aybe it was the stately stone building on 79th Street, just around the corner from Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Or the shoe-tap echo of the marble floors. Or the woman behind the desk, who said Savas Zembillas '79 was in a meeting with "His Eminence" and invited the visitor to have a seat in the foyer next to a silent chapel where gilded icons hung and votive candles flickered.
But somehow it was completely unexpected that in a matter of minutes Zembillas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, would be chatting about, among other things, his short but happy career as a punk-band front man.
The band: Mick and the Malignants. The set list: covers of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. The venues:
Frat Row and the old Colby Spa in the basement of Roberts Union. At the Spa gig, band members were escorted through an up-on-the-tables crowd by the men's hockey team. Zembillas went on as a rock-and-roll lounge lizard, recalled drummer Robert Noyes '82, and finished in fatigues as an urban punk guerrilla. "It was really a peak experience," Zembillas said. "Our tactic was to treat every song like the last song. Jump up and down like a madman, that sort of thing. It was almost shamanistic."
Not so his new front-man job, as the Greek Orthodox chancellor hand-picked last year by Archbishop Demetrios, with whom he had just met upstairs in the church's stately headquarters down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seated at a table in the church library, Zembillas, 42, spoke of his time in Greek Orthodox monasteries and his responsibilities as a parish priest in Long Island and as overseer of more than 500 parishes across the country. He wore black robes and the traditional full beard of a Greek Orthodox clergyman. And without a trace of embarrassment or irony, he noted that the Malignants always kicked off their shows with the same tune: "We did a punked-up kind of Who version of 'The Kids are Alright.'"
From gifted actor to punk rocker to ascetic Greek Orthodox monk to prominent ecclesiastic, Zembillas has followed a twisting, turning path that would have defied prediction. Is he an iconoclast or the ultimate traditionalist? Like a hologram, Zembillas can seem like either, depending on the angle from which he is viewed. "He's an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a beard, wrapped in a robe," said Robert Lizza '79, a Boston lawyer and one of Zembillas's closest Colby friends.
Zembillas broke away from the pack early, leaving inner-city Gary, Ind., where his parents, Greek immigrants, ran a corner grocery store. Gary wasand isranked among the most dangerous cities in America, and Gold Coast Finer Foods was held up three or four times a year by robbers undeterred by the pistol in Zembillas's father's belt. But holdups went with the turf as did the expectation that Savas Zembillas and his three brothers would pitch in at the store. "It was every day in the summer," Zembillas said. "It was every night after school."
Until college loomed and Zembillas planned his escape.
"I really picked Colby to get away from the grocery store because I knewI'd been accepted at Notre Dame and closer schoolsif I was close enough, I would have been expected to come home for weekends," Zembillas said. "So I just kind of put a compass on a map and I would only consider schools a thousand miles away."
Colby fit the geographic and academic bill and Zembillas came to Mayflower Hill. His blue-collar background hadn't prepared him for things like Eastern prep-school old-boy networks, and he was surprised that some first-year students actually had met before. But if some aspects of Colby were new to Zembillas, some aspects of Zembillas were startling to Colby.
"I consider myself sort of a regular guy," said Lizza, Zembillas's first roommate. "You know how it is. You don't want to stand out too much. I'm coming up from the pub in town, it's like eleven o'clock at night. My room's in basement Woodman. I look in my window. Anybody who's standing waiting for the Jitney can look right in. And he's in there. He's wearing this robe. He always wore a robe. Usually you wear your gym shorts. He's wearing a robe. He's got his headphones on. And he's doing 'the Bump' with the closet door. I thought, 'I gotta get a new roommate.'"
Instead Lizza came to admire Zembillas tremendously. He wasn't alone.
While his parents expected him to choose one of two career pathsdoctor or lawyerZembillas plunged into the world of art and literature at Colby. In his first year he landed the lead in Barefoot in the Park (the Robert Redford character, he points out) and the lead in The Glass Menagerie. In Jesus Christ Superstar Zembillas played the part of Pontius Pilate. "If I had to list the ten best students I've ever had, he would be one of them," said Richard Sewell, adjunct associate professor of theater and dance. "An absolutely truthful ability to zero in on the emotional states of whatever role he was playing. There was never a 'fakey' moment in anything he ever did on stage. . . . That's something that can happen fairly often with a young performer, but usually it's not coupled with the ability to project that, to make it happen for an audience at a distance. He had both."
While Sewell said he is chary to encourage student actors to attempt to go pro, he made an exception in Zembillas's case. "I really felt the potential was there," he said.
The Sex Pistols, Nietzsche and the Will of God: