Dec. 22 2016 07:37 AM

Remembering Unicorn Tavern owner Tommy Malvetis

At about half past 11 Wednesday night, two women sat at the Unicorn Tavern in North Lansing, reminiscing with a friend. Bartender Dave Brian handed them each another beer.

“He was a sucker for women with kids,” Brian said.

“And boobs,” one of the women added, laughing.


“Kids and boobs,” the other woman chimed in.


The two women, Michelle Gary and Regina Jackson, were former Unicorn employees. They were also the last of dozens of regulars who bellied up to the bar Wednesday to swap stories about the Unicorn’s founder and owner, Anastasios “Tommy” Malvetis, who died that morning at 94.


The Unicorn is still a working class den, with live blues, a pool table and a NASCAR-branded pinball machine. In the capital city’s hardhat heyday of Fisher Body, drop forges and Motor Wheel, long before boutiques, antiques and scented soaps invaded Old Town, the Unicorn was a warm haven for music, booze and socializing.


Until late 2015, Malvetis worked from opening to closing time. He slowed down in recent months, but still came by a few times a week.


“I just took a selfie with him two months ago,” Jackson said. “He was so happy to be in the bar that day.”


The topic around midnight — and all day Wednesday — was Malvetis’ legendary generosity. He hated to hear others talk about his soft side, but in his absence, the stories flowed freely. In the 1970s, and ‘80s, when prostitutes lived in nearby apartments along Grand River Avenue, Malvetis brought them hams and toys for their kids at Christmas.


“He would help out those who didn’t have anybody else,” Gary said. “He was their family.”


One day, Brian saw Malvetis give a man five bucks and asked him who it was. Malvetis told him the same man had mugged him a few years ago.


“He forgave the guy, and he needed five bucks, I guess,” Brian said.


In spring and summer, Malvetis would frequently stop what he was doing, walk across the street to the ice cream stand and buy a kid an ice cream cone.


“I saw him do that countless times,” Brian said.


And he loved women.


Gary worked on and off at the Unicorn for several years, mostly for special events such as birthdays or the Super Bowl. Jackson came in with Gary one day in 2012 and caught Malvetis’ eye.


“He liked the way I looked, called me at my job at Volunteers of America and asked me to start working that weekend,” Jackson said. “He was very flirtatious at his age.”


“That’s an understatement,” Gary said.


When Malvetis stopped driving in his 80s, Jackson would sometimes drive him home after closing. She had to put a pillow on the front seat of her ’95 Firebird so he could see over the dashboard. He insisted on paying five dollars to anyone who drove him home. If the driver refused to take it, he’d surreptitiously stuff the cash between the cushions.


“I went to car wash, and they found $35 in the seat,” Jackson said.


The conversation turned around again to Malvetis’ generosity.


“He always tried to come off as a crotchety, cantankerous old man, but he was very generous,” Brian said. “He liked to do things on the sly because he didn’t want people to think he was a softie.”


Jackson remembered cold nights when she and Malvetis were working alone and a homeless person would knock at the window.


“He would have me let them in, and he’d give them a couple of beers and some money and send them on their way,” Jackson said.


Part of Malvetis’ closing ritual each night was to throw food to a horde of alley cats behind the bar.

A mural on the bar’s dim back wall depicts the village where Tom’s father grew up. On weekends, beefy bluesmen and rockers grind away under a graceful Greek church tower.


Malvetis didn’t dance, but if a band was really good, he would stand nearby and conduct. Other nights, he’d fall asleep to the music, no matter how loud it got.


“He loved music,” Brian said. “It’s hard to find a musician in this town that hasn’t played here.”


Unicorn Tavern owner Tommy Malvetis schmoozes with two former staffers, Regina Jackson and Michelle Gary, in summer 2016. Malvetis died Wednesday morning at 94.

When I interviewed Malvetis for a 2008 story in City Pulse, he reluctantly talked about himself, but only after repeated reassurances that that the story was really about the bar.


“Not about me, never about me,” he warned.


Gary told me the story rang true.


“But you can’t talk about the bar without talking about Tommy,” Gary said.


After growing up in Massachusetts, Malvetis went to the New York Institute of Photography. He carried his carefully laminated completion card well into his eighties. He took photographs of anything that caught his eye. One of his favorites was a photo of the sun rising over Grand River Avenue, looking east from the bar.

He also took pictures of a lot of women who walked into the bar, with their permission.


“He had quite a collection,” Gary said.


Malvetis’ favorite photo was a candid shot of Mayor Virg Bernero at the grand opening of Preuss Pets, across the street from the Unicorn. According to Malvetis, store owner Rick Preuss lifted a giant turtle to show it to Bernero.


“The turtle dropped a big shit at the mayor’s feet,” Malvetis recalled in 2008. “I got a great picture of his face going, whaaat … .”


Malvetis served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to 1954. He was stationed most of the time in Heidelberg, Germany. An army logistics man, he worked on the historic Berlin Airlift, but didn’t fit the Greatest Generation type.


“I’m the biggest chickenshit veteran you’ll ever meet,” he said.


In 1954, he moved to Chicago to go into business with an army pal. A local business reporter wrote about the business, but he didn’t like the name Anastasios.


“The reporter said, ‘You look like a Tom to me,’ and it stuck,” Malvetis recalled.


When the Chicago business partnership fizzled, Malvetis went to Toledo to work for Lion Department Store, selling sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, but he considered it a dead end.


The search for a better job brought him to Jackson and Lansing, where he found a spot with one of the city’s premier stores, J.W. Knapp.


“He would fit you for your suit and take your measurements,” Gary said. “He was vey proud of that.”


Malvetis kept up the practice of dressing sharp — usually in black — for the rest of his life.


“I don’t remember a day that he didn’t have a full suit, with an undershirt, dress shirt, sweater vest,” Brian recalled.


Sundays, while working at Knapp’s, Malvetis attended Greek Orthodox services, where an older lady kept poking his arm.


“You Greek boy? I have two daughters,” the lady said.


Malvetis fell in love with one of them, a hometown Lansing girl from Sexton High School, and they married. Constance died in 2000. Malvetis called her “a beautiful, innocent spirit.”


When Knapp’s declined in the late ‘70s, Malvetis sold his stock and worked at a few Lansing bars, including the Knight Cap, then owned by his brother-in-law.


He bought the Unicorn in 1978, when it was called the Shamrock. When Brian first walked into the place in the late ‘70s, the first thing he saw was a man being kicked in the head.


“I turned right around and walked out,” Brian said. “Little did I know I’d end up working here.”

Even Malvetis didn’t know what he was getting into.


“I only saw it in the daytime before I bought it,” Malvetis said.


He found out soon enough. A month after he took over, there was a murder in the bar. Two years later, there was another.


“It was a killing ground,” Malvetis admitted.


“In those days, people got up in the morning, went to work, came here, got in a fight and went home,” Brian said.


But Malvetis hunkered down, kept an eye out for himself, and built ties with police and city authorities. When he heard that a would-be killer was waiting to “do it at the Shamrock,” he changed the name to the Unicorn, at the suggestion of a lesbian drummer. He didn’t know unicorns are associated with lesbians.


“Some people still think this is a gay bar,” Malvetis said.


He paid $125,000 for the bar, mortgaging his house to make the $25,000 down payment. The jukebox and the pool table paid the rent, and he stretched every nickel.


“I didn’t drive fancy cars,” Malvetis said. “I didn’t buy expensive things.”


The City Council recognized Malvetis’ longevity and community service on Feb. 2, 2004, “Tommy Malvetis Day,” citing his cooperation with law enforcement and “soft touch” for kids who like sweets.


For decades, Malvetis prowled the bar like a shark, greeting regulars, handling any chore from balancing the books to unplugging the toilet, until early 2016.


Around then, he began to have trouble counting money and remembering things. An old hip replacement began to go bad. He fought pneumonia “two or three times,” Brian said, but “kicked its ass.”


Malvetis’ daughter, Nancy, or son, Alec, brought him to the bar a few times a week. Nancy took over operations at the tavern and intends to keep the bar open. Malvetis drank nothing but coffee all day, but when he knew Nancy was on the way to pick him up, he’d sneak a glass of cognac or bourbon, settle into a chair and have a few sips.


The last time Brian saw Malvetis come to the bar, a few months ago, his bum hip kept him from getting out of the car. A group of 10 regulars piled out of the bar and gathered on the sidewalk.


“He wanted to come in real bad,” Brian said. “We all went out and talked with him in the car.”


Wednesday, Brian wasn’t surprised to hear that Malvetis was gone.


“Once he wasn’t able to come here every day, we knew it wouldn’t be long,” he said. “This was his life. He was a fighter, but this time I think he just let go.”


In his heyday, each night after closing, Malvetis would pour himself a brandy and toast the old photos above the bar. “Goodnight, mom and dad,” he would say. “Goodnight, brother and sister,” then he would turn to doe-eyed Constance. “Goodnight, dear.”

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