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Five Questions With Filmmaker John Paris About the Bubblegum King of McAllen

John Paris’ father, Andy, was one of the most famous men alive in post-WWII America and Mexico—that is, until his bubblegum empire crashed hard.

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There are countless lost stories of Texana. In a state this big—and where the personalities are just as outsized—it stands to reason that even if a particularly famous Texan did something incredible, if it happened decades ago, it can fade into history. But the fact that the story of Andy Paris, the founder of the Paris Gum Corporation, has gone largely untold is hard to understand.

Paris was an Icarus story of post-WWII entrepreneurship: he opened a bubblegum factory in McAllen, and immediately helped popularize chewing gum around the entire world at a time when the resources to make it were scarce. But as competition and the IRS started putting a target on his back, the meteoric rise was also met with a fairly swift fall.

Andy Paris’ son, John Paris, has been looking for a way to tell his father’s story for years—and he finally settled on a documentary film, Andy Paris: Bubble Gum King. The film is complete, and Paris is seeking distribution for it now. You can watch the trailer below, and then get the story of the film—and the man it’s about—in five questions.

Texas Monthly: Your name is John Paris, and you’re making a movie about Andy Paris. That’s not a coincidence. So why haven’t we heard this story before? 

John Paris: Well, it happened a long time ago. His actual business lasted about eight years. It’s a seventy-year-old story. Some stuff just gets forgotten about, but he was extremely famous. It was an overnight success. It happened quickly. He was in Life magazine, which had worldwide distribution. He taught Natalie Wood how to blow the bubbles for Miracle on 34th Street. He dated Marilyn Monroe for a couple months. He was the most photographed man of the year for, like, two years running. He was the equivalent of being on every daytime and nighttime show (but, of course, it was radio then). He was huge. But it’s something that happened before the advent of television, and the story basically got forgotten about, locked away in a closet for years. So I’m bringing it out.

TM: Can you tell us that story in a nutshell? 

JP: My father was a son of Greek immigrants who struggled to make a living in Detroit. They had a tobacconist shop, and there were times where my father had to actually go and work on the streets at seven years old, selling newspapers to help out the business. They spoke Greek in the household, and my father became a multi-linguist. He learned how to speak Spanish, and that’s the language that’s key to his whole story. Because during World War II, when his family had trouble finding anything sweet to sell, he took a train from Detroit to Mexico City. He made friends down there, and he was able to import sweet stuff and save his parents’ business.

Eventually, when he struck out on his own, he went down to McAllen. What he discovered was that he was able to make friends with people in Mexico—specifically with people that gave him latex. The latex supplies after World War II were very screwed up. England was bombed out. Before the war, people were getting latex from Africa through England, and when it was bombed out, people couldn’t find it. People were making bubblegum in these tiny little boutique batches, and my father had been supporting Mexican gum plants in Matamoros by importing just regular stick gum. They were like Wrigley copies. He walks down the street one day and runs into these kids. They’re scuffling about and fighting over something. He finds out it’s a piece of bubblegum.

He realizes these kids hadn’t had anything in years, that the war depleted everything. Kids didn’t have toys, they didn’t have tires for bikes. They really didn’t have anything, so this was very special. When he realized this, he went down into Mexico and, because he had the connects for latex, he cornered the latex market in about 48 hours for the whole Western Hemisphere. It was a massive entrepreneurial move. He talked the manufacturers in the Monterrey plants into converting, and once he did that, he dumped bubblegum onto the market. The kids and the media just went nuts. He was like a confectionery Elvis.

TM: So what happened? It lasted eight years and then—what happened next?

JP: Basically he made it too quick. He probably made the money too fast. He was an all-cash business. He would go down into Mexico with a pistolero at his side and a quarter of a mil in suitcases at a time, to pay for the latex, to pay the workers down in Mexico. Being a cash business, his receipts were cash, so that generated some interest from the IRS.

TM: Your dad didn’t invent bubblegum, but did he just strike at the exact right time?

JP: Yeah, people have been chewing gum for thousands of years. What he did was he took the shocker pads to a dead commodity. It suffered through the Great Depression because of latex, because of sugar. In the Great Depression, those were depleted items. There’s a timeline that you can see where, right around 1940, they were going to start mass-producing gum, and then you can see in ’41 it’s gone, because we entered the war. All latex was rationed; all sugar was rationed. So yeah, he just put the shocker pads to it.

There were points where kids were renting gum for 35 cents a chew, which is crazy. When he ran into those kids, they had been chewing that one piece for three weeks amongst themselves. One piece, 35 cents a chew, against what it should have been a penny. So that’s what got his attention real quick.

TM: When latex stopped being rationed, and Bazooka and the other big gum companies revved up, is that when things started to fall apart for Andy Paris?

JP: Oh, yeah. The bubblegum companies came back with a vengeance. My father did this as a single businessman, and the competition hit pretty heavy, so he had a lot of things coming at him at one time. He had the competition coming at him, he had the IRS coming at him. That was a tough thing for him.

I think the main focus of this film is that it’s not so much a history of bubblegum, but what one man was able to do to make millions of kids happy all over the world, and how he did it, which was basically being friends with Mexico. People needed to be happy again after a dreary time, especially kids. Those kids, they grow up to be adults, man. This was a good thing for them. This was a good thing for people in Mexico. It was a good thing for Latino immigrants. My father saw them as business partners.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

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  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    Confectionary Elvis? Wishful thinking. To understand what it is to be really photographed, look at this program, coming December 7, at the BBC’2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0078xcb