows his great sense for dance.

The scenery of Corfu
“The scenery” and “the greenery” was shot on location in Corfu and Mykonos. The Corfu landscape gets a fair and lavish share. And is anyone familiar with the the background of the photo above? It shows Anthony Quinn in a corner of the village square of Pelekas, entertaining himself during a break in the filming. In The Greek Tycoon you might recognize this setting when Tomasis gets out of a car and slowly walks towards the door of a café on the other side of the square. This café was no more than fifteen meters from Anthony’s playing table. In 1980, some three years after this scene was shot, the café was turned into a bar, known as the ‘Zanzibar’.

Today the Zanzibar is a bar with a both local and international clientele. It’s cocktail menu today proudly shows the photograph above. If even a footnote in the life and times of Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), an icon in the film industry, who twice won the Oscar for supporting actor but never for best actor. And who for a wide audience was more Greek than some Greeks. See for yourself in the final scene from The Greek Tycoon.

The Dylan Project in Corfu

Stills of the singer, songwriter and artist Bob Dylan, about 1965

An attentive reader from France commented the other day on the front page of The Corfiot Magazine, that I used as an illustration for my post about its on line archive. Did he read a headline saying “The Dylan Project in Corfu” and would I elaborate on that?

So quoting from Paul McGovern’s article in The Corfiot’s September 2009 issue I will gladly fill in the gaps in our memory. The Dylan Project was a band formed around the millennium by Steve Gibbons and Dave Pegg, who knew each other from the Birmingham band The Uglys. The Dylan Project was the headline of Agiotfest 09, the premiere of a music festival taking place on the village square of Agios Ioannis from September 7-12 2009. The line up for their live performance was: vocalist Steve Gibbons and lead guitarist PJ Wright (both from the Steve Gibbons Band); bass guitarist Dave Pegg (Fairport Convention, formerly with Jethro Tull); keyboardist Phil Bond (a Dylan regular and Greek music fan); drummer Brendan Day (late replacement for Gerry Conway).

Review
On the website of Agiotfest there is a review of all the performances on that Saturday night September 12th. A wonderful evening it seems, when it rained everywhere on Corfu, apart from Agios Ioannis. The Dylan Project, together with the bands East of Memphis (two folksingers from Edinburgh), Omega 5 (an experienced British band from Corfu) and The Good Old Boys was to entertain the all seated audience in the Central Corfu village for five hours. Spyros Hytiris remembers the ‘wonderful evening at the family-friendly plateia of Agios Ioannis, where you had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see quite a few legendary figures from mainly seventies folk-rock and blues bands.’

I quote from Hytiris’ review: “The Dylan Project are delayed by previous sets, but finally they are away. I’d never seen them live before, so was hopeful but slightly apprehensive for them, following such a strong supporting cast. I needn’t have worried. Consummate professionals, they had the audience in their palms and people up and dancing on the improvised dancefloor below the stage. What performers, what a tight sound. Yes they played Dylan, but not exclusively.* Numbers tumbled out effortlessly, some of which were probably unfamiliar to the appreciative listeners.”

“The Dylans come back for their final set. They are obviously enjoying themselves, as they go way past closing time and then beyond one o’ clock, before wrapping up with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, during which they invite all artists up onto stage for a grand finale. ‘More, more’ is being shrieked at the end.
It is over, like a dream. The crowd disperses, all smiles.”

*From The Corfiot Magazine we learn the repertoire of The Dylan Project – apart from Bob Dylan numbers – comprised (no surprise) renditions of Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention, as well as own new compositions.

Agiotfest 2020?
Agiotfest did very well since the start in 2009. On August 30th and 31st 2019 the 11th edition rolled by, this time near a camping site just outside Agios Ioannis. The dates for the 2020 edition have not yet been revealed. ‘So keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again’: https://agiotfest.com

Poster of the first Agiotfest, once pinned to an olive tree and taken home by yours truly

Paul and Linda McCartney in Benitses in 1969

Half a century ago, from May 16th till June 17th 1969, Beatle Paul McCartney, his wife Linda and her daughter Heather holidayed in the village of Benitses. During their stay on Corfu’s east coast Paul seems to have completed his song ‘Every Night’, an early version of which he had performed in January 1969 during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. The song was finally released in april 1970 on McCartney’s solo album.

Paul and Linda were not the only celebrities that discovered the traditional fishing village in the Sixties. Apparently Beatle John Lennon stayed there too, and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman. Soon however the tourist trade set in and changed the unspoilt scene in many ways, not always for the better.

Over the last years Benitses is picking up and has witnessed the opening of a new marina, new tavernas and cafes. It is unknown wether Paul, now of course Sir Paul McCartney, has ever visited the island again. Soon after his return from the holiday in Benitses the Beatles started going separate ways.

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