At midafternoon on a Saturday, a puzzled little girl sat at the counter of Candy Kitchen in Wilton, Iowa. She stared at the ceiling, asking, “Where are they at?” There were shrill sounds of birds, chirping and singing.
In a booth nearby, two regulars of the Candy Kitchen had knowing smiles.
The man behind the fountain nodded. George Nopoulos was making those bird whistles. His mimicry of songbirds is known all over eastern Iowa. Maybe much of the United States. At least, one day he fooled the movie star Gregory Peck into thinking that there were birds loose in the Candy Kitchen, which is claimed to be the longest-running (1860) soda fountain in America.
GEORGE NOPOULOS is a legend in a white shirt and bow tie. He is 93 years old and has been working at the Candy Kitchen since he was 6. That makes him an employee for 87 years and likely the world’s oldest soda jerk.
George will tie on his apron at 7 in the morning, and if business is good, he may not leave until 5 in the afternoon.
“A man has to earn his wages,” he says, cracking a smile. I have never seen George when he wasn’t smiling.
George and his wife, Thelma, own the Candy Kitchen, inheriting it from his father, Gus, a hard-working Greek who left his homeland to first open a candy store in downtown Davenport before moving to Wilton, 25 miles west of Davenport.
“We’ve been husband and wife for 63 years, but I say that George is married to this place,” says Thelma.
George has dark, beady eyes that twinkle, especially when he does the bird calls.
“And look,” he pats his head. “For an old guy like me, I have a lot of hair on top. It’s what’s on top that counts.”
“We make quite a pair,” says Thelma. “We do very well considering our age.”
Thelma and George are non-stop in this soda shop that looks to be the set of an old movie. The mirrored walls are hand-lettered by Thelma in white chalk-like paint that serves as the menu. The Candy Kitchen is long and narrow, with a candy case of malted milk balls and gum drops.
“THERE ISN’T a day when I don’t think I’m glued to this place,” says George. He scowls at the word “retirement” and sputters, “Never.”
He talks, jokes and whistles all at the same time while making a banana split. Every one of those splits, he says, “is my masterpiece.”
As mentioned, he came to work for his dad when he was 6. “My first job was to stand on one of those little metal ice cream chairs and wind the Victrola on Saturday night when the farmers came in for ice cream and the music. We didn’t have electricity. The place was lit with gas light fixtures.”
George even remembers some of the songs he played on the Victrola, like “Just because she made those goo-goo eyes.”
George reluctantly admits that he is slowing down, but is still perky and good for three or four corny gags when his morning coffee club meets at the Candy Kitchen.
“GEORGE IS AN AMAZING guy who is non-stop. I don’t know what some of the guys around town would do without George’s wake-us-up coffee,” says Ed Williams, the retired principal of Wilton High School who always orders a second cup, which is on the house.
George can rattle off one-liners as fast as the old comedian, Milton Berle. “Come in some morning for coffee and meet Big John. He wears size 15 shoes. Any bigger they’d need motors on them,” he says.
“If anyone comes in here depressed, they leave laughing,” he says.
During a late afternoon visit, I found George looking lively, even thought it had been a long day.
“I just made 20 gallons of ice cream. I can make 2 1/2 gallons in 20 minutes. Do I make it by hand? You’re kidding,” he shakes his head. “I use a motorized ice cream maker. We bought it in 1951.”
He laughs, gives a little whistle, and says, “Everything around here is old.”
George takes pride in his soda fountain concoctions
“I have a favorite, root beer with a little vanilla. Customers didn’t know what to call it. I had to call it something so I call it Had-a-Call, like the old Hadacol.”
(Hadacol, for the unknowing, was a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Its principal attraction was that it contained 12 percent alcohol.)
George’s biggest seller is his chocolate soda, so thick it needs to be dug out with a long spoon. Second favorite is his cherry Coke.
“Gregory Peck was in here once before speaking in Iowa City. His dad ran a pharmacy and he bet me that he could still make a cherry Coke. He stepped behind the fountain and made a perfect one,” George recalls.
THE WARM weather hours are busiest for George and Thelma. Come April, they’ll be open seven days a week.
“Now, our weekday hours are irregular. If you’re coming out, call us first,” says Thelma. The number is 563-732-2278.
George will whistle like a canary. But during my last cold-day visit, he apologized, “The birds have had a sore throat lately.”
Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.