For fifty-six years, Candy Jim's Palace of Sweets was located at various locations along Taylor Texas' Main Street. When Candy Jim, a.k.a. James Arthur Athas retired in 1955, newspapers from New York, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Wisconsin, Texas, and elsewhere carried the news of his retirement under the headline, Sweet Success.
Athas should be remembered not only as the much beloved small town Greek immigrant candyman but also for bringing the latest in developing cultural art forms to his rural Texas community. Candy Jim Athas is nothing less than one of the very first pioneering movie theater proprietors in North America.
James Arthur Athas (christened Dimitrios Athanacios Athanasoulias) was born in Platana, a village five miles from Sparta, on June 3, 1877 and arrived in the United States when he was 15 to work. Young Athas' first job was selling candy from a cart on Waco, Texas streets (Corpus Christi TX January 21, 1955).
Newspaper accounts vary, but it seems likely Athas arrived in Taylor, Texas by 1898, again selling candy from a pushcart before establishing his first sweet shop. Unexpectedly, that same year he met local Lula Dosser and after a brief courtship the couple were married on September 22, 1898. The couple were destined to have two children Dimitra (1906-1971) and Thanasa (b. 1917).
Candy Jim's Palace of Sweets was where many Taylorites “remember the home made ice cream, the soda waters made from syrups made by Mr. Athas, and the large amounts of candy. There were the small round tables for four, the wire legged chairs, and other furnishings, including the huge mirror back of the fountain.” (Taylor Daily December 15, 1954.)
All accounts agree that this Palace of Sweets was known throughout the region for the high quality of its candies. Among Athas' daily candies he hand-made were brittles of all kinds, soft candies, hard candies, divinity, pecan rolls, and creme mints. While penny candies were available daily for decades in pound boxes including 25 pound boxes, all manner of Athas' hand-made candies were to be had.
Yet, Athas was well aware of what the local customers could afford. This led to his establishment of a ‘penny counter' – built much lower than the regular counter – to serve the little tykes and allow them to practice counting as they bought their candies. Athas was also known to frequently take a cast to the local school at recess and sell penny and nickle candies. The Palace of Sweets was a family affair. Not only did Lula Athas work side-by-side with her husband as often as possible but her niece Nell Landers also worked in the candy store for many years.
Memories of local Taylor residents of this period all agreed that the Palace of Sweets “was the gathering point for old and young, that a tasty dish of ice was enjoyed after the show; and it was here that Taylorites learned to call for sauer kraut candy.” (Austin-American July 14, 1950.) Without going into historical details, Athas was especially known, in Taylor and surrounding communities, for his 'sauerkraut' candy (also spelled as 'sourkrot') which for this time period was a very sought after form of caramel and coconut fudge.
When Athas introduced this confection to his customers 'sourkrot' candy was sold for fifteen cents a pound. Proud of his candied treats Athas frequently asserted he did not make what he called 'skittle candy' but that he only made 25 pound batches of candy at a time – nothing less.
In 1907, Athas pioneered a new form of public entertainment, the first movie theater in Taylor Texas. Accounts are unclear about the placement of this silent movie theater, perhaps at first at the rear of the existing candy store, but “this business prospered (to such a degree that) the theater remained and the sweet store moved into the adjacent building.” (Taylor Daily Press June 1, 1978.). Given that these were silent movies “one of Taylor's celebrities and very talented musicians, Elmer (Hank) Patterson, played the piano in the theatre, matching the mood of the music to the scene.” (Taylor Daily Press June 1, 1978.)
More than fifty years later, a local man spoke of the early days of Athas' back-of-the-candy store-theatre recalling that “during the showing (of the movie) Athas would stand out on the sidewalk and announce through a megaphone. ‘Moving, moving, all the time moving!' Even though the movies were silent they were indeed moving.” (Taylor Daily Press June 1, 1978.)
According to the 1910 Taylor Texas Business Directory, by that time three movie theaters were to be found in the city.
Sometime around 1911, Athas began remolding his candy store and in this process extending the rear of his candy store by a twenty-five foot brick addition. In this new space Athas installed his brand new movie theater with “an inclined floor...installing also...new and handsome opera chairs.” (Austin American Statesman January 21, 1912.)
The Taylor Public Library has an original b/w photograph of the interior of the candy store showing the entrance of this movie theater. Above the entrance and exit of this theater space this photograph shows the banner name Candy Jim's Theater. (Taylor Press January 3, 2018.) Unexpectedly, in 1914, we find news accounts of “Candy Jim's movie theater being nearly destroyed by fire.” (July 1, 1914 Austin American-Statesman TX.) No one was injured in the fire but Athas was to become more, not less involved with the theater business.
Athas not only rebuilt his Candy Jim's Theater but in 1915, Athas opened his Air Dome Pictures theater where pictures were shown out of doors at the corner of Porter and East Fourth across from the Taylor Texas City Hall. As if two theaters were not enough by 1916, we hear in the trade journal Moving Picture World that “Jim Athas Gets a New House. Taylor Texas – James A. Athas, one of the pioneer exhibitors in Texas has sold his theater at Taylor, Texas.
Candy Jim's Theater, to The Bland-Hoke Company of the Colonial theater at Taylor. Mr. Athas originally started the theater as an adjunct to his ice-cream parlor. He has leased the Crazy theater at Mineral Wells, Texas and is at it again. (The theater is not crazy, nor is its owner. It gets its name from one of the larger wells at Mineral Wells, called Crazy, due to its erratic behavior).” (Motography April 22, 1916 vol 28 pg. 668.)
There is no doubt that Jim Athas was a fearless businessman. Athas sold his Candy Jim's Theater to purchase the Mineral Wells theater (Motography 1916 Vol 15: pg. 1285). Ever restless, in time, Athas sold this theater and focused all his attention on the Taylor, TX businesses.
By 1942, after some 44 years, and much to the dismay of local Tayorites Candy Jim Athas stopped making candy and even stopped selling cold drinks. But not able to close his Palace of Sweets completely, Athas sold magazines, cigarettes, popcorn, peanuts and candy bars, as he then reported, all to keep himself busy through many hours of the day.
Then, in 1956, just before a long planned (and long delayed) trip back to Platana, Greece Lula Athas passed away on November 7. In time Jim Athas went alone and while initially it was to be a two year trip he came back 'home' to Taylor, Texas within a matter of months.
In 1954, Jim Athas retired and as was quoted at the time, “I wish I could shake the hand of every boy and girl who ever came to my place for candy, soda water, popcorn, or even a glass of water.” (Austin American December 17, 1954.) On December 31, 1965, the man generations of Texans knew as Candy Jim a.k.a. James Arthur Athas died in Austin, Texas. Dozens of news reports document the business accomplishments, cultural innovations, and fond memories still attributed to this one lone immigrant. Without question Candy Jim gave back far more than he was ever given.