Nicholas Protopapas: Giant Among the Early Grecian Strongmen – By Steve Frangos

Photo: National Hellenic Museum, You Tube video extract

By Steve Frangos

Nicholas G. Protopapas was among the earliest Greek strongmen to live and perform in the United States. A representative roster of these award winning Hellenic athletes would have to include Antonio Panay, Theodoros Yorgios Costaky, John Muhler, Anton Pierre, Panagis Koutalianos, and Demetrios Tofalos.

By the mid-1870s, at the very latest, these men were appearing and performing feats of strength all across North American. It is no exaggeration to say that these men were the individuals the average American first saw as modern Greeks. Given that these Greek athletes toured the country performing in vaudeville houses or engaged in professional wrestling bouts meant that Americans even in the most remote hamlet, village or town would be able to see one of these modern Greek strongmen. It would not be for another ten to fifteen years before the massive waves of Greek workers would reach American shores.

In 1888, Protopapas arrived in Chicago, at the age of twelve, to join his brother. Within four years such was the young Protopapas’ commitment to physical culture that he was posing for art classes at the Chicago Art Institute and the University of Chicago. Sometime in early March, 1898, Protopapas journeyed to Rockford Illinois. Just 23 years old, he had traveled to Rockford to help his cousin M. Pipilas operate a newly opened fruit and candy store on West State Street, adjoining the Forest City National Bank in Rockford.

Even at that moment in time, Protopapas was recognized as “a polished gentleman, handsome and debonair, it is only when the huge muscles of the man are revealed that the athlete is seen. He is 5 foot 8 inches in height, weighs 198 pounds and has a chest measure of 42 inches. His chest expansion is immense, being eight inches (Morning Star (Rockford IL) March 17, 1898).” Protopapas did not last long in the candy/fruit store trade.

By the very late 1890s, Protopapas was appearing in public displays of strength and tableaux. Tableaux (or tableau vivants) are a form of Victorian Era entertainment. The models or entertainers involved, and women would appear as often as men, pose motionless in costumes. The performers dress like a famous figure most often from Classical times, a goddess, a gladiator and so on. While the performer does not move on stage they would usually go through a series of such poses but in a stopping and starting fashion.

The Omaha World Herald offered this description of Protopapas’ vaudeville act at its peak: “The program at the Creighton-Orpheum theater this week has for its principal feature the first appearance in Omaha of Nicholas G. Protopapas, the famous Grecian athlete. He presents with excellent effect Roman and Grecian posing that far outclasses anything of the kind that has ever been seen here. He possesses a striking and handsome personality that Sandow, the noted strongman, could scarcely rival. His physical development, chest expansion especially, is somewhat marvelous, and his performance is marked with the utmost ease and grace. His feats of strength include the unconcerned handling of dumb bells of graduated weight, the limit being 300 pounds, and supporting on his knees and shoulders a platform occupied by a dozen men. His various devices, including his stage setting, are elegant and he appears in striking attractive costume (March 19, 1900).”

The Peerless Protopapas, as he was billed, was so successful that by 1899 at the latest, the Greek was touring vaudeville theaters around the country with his own small troupe as the “Protopapas Trocadero Vaudeville Company.” But entertainment fashions change.

By 1901, Protopapas was quoted as saying, “There seems to be nothing left in mere exhibitions of strength…Consequently, although the boxing game is almost dead, and the wrestling game is almost dead, and the wrestling game is unprofitable, I will embark in either or both of these pursuits—if anyone will give a match and proper compensation (Daily Northwestern February 18, 1901).” And while strongmen and women acts continued, for a time, in vaudeville (and much longer in circuses and sideshows) Protopapas’ statement reports on how vaudeville as a venue for the majority of the strongmen ended.

Protopapas’ exact movements, at this time, are hard to chart. True to his word Protopapas did wrestle from roughly 1900 until 1904 and then stopped. Then, in 1909 and without explanation Protopapas was again in the wrestling game. A point future researchers will explore with some care will be the exact relationship between Nicholas Protopapas and yet another internationally famous Greek strongman Demetrios Tofalos (1884-1966). In 1910, various newspaper reports identify Protopapas as Tofalos’ manager and spokesman (Rockford Republic July 27, 1910; Denver Post July 31, 1910; Inter Ocean (Chicago) October 30, 1910).

Whatever their relationship, the two strongmen were clearly friends and companions with Protopapas doing what he could to find work for his friend first in what were then called “lifting-acts.” It is interesting, once you know something of Tofalos’ later career, that he did not immediately enter professional wrestling in North America but waited and underwent training before entering the ring.

At some point during the very early 1900s, Nicholas Protopapas established a restaurant/cafe called Grecian Cafe: “The Melting Pot” at 215-217 North Dearborn Street in Chicago. A second-floor walkup, Protopapas’ cafe was an extremely popular location not just for the local Greeks but for Chicago’s literati. A detailed illustrated article on the Melting Pot can be found in the October 2nd issue of the 1915 edition of The Scoop, a magazine published by the Press Club of Chicago. What is so striking about this article is how contemporary it seems. Very much like today Greek businessmen downtown and Americans working in that area of the city would all go to The Melting Pot for traditional Greek food. Again, just as we can see today in nearly every Greek-owned restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown district we hear that in 1915, “Nic himself wandering genially from table to table you are made to feel at home.”

Then, again, very much like today the interior of the Melting Pot featured, instead of the signed framed celebrity photographs: “On the gray-green walls hang original sketches bearing signatures of those we know and love—Billy Kregoph (now on the Philadelphia Ledger), Joe Shirley the Red Man, Outcault who created Buster Brown, Penny Ross, and more of the familiar galaxy. They sketched those for Nic, their friend, just as he regularly welcomes Corbell the sculpture, Cowboy (Charles Marion) Russell whom they call Remington’s only successor, William J. Robinson, the Russian consul, grand opera stars, light opera stars, cartoonists, magazine men, painters and boys from the local dailies. There is comradeship in the crowd that frequents Protopapas’ Melting Pot, a preponderance of brains and unaffected good fellowship over what is found in most other places in town, The Press, Adventurers,

Palette and Chisel clubs and the Writer’s Guild, or Brothers of the Book are all represented. Protopapas’ is a revival of the Good Old Days…” But such ‘Good Old Days’ rarely last.

On August 20, 1915, Protopapas had filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. “Too lavish furnishings in the Melting Pot are said to have contributed to financial stringency (Chicago Tribune August 21, 1915).” Protopapas did not lose his cafe/restaurant but he had to restructure. Rather than simply fade away the various Greek cafes, The Melting Pot, among them scattered along Dearborn were for many years well into the 1930s where Greeks and Chicagoans met and mingled.

As this all-too-brief review of Nicholas G Protopapas’ life reveals not only do we need to learn more about the career details of professional Greek-American athletes but also the early cafe scene in Chicago if we are ever to chart the contacts and social interactions between the newly arriving Greeks and their American counterparts.