Les Waas, Writer of the Mister Softee Jingle

YouTube
YouTube

You may not know the words, or the name of the person who wrote it, but the Mister Softee jingle is a tune most of us can hum along to. Les Waas wrote the theme for the ice cream truck franchise around 1960, and it's since become a summertime anthem for sugar-craving kids around the country. Composing one of history's catchiest earworms isn't the only legacy Waas left behind when he died on April 19, however. In his 94 years, the adman penned hundreds of jingles and gained a reputation as a notorious prankster.

Lester Morton Waas was born in Philadelphia on May 18, 1921 to Lester Waas and the former Alice Maybaum. After graduating from Olney High School in 1939, Waas got his start as a sheet metal worker at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His time there was cut short when the United States entered World War II, and in 1942 he joined the Army Air Forces, serving as a C-47 pilot in the Pacific theater.

Following his return home, life progressed smoothly for Waas. He met Sylvia Wasserman at a dance in North Philly and the two were married shortly afterward. Then, in the 1950s, he decided to take a risk. With little to show for himself professionally outside of a knack for writing catchy tunes, Waas struck out on his own and launched an advertising agency.

Waas Inc. produced live commercials that aired alongside several big-name shows, like Dick Clark's American Bandstand and the programs of celebrity cowgirl Sally Starr. With help from his wife Sylvia on the business side of things, Waas wrote nearly 1000 jingles through his own firm and other agencies. His commercial for A.C. Kissling Co. (“Give me a little Kissling’s Sauerkraut/ It’s fresh and clean without a doubt”) was so popular that it had to be canceled so suppliers could catch up with the demand. The jingle Waas wrote for Holiday Inn (“If it’s a birthdate, anniversary date/ Or a regular Saturday night date/ Make it a Holi-date”) remained a favorite of his throughout his lifetime. He also wrote songs for Ford, the Coast Guard, and the Philadelphia Phillies–but it was the tune he composed for a young ice cream truck company that would leave his biggest impact.

Mister Softee’s theme song—titled “Jingles and Chimes”—was originally commissioned as a 3-minute radio ad. According to Smithsonian.com, Waas recorded the jingle in one take using a 12-inch bell given to him by the company. Most of us are familiar with the instrumental, music-box version that blares from the tops of ice cream trucks in the summer, but few people know the actual words. Waas’s lyrics went like this [PDF]:

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.
My milkshakes and my sundaes and my cones are such a treat
Listen for my store on wheels ding-a-ling down the street…
Look for Mister Softee
S-O-F-T double E, Mister Softee!

Les Waas made his contribution to the Mister Softee franchise just in time for it to grow into a national icon. At its peak in the late '60s, 1000 ice cream trucks were broadcasting the jingle across 15 states. The song has since been featured in TV shows, heavy metal covers, and cell phone ringtones. Today it can even be heard tinkling from Mister Softee trucks in China.

But not all the reception has been positive. In the early 2000s, the song became the target of an attempt to ban ice cream trucks in New York City from playing jingles altogether. A compromise was eventually reached that would allow vendors to keep their loudspeakers on, but only when their trucks were moving. Many New Yorkers were happy to learn the nostalgic jingle would survive to play another day. Others, like the 7000 people who filed ice cream truck complaints between 2010 and 2014, were less enthusiastic. One Washington Heights resident wrote to 311 in 2014: “The repetitive ice cream truck music is driving my wife and I insane ... at some point between 9 and 10 p.m. every night since the start of Spring my wife and I have been greeted by this unrelenting demonic jingle.”

Some people might feel disheartened to hear their work described as “demonic.” Luckily, Waas had a great sense of humor. In the late 50s, he and a few of his ad buddies formed the PCA or Procrastination Club of America. Their accomplishments included launching a campaign to reelect the late president James Buchanan and organizing a bucket brigade to put out the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Waas died as the group’s acting president (they were still waiting to hear back from the nominating committee of 1957).

The president of the PCA was just one of the colorful characters in his repertoire. For one recurring radio bit, he played a congressman proposing a bill that would help conserve the earth’s oxygen supply–by making it mandatory for everyone to plug up one nostril. Despite the fact that he only seemed to show up around April Fools' Day, the congressman managed to convince many of his listeners. Other characters of Waas' appeared as guests on the shows of David Letterman, Mike Douglas, and Maury Povich.

Between his time spent as a professional prankster and procrastinator, Waas racked up a long list of achievements. He served as president for the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, the Independence Toastmasters, and his region’s chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Waas is survived by his children Murray and Sherri and three grandchildren. Just like the jingles he composed during his life, his legacy will not be easily forgotten.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.