Last week, the composer behind one of America’s most iconic songs died — Les Waas. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, his most famous work surely will. Isabella Kulkarni has the story.
K_1: Here’s ad-man Les Waas just two years ago, at the age of 92, being interviewed in his hometown of Philadelphia.
LW: The creamiest dreamiest soft ice cream is brought by Mister Softee for a refreshing delight supreme look for Mister Softee. My milkshakes and my sundaes and my cones are such a treat
K_2: He’s singing jingle for Mr. Softee, the largest soft serve ice cream truck franchise in the US. Waas wrote it in 1960 for TV and radio, and a few years later, the trucks themselves began playing it.
And playing it.
And playing it.
But the song is more just a never-ending ditty that lodges itself inside your brain. To get the real story behind the jingle I had to come here…
K_3: to the Mister Softee depot in the Bronx.
PB: Marino, Ella puedo pasar dos minutos en su camión…
K_4: And this is what I came for.
The Musica de Mister Softee, this one
[music plays under narration].
K_5: I’m standing next to Marino Jimenez and his boss Pete Bouziotis. Bouziotis the owner of the depot — and manages a fleet of dozens of ice cream trucks. And he appreciates the draw of a good jingle,
PB: Trucks drive down neighborhoods so how do you let people know you’re in
K_6: He’s got a point. That’s where the music boxes come in.
K_7: In Marino’s truck, it’s tucked into the driver side, a black rectangle, about the size of an internet router. And there’s an identical one, inside nearly every Mister Softee truck in the garage. Bouziotis says, these music boxes have been there as long as he can remember. I took a closer look. In cursive scrawl, were the words Nikols Electronics.
K_8: This is Mark Nichols.
MN: I’m the owner of Nichols Electronics co we manufacture
electronic music boxes for ice cream trucks.
K_9: His dad, Bob Nichols, started the company in Minneapolis almost sixty years ago. Nichols says they’ve made about 50,000 boxes since then. They ship across the world from cold Upper Midwest to the ice cream friendly climates of the Caribbean. So… how did they corner the world market on ice cream truck music?
MN: A friend of my father’s came up with an idea for an inexpensive music box
K_10…One of those wind up, tinny-sounding ones with the steel comb. And to this, he added…
MN: And an army surplus microphone and taped it to his steering wheel and that was unwieldy while he was driving.
Yeah, definitely unwieldy, and possibly kinda dangerous. So Mark’s dad decided to use transistors to amplify the music — and created a device so efficient that it’s still used today. And when you hear the music, you can almost taste the chocolate-dipped merlin.
[SOUND OF MUSIC+ reverb and echo]
Hear that? Go ahead, taste it.
FADE UP UNION SQUARE AMBI
Juliano Centano is a Mister Softee driver.
[how can i help you]
He’s parked on east 14th street off Union Square, his truck basking in the last patch of afternoon sunlight on the park. He’s selling cone after vanilla cone.
JC: Come into the back, [tighten] back office here’s where we work [laughs] as you can see we have rainbow sprinkles chocolate sprinkles, here are some of the syrups that we use vanilla syrup, chocolate syrup.
Except out here on the streets is where the magic of the Mister Softee jingle gets a bit more complicated. The company has been involved in scores of lawsuits because of their trademarked jingle — lots of trucks use it illegally. Again here’s the Bronx’ Mister Softee manager Pete Bouziotis
PB: You can just sit outside with a tape recorder, copy it and then put it on the
speaker system which is why we’ve been to court and it’s patented – it’s copyright infringement but you’d have to go after every individual infringer.
And in a city like New York, there are a lot of infringers because there’s lots of competition. And today at Union Square the ice cream showdown is fierce. Around Juliano are 6 other trucks, fro yo and soft serve, boxing him in. He points down the street, at another truck…
JC: You see on Broadway, there’s a competition truck it’s not a Mr. Softee truck. He plays that music all the time and because of him they call the cops and they come and they kick us out
He’s right. Some New Yorkers don’t love the jingle. The Mr Softee music has drawn more than 200 noise complaints in the last 12 months. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg imposed tough new noise abatement rules, across the city. And now, at nyc.gov, there’s a form specifically for complaining about ice cream truck music. Seriously.
JC: You know we’re not allowed to play the music anymore You’re not? 1:18 Yeah
we get like a thousand dollar summon if we if the cops catch us with the music. [tighten]
So Juliano has decided not to risk thousand dollar tickets. It’s not worth it. In fact, a few years ago, he took a drastic step.
JC: And what about the music box? Oh, I don’t use the music box so
I had to take it out.
Yep. He took it out. Now, technically, truck drivers can play the music when they’re moving, just not when they’re parked. But it’s kinda hard to sell to your customers when you’re driving away. And a lot of drivers told me: playing the music less means less money.
DN: If you see an ice cream truck it’s not a huge deal I mean you don’t go nuts
for it. But people do when when they hear it
Dan Neely is an ethnomusicologist who’s done research on ice cream truck jingles. He says that chimey sound of ice cream trucks bring people back to their childhood, filling you with a pleasant sense of nostalgia…
Of course, the song means something else if it’s the soundtrack to your workday. Imagine listening to that tune every single day for 17 years… like Juliano did — maybe taking out that music box, wasn’t the worst thing.
MJ: To be listening to the music all day long, of course it bothers you — if you
listen to the song twice or three times a day of course it wouldn’t bother you. But
to listen to the same song every day, you go crazy.
A song you hear in your sleep, now that’s a successful jingle. [Fade out music] EXPRESSION.