I grew up in Manhattan, and for most of my life the tuneful chimes of the Mr. Softee truck have been a regular feature of the warmer months. That creaking melody is probably one of the most familiar tunes I know. It’s consoling and calming and ever so faintly haunting. Jerome Badanes once remarked that he found it very disturbing and would interrupt his work on poems when it came around the corner of his building on the Lower East Side in the early seventies. Someone else said that it sounded like the soundtrack to a person being slowly murdered by a clown. But I like the sound of those chimes, their laziness, the cheaply sweet sound of rainbow sprinkles.
Now Mr. Softee has been included in new, and welcome (fantastic!) legislation proposed by Mayor Bloomberg to crack down on noise pollution. The Mr. Softee jingle may be outlawed. If that is the sacrifice necessary to get rid of car alarms and straight pipe Harleys, it will be worth it. But I’ll be sad to no longer hear it.
Some time ago, in 1994, I tracked down the owner and operator of Mr. Softee, William Conway, and asked some questions about the origin of the company in general and that melody particular. Conway’s voice was rough and raspy. He spoke on the phone from Philadelphia, and after a while I realized he sounded quite a bit like another major figure on the ice cream scene: The guy from Caravelle, makers of the Cookie-Puss.
Thomas Beller: What is the background of Mister Softee?
William Conway: We started the company in 1956 in Philly, me and my brother James. At one time we were in about twenty-eight states. Now we are in eleven, from CT to VA. I was in accounting and insurance. It was one truck to start in 1956. But in 1960, we really had a big year. We build our own trucks and we had the biggest demand for trucks that year. We are strictly a franchise and so people wanted to get into the franchise. We used to have a music box and it just played Yankee Doodle Dandy and this and that. It’s a music box in the center of the dashboard, which is run off twelve volt batteries. We used to have a big music box, which was not only cumbersome but broke down a lot.
TB: What about that melody you have now?
WC: We get a lot a lot of comments on that song. People say when they hear that meoldy they know spring time is here.
TB: Is Mr. Softee unique?
WC: As far as soft ice cream, we were the first ice cream truck. Hard ice cream, popsicles and all that, they’ve been around for years.
TB: How do your plan a driver’s route?
WC: He develops stops and he should try and hit the same stops each time. There might be three stops on a block or they might only one.
TB: What are the customers like?
WC: It’s really a game of patience, especially with children. They’re the one’s that like ice cream. They can start saying, “I want this, I want that. I want Rainbow. No, I want chocolate.”