Manoli’s Jewelers occupies an unassuming storefront in the Brentwood Shopping Center. A look inside reveals gold lighting and classical columns to showcase offerings beside the custom art depicting Greek islands.
Co-owner Manoli Savvenas learned to work on jewelry as a child growing up in the retreating shadow of World War II in Rhodes, Greece. It was his mother’s suggestion.
“She told me, ‘Learn a trade and you’ll have it. When you go hungry, you can always go back to it,’” Savvenas said.
He learned the art of jewelry making in the ancient ways – melting silver down, pounding out his own wire, then crafting it into filigree. There was no electricity in postwar Greece, which came through the war in very bad shape, so everything Savvenas did was by hand.
At the same time, the youth was learning another ancient skill, also involving the hands: combat. Savvenas enjoyed boxing in his spare time, and many nights he returned home bloody and bruised. His mom begged him never to fight again, and he promised, but he may have had a couple of fingers crossed behind his back.
Savvenas has forged a life out of these vastly different skills: fighting and jewelry making. One of them made him nationally famous, for a time. The other made him a fixture for nearly four decades in the Springfield business community, where, at age 81, he continues to show up at his eponymous jewelry store each day with his wife, gemologist Valerie Savvenas.
His unusual story is the subject of a documentary, titled “The Flying Greek,” by local filmmaker Jason Brasier.
The Flying Greek
Manoli Savvenas was never a famous wrestler, but Mike Pappas, aka The Flying Greek, was.
Mike Pappas is the name Savvenas wrestled under from 1968-78.
Savvenas is no giant, though he wrestled with one. The Flying Greek clocked in at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, and he was known for his acrobatic moves, like the flying head scissors, a takedown strategy that involved wrapping his legs around an opponent’s head and flipping them over.
He likes to tell about the days he spent driving to bouts with Andre the Giant, the performing name of André René Roussimoff, the 7-foot-4, 500-pound wrestler remembered by movie fans for his role in “The Princess Bride.” Savvenas drove a compact car, and Andre would ride in the passenger seat with his knees folded behind the dashboard, too polite to complain.
“He came here in Springfield, too,” Savvenas recalled, remembering a visit to a local restaurant where Andre drank heroic quantities of beer. “He was very nice to people.”
Brasier learned about Savvenas’ wrestling past when the jeweler was a guest on “The Mystery Hour,” Springfield’s former late-night talk show, as Brasier was running a camera.
Savvenas was dropping names Brasier knew well as a lifelong wrestling fan – names like “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Brasier, 37, grew up at a time when World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation were up against one another on TV Monday nights.
“I would come home after school, do my homework, and 15 minutes before wrestling came on, I’d get homemade buffalo wings, a big glass of Dr Pepper, and I’d sit down and flip back and forth between each show,” Brasier said.
As he heard Savvenas tell his stories, he was stunned: a pro wrestler, living right here in Springfield. He knew he had to reach out.
Brasier made a film about Savvenas, “The Flying Greek,” which premiered at the Fox Theatre downtown during a snow squall Dec. 10 for its only showing. Local moviegoers and wrestling buffs were offered the possibility of another showing July 17 at The Moxie.
Brasier, whose IMDB.com entry lists 19 producer and 13 director credits, plus two awards from the LA Web Fest, said he is submitting the doc to a number of film festivals.
The 45-minute film is described on the Moxie website as an American Wasteland Entertainment Production in association with Flintlock Syndicate and Carbon Trace Productions, the latter a Springfield nonprofit documentary company that offered a hand with post-production.
Unfortunately, Brasier could not find any footage of Savvenas in the ring for his film. This is something Savvenas, too, would love to see.
“Not having footage of him helped me be creative,” said Brasier, who used what he called dream match sequences, featuring black background and smoke as Brasier used a handheld camera and Savvenas went through some of his signature motions.
“He still has his wrestling gear. It still fits him,” Brasier said.
Getting his start
Savvenas came to the U.S. in 1968, after some time in Australia, where he made the transition from boxer to wrestler. He called the offices of the World Wide Wrestling Federation – now World Wrestling Entertainment – but he couldn’t generate interest because of his small size. So, he went to Mexico, where smaller lucha libre wrestlers were popular, and tried his luck in the ring. He eventually made it back to the U.S. and got his shot.
“I had a very hard time because of my size,” he said. “At that time, they were afraid of a small guy to beat a big guy. They were afraid if I beat them up, people wouldn’t believe it.”
Ultimately, Savvenas did convince the federation, under owner Vince McMahon Sr., to take him on.
Of course, the outcomes of professional wrestling matches are scripted. That was a secret in the old days, Savvenas said, but everyone knows it now. Even so, he would never use the F word – fake.
“Wrestling is real – trust me,” he said. “They tell you what to do, but you earn it. You work very, very hard.”
Wrestlers take a beating, Savvenas said, and they learn to give and take hard blows and body slams.
“If I punch somebody that hard, I will kill him,” he said. “If you punch an ordinary person you might, but we’re trained.”
And over a decade in the ring has taken a toll on Savvenas’ body.
“My shoulder is bothering me big time right now,” he said. “The good thing with me, I quit early, when I was still young and dumb.”
Some of his younger friends can no longer walk. Many died young. Savvenas is thankful that he managed to walk away and not look back, thanks to that trade his mom insisted upon.
Savvenas was wrestling in Kansas City in 1976 when a friend connected him to a local jeweler.
It had been a while since Savvenas learned the jeweler’s art the hard way as a child on the island of Rhodes. He was curious to see if he still understood the trade.
“Everything was so easy,” he said. “They had so much technology and tools.”
Savvenas made the decision to return from the wrestling ring to the other kind.
“That’s when I told my wife, ‘Well, we’re moving to Kansas City. I’m going to wrestle there and work as a jeweler and see how rusty I am,’” he said.
Valerie Savvenas, 23 at the time, was all for it. In fact, she also became a gemologist.
The pair moved to Springfield in 1978, and Manoli Savvenas worked doing custom repairs and settings for almost 50 jewelry stores, including Service Merchandise and Zales.
He bought a customer’s jewelry store in 1985 and named it Manoli’s. The shop’s been in the same place ever since.
Though a lot of retailers have a succession plan in place as they close in on their fourth decade, the Savvenases say they plan to work as long as they can.
She declined to offer sales figures, but noted, “We are a mom-and-pop store, and we have seen many ups and downs in our past 37 years in retail.”
She’s the buyer and likes to choose unique items, while he still crafts handmade items. He also has the skill to fix things that are hard for a lot of other jewelers.
“Of course, we are grateful for modern technology, too,” she said.
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