'Markos' Karavasilis, driver for king of Greece

September 17, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Staff Writer

Mike "Markos" Karavasilis, former royal chauffeur, ballroom operator and bon vivant, died Monday of cardiac arrest at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. He was 70.

"He had his first heart attack in 1968 and another in 1992," recalled his son, Alex Karas. "Because he technically died twice and kept coming back, I gave him the nickname of Lazarus."

The Gardenville resident retired from the Wedding Belle, a full-service wedding center that he opened in Highlandtown in 1972 with other members of his family. The store offers wedding flowers, photography, limousines and tuxedos.

He was born in Nea Kios, in southern Greece, where he received his early education. He graduated from a technical school, where he earned two diplomas in electronics.

He served in the Greek army's Corps of Highways from 1945 to 1947, when it was building a road linking Loutraki, Perahora and Vouliahmeni through the mountains with the port city of Corinth.

His knowledge of the road and the area -- which he gained while operating a transportation business carrying olives and wood to Corinth after his army service -- caught the attention of Paul I, who became king of Greece in 1947.

"Because he was a businessman, handsome and could talk to people and drive any vehicle they threw at him, the king asked him to be his driver," said his wife, the former Effie Protopapa of Greece. He served the royal family in that capacity until 1951.

Mr. Karavasilis emigrated with his family to London, Ontario, in 1952 and opened the Silver Grille Restaurant in 1956. In 1960, he expanded his operation when he established the Orchid, another restaurant and tavern where he entertained his customers not only with his cooking, but with his repertoire of Greek-American songs delivered in a fine baritone voice.

In 1966, London sold 27 acres of land in Port Stanley, Ontario, that included the Stork Club, North America's largest cabaret ballroom, to Mr. Karavasilis.

Situated on the north shore of Lake Erie, 30 miles south of London, the ballroom became a mecca for boaters and other visitors who traveled there to listen and dance to the music of Stan Kenton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, the Ink Spots and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

"Imagine a ballroom that could hold 4,000 people and you have an idea how big the Stork Club was," Mr. Karas said.

"Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians performed there, too. They were neighbors of ours back in London, Ontario."

After his first heart attack, Mr. Karavasilis sold the business in 1969 and opened an import and retailing business. "He was really ahead of his time," said his son. "He opened a business that predated Pier One by offering unique merchandise that he gathered from all over the world."

In 1972, Mr. Karavasilis moved to Baltimore to be near his relatives and opened his Eastern Avenue store a year later. He and his wife moved to Gardenville in 1981. Fond of gardening, he worked to turn his yard into a showplace.

"Anything that he touched that was dying or crispy brown, 'Lazarus' could resurrect," his son said with a laugh.

"His yard was full of lemon, fig, peach and apple trees, gardenias and other plants. He always was giving away the fruit to the neighbors, friends and relatives."

But it was his love of people and entertaining that kept his home continually full. "He was always bringing all kinds of people home," his son said. "He always said, 'If you love 'em, then feed 'em and make 'em fat.' He simply loved parties."

He was recognized by Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1978 with a citizen citation for his public service work in sponsoring youth programs. In 1990, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke honored him for his work with the Greek-American community in Baltimore. He was also proclaimed 1990 Man of the Year by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.

A frequent guest on WJZ television's "Evening Magazine," on which he discussed weddings, he also won Best of Baltimore awards from Baltimore Magazine in 1987, 1988 and 1989.

Services for Mr. Karavasilis were held yesterday at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Besides his wife of 43 years, he is survived by his son, who is a resident of Middle River; two daughters, Stella Maistros of Gardenville and Cathie Stamides of Hamilton; three brothers, Steve Karavasilis of Toronto, and Danny Hajimihalis and Kosta Karavasilis both of Cockeysville; three sisters, Catherine Kutson of Woodlawn, Helen Karas of Towson and Chresy Kostis of Randallstown; and three grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the National Kidney Foundation of Maryland, 2526 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21218.

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