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.