March 26, 2012
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to explore a quintessential sound of summer climbing in your window, snatching up your sanity: the incessant chiming of ice cream trucks everywhere.
The tune you’re hearing—“Mister Softee (Jingle and Chimes)”—was written by Les Waas, who had been working for Grey Advertising, a small Philadelphia ad agency, in the late 1950s. He worked as a kind of one-man band of an adman. One day, his boss asked for a jingle for Kissling’s sauerkraut. Waas came up with one (“It’s fresh and clean, without a doubt. In transparent Pliofilm bags, it’s sold. Kissling’s Sauerkraut, hot or cold.”) The jingle played on kids’ TV shows and eventually got him in trouble, he says, when sauerkraut sales outpaced production and the company pulled its ad. Anyway, in 1960 (or thereabouts, he’s not so sure, it could have been as early as 1956), he wrote the lyrics for a regional ice cream company called Mister Softee:
Here comes Mister Softee
The soft ice cream man.
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream,
You get from Mister Softee.
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee…
S-O-F-T double E, Mister Softee.
The company gave him a 12-inch bell, which he took to New York to record an infectious three-minute earworm of an ad—with an original melody, recorded in one take. Some years later, again the date is unclear, company employees took the jingle’s melody and made a 30-second loop to put on their trucks. Waas says he received a telegram from Mister Softee saying it would have been only a tiny company with two or three trucks in South Jersey if it weren’t for the indelible sonic branding.
Now, for a quick refresher: Ice cream’s immense popularity in America dates to the 19th century, in the wake of the Civil War, when street vendors hawked a scoop of ice cream, or frozen milk, for a penny. Some wheeled carts; others employed goats. They sold their wares with catchy nonsense phrases: “I scream, Ice cream” and “Hokey pokey, sweet and cold; for a penny, new or old.” (Hokey pokey appears to have derived from a children’s jump-rope chant, including one derisively directed at kids who didn’t have a penny for ice cream.) As Hillel Schwartz writes in Making Noise, “Street vendors stretched their call into loud, long, and progressively unintelligible wails.” In the Babel of Manhattan, the cries were an “audible sign of availability.”
“If these cries were not enough to attract attention, many hokey pokey men also rang bells,” Anne Cooper Funderburg writes in Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream. Perhaps the ding! ding! in Waas’ proprietary jingle became a cultural icon because the bells conjured up the hokey pokey street vendors jingling about their ice creams.
What’s strangest about this story of the adman and his sprightly little jingle that endured: Waas claims that he has only heard it played on ice cream truck once. He was out at a Phillies baseball game with his son and went up to a truck. Waas again: “I said, ‘We both want a popsicle, but we’ll buy it only if you play the jingle.’ The guy says, ‘I can’t. I’m on private property.’ So we start to walk away and the guy stops us and says, ‘What the hell.’ And then he plays it. That was the only time I heard it and, of course, it was only the melody.”
This is the first in a series on sound and food. Stay tuned for more bells and whistling melodies.
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