Michael Halkias — who, along with his wife, became a minor New York celebrity due to long-running commercials for their Brooklyn wedding venue, Grand Prospect Hall — died Wednesday from the coronavirus. He was 82.
Halkias died at Lennox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, widow Alice Halkias told BuzzFeed News. He had first exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 on April 1 and was taken to the hospital a few days later after suffering issues with his lungs and kidneys. He spent two weeks on a ventilator prior to his death.
"We had a great life, and he was the best husband I could ever imagine," said Alice, 73, in a phone call. "Even though we were working together all these hours, we always worked beautifully together."
His death was first reported by the Greek community website Anamniseis.
The couple first purchased Grand Prospect Hall in 1981. The building had been constructed as a French Renaissance–inspired entertainment hall in Park Slope in 1892 — originally designed by architect Ulrich J. Huberty, who was also behind the nearby Boathouse in Prospect Park — but had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s.
"My husband had a great vision the moment he walked into the doors," recalled Alice. "He saw the staircase, which was painted white at the time, and he started jumping and said, 'I have to buy this building and fix it for New York to enjoy it.'
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'
"He said, 'I have to do it. Brooklyn needs this building.'"
Once refurbished, low-budget commercials advertising Grand Prospect Hall ran dozens of times a day on TV in the New York area. Using Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" as an earworm, the unforgettable ads featured dizzying camera work showcasing the gilded concert hall and its glittering chandelier. Memorably starring the Halkiases themselves, each spot ended with the married owners standing on their grand staircase and proudly announcing, "We make your dreams come true!"
"We became sort of celebrities," Halkias recalled to BuzzFeed News in an interview last year for the Facebook Watch show That Literally Happened. "What you hear all the time is, 'We grew up on your commercial!.'"
"Some people despise the commercial. They don't like it — one percent, two percent [of people]. That's because they are jealous. They hate it because it's simple," he added. "But that's OK because I'm running all the way to the bank happily!"
Daughter Josephine Halkias-Tsarnas, 52, recalled an early commercial her family made featuring footage from her real wedding.
"I was the first spinning bride," she told BuzzFeed News. "People would stop us in the street for an autograph and we thought it was so ridiculous!"
The ads were even spoofed on Saturday Night Live with Kate McKinnon playing a character named Cosmo Sparadukis who was clearly inspired by Halkias.
When talk show host Jimmy Kimmel filmed special episodes of his show last year in Brooklyn, he recruited New York Mets player Pete Alonso to join the Halkiases in a skit for a new commercial.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1937, Halkias moved with his family to Greece when he was 2 years old, returning to the US when he was 18. Raised as an altar boy in the Greek Orthodox church, he had ambitions to join the church, and even studied as a theologian, but found himself drawn to the world of business.
In the mid-1960s, when Alice was 20 she walked into a travel agency to buy herself a plane ticket to Greece and encountered a handsome 28-year-old manager: Halkias.
"I just saw him as a great person," she said. "When I was in Greece, I was thinking of him a lot. When I came back, he asked me to marry him. I couldn't believe it. I accepted right away."
In addition to their daughter, the couple had two other children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Josephine Halkias-Tsarnas told BuzzFeed News her father was a hardworking, funny, and sensitive man who would always support his three children. She began working for her parents' company when she was just 14, learning skills that serve her to this day.
"He was definitely my idol," she said. "He taught me everything I know. I was his right-hand man for many years. I went on to real estate and took everything he taught me with me."
Josephine said he would often spout "words of wisdom" that she now intends to print and frame. Her favorite? "There's no time to be tired."
Just in February, she surprised her parents during their vacation in Aruba, relaxing while her father insisted on exercising each day in the hotel gym.
"It was the three of us for a week," she said. "I never would’ve imagined in two months there would be a pandemic and it would take so many lovely lives and my father would be one of them."
In addition to a wedding venue, Grand Prospect Hall has served as the site of concerts, fashion photo shoots, and film and television productions. Multiple celebrities and filmmakers also visited the hall over the years, including John Huston and daughter Anjelica, as well as Francis Ford Coppola.
But Alice Halkias told BuzzFeed News that whenever most people who were familiar with the commercials enter the building, they still walk to the marble staircase, throw their hands in the air, and try to imitate her commercial catchphrase, "We make your dreams come true!"
"I couldn't believe that we would get into the catering business and we would become so famous," she said.
"He was — believe it or not — a very humble man," added Josephine. "He wouldn’t want people to feel sorry. He was very happy."