Deni's Den - The Book

Feature by Willard Manus

For approximately fifteen years, Deni Dimitreas ran a small but remarkable club on Chicago's North Side. Called Deni's Den, it was in some ways a typical Greek taverna, offering not just ethnic food and drink, but music and song. What made it unique, though, was Deni himself. Personable, handsome and spirited, Deni was not only an accomplished musician and singer, but a man with a deep and abiding love of Greek literature and poetry. Thus on a given night at Deni's Den, while digging into your moussaka and quaffing retsina, you might find yourself listening to Deni and his band interpret the music of Mikis Theodorakis, followed by a selection of classic Greek folk songs, then a tribute to the famed rebetika singer Grigoris Bithikotsis.

Deni didn't stop there, though. Because he appreciated and loved all kinds of music, he might suddenly launch into a version of Pablo Neruda's Canto General or Federico Lorca's The River (set to music by Yannis Glezios). And on off-nights, he'd schedule cultural events at the club: lectures on Greek topics, readings from Cavafy and Seferis, theatre discussions and Kazantzakis celebrations. Slowly, over the years between 1970 and 1985, Deni's Den evolved into a kind of Informal Society for the Preservation of Greek Music and Language.

The club also became a home away from home for people--a nest, a forum, a hangout. There was a real need for such a place, especially in a big city like Chicago where alienation and loneliness ran deep. Word of mouth about the Den began to spread far beyond Greektown. People of all backgrounds flocked to the club, not only to share in good times but celebrate special events--weddings, baptisms and graduations. They came, as Deni put it, "to experience the ecstasy of human connection."

Eventually some famous people found their way to Deni's Den--Anthony Quinn, Studs Terkel, Nana Mouskouri, Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Yannis Markopoulos and Mikis Theodorakis, to name but a few. They too were able to experience "the wonderful things that come from art and people."

Deni recalls all of this in DEN'S DEN--THE BOOK (which has just been published in a handsome bi-lingual edition by Eltron). The autobiographical work opens with Deni's arrival in Chicago in 1968, having left his hometown of Kalamata, Greece to study film and TV at the Columbia College of Fine Arts (whose president, Mike Alexandroff, eventually became a Deni's Den regular). The book then traces Deni's metamorphosis in Chicago: learning English, playing for fun in Greek nightclubs, meeting the city's Greek intelligentsia, making new friends, surving the brutal Chicago winters, encountering the dark, dangerous side of the city, becoming an American.

Within a few short years he was able to open Deni's Den, a place "that was a novelty for everyone. Everything was reborn each day within its walls: people, ideas, emotions, but above all the magical role of music," he writes.

Deni eventually felt the pull to return to Greece and regretfully closed the Den, breaking many a heart in the process. The club may be gone forever, but at least we have this wonderful book to remember it by. ( or call/fax 30-272-109-4413)