Michael G. Athas, owner of Club Venus

His nightclubs attracted some of the biggest names in entertainment

July 09, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Michael G. Athas, who during a more than 30-year career in the entertainment business established some of the Baltimore area's most memorable and legendary nightclubs, died Monday from a glioblastoma at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was one day shy of this 87th birthday.

"Mike was really the king of music in Baltimore. ... He was just sensational. He brought all the big bands to town," said George Moniodis, a longtime friend.

The son of Greek immigrants George and Arhontoula Athanasakos, Michael George Athanasakos — who later changed the family's name to Athas — was born in York, Pa.

"During the Great Depression, financial strain necessitated his father to send the family to Greece to live with grandparents while he pursued scarce job opportunities in the U.S.," said a son, George M. Athas of North Potomac.

The family returned to Baltimore in 1938, where the elder Mr. Athas owned and operated the Capitol Grill on West Baltimore Street.

Mr. Athas "worked long hours at his father's restaurant" and on weekends sang with the church choir at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, his son said.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1944, where he had been valedictorian, he enlisted in the Navy. He was trained as a radio technician and served in the Pacific.

At the end of World War II, Mr. Athas received a full scholarship to attend the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

Mr. Athas, who first worked with Industrial Research Laboratories and later with the aerospace division of Aeronca Manufacturing Corp., decided on a career change in 1960 and entered the entertainment industry.

Over the next 32 years until retiring in 1992, Mr. Athas opened six entertainment venues, including the Rhapsody Club, Latin Casino, Hollywood Palace, Club Venus, Maxwell's and Martinique.

"Of all the venues, it was Club Venus that pioneered the supper club entertainment with nationally recognized artists in Baltimore," said his son. "Accommodating 500 people for dinner and a show, the Club Venus was frequently mentioned on nationally televised talk shows, including Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas."

Located in the Perring Plaza Shopping Center at Joppa Road and Perring Parkway, the Club Venus, which opened in 1966, was the flagship venue for Mr. Athas' business.

In a 1977 article, a Baltimore Sun nightclub reporter described the Club Venus as "Haute Las Vegas."

"Apart from the ubiquitous carpeting (shag), the decor of the Club Venus consists of red and gold wallpaper, gold lame curtains behind the sizable stage, cute little chandeliers in a neo-rococo style and cute little waitresses in neo-Playboy miniskirts," the reporter wrote.

"I was a concert promoter back then, and Club Venus and Mike Athas were a big deal," said Bud Becker, an entertainment consultant, who recalled taking Alice Cooper to the club one evening in 1979 after he had performed at the Civic Center.

"The reason I chose Club Venus was because Michael was such a gracious host, and the reason he was so successful was because he had what I call the Greek hospitality. And whenever you went there, you got such a warm feeling," said Mr. Becker, a longtime friend.

"All the club owners looked up to him because he was such an anchor. He was always on the edge, changing with the times. He loved talking about what was a new trend," Mr. Becker said. "When disco came along in the 1970s, he put in tracers and videos. Mike always looked at the big picture. He was just very far-sighted and brought in national acts."

Bands, singers and entertainers who played the Club Venus, which later became Maxwell's and Club Martinique, were a veritable who's who of entertainment royalty from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Audiences came to enjoy the music and jokes of the Four Tops, the Supremes, Flip Wilson, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Steve Rossi, Sergio Franchi, B.J. Thomas, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Frankie Avalon, Myron Cohen, Jackie Leonard, Frank Fontaine, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jackie Mason, Sandler & Young, Brenda Lee, Richard Pryor, Mel Torme, Phyllis Diller and Jack Jones.

Jerry Steele, the longtime Club Venus emcee who still works as a part-time disc jockey, worked at the club full time from 1967 to 1975.

"He seemed to have the instincts for what people wanted. He was always the first to do things, no matter what the promotion was," Mr. Steele said.

He remembered the night in 1969 when Flip Wilson sneezed and pulled a muscle in his back, rendering him unable to perform.

"I asked Mike if he wanted me to tell the audience that the show was canceled and he said, 'No, I'll take care of this,'" Mr. Steele recalled.

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