Legendary Philadelphia adman Les Waas, whose Mister Softee jingle became a perennial earworm of American summers, died last week at 94.
For half a century, his iconic jingle sent children running toward ice cream trucks and elicited intense annoyance from others, so much so that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once tried unsuccessfully to ban the mechanical whine of a tune from the city. The nostalgic backlashers ultimately got their way.
Waas, meanwhile, likely got a good kick out of that, as he did most everything in life. And that easygoing way perhaps helped make a song commission in 1958 from a small company with just a few ice cream trucks into an indelible audio scrap of modern childhood.
“It sounds like a jack-in-the-box, or a music box,” wrote Joel Beckerman in the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy. “A tinkly, nursery-rhyme sound is what makes it okay to literally take candy from a stranger.”
Now, there are 600 trucks across America blaring the song. In 2007, the trucks launched in mainland China.
Waas was a metal worker at the Navy Yard before entering the Army as a pilot in World War II. When he returned, his parlayed his good humor, flights of wit and knack of striking a catchy jingle into a business, called Waas Inc.
He banged out many of his jingles on a xylophone in the basement of his Northeast Philly home before moving the family from the city to the suburbs in Huntingdon Valley, said his daughter, Sherri Waas Shunfenthal.
His tuneful dabbling never stopped, despite having little musical experience beyond just a bit of piano.
“Of course, my brother, when asked at school what his father did, he said, ‘He makes money in the basement,’ so that was interesting,” Shunfenthal said.
Waas’ creativity was just as well known to many locals for the jingle dedicated to an iconic South Philadelphia Melrose Diner. According to Broadcasting Pioneers, Waas wrote more than 900 other jingles for everyone from Holiday Inn to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Waas had many off-the-wall side hobbies. Among them, “Mother’s Whistler,” a fictional expert who made up calls from fake birds. He’d perform the routine on TV and radio shows.
He was also the president of the Procrastinators Club. And the title wasn’t a joke. Shunfenthal remembers waiting for him at the end of summer camp.
“Everybody else was crying because they were leaving, and they didn’t want to leave. And I was crying because I wasn’t sure anyone was coming to pick me up,” she recalled. “He was always late, I was always the last one to be picked up.”
Well into his 90s, Waas’ indomitable sense of humor never aged. He recorded a self-eulogy that he instructed his family to play at his funeral.
“Hi, Les Waas, aka the deceased, soon to be referred to as the late Les Waas. Although being a procrastinator, I wish I could’ve been later in celebrating this particular occasion,” he begins in the recording.
Waas then tells mourners that he’ll never have to worry again about the things that really used to bug him.
“Tax bills. The Phillies blowing a big lead. Next week’s dental appointment. And attending funerals,” he says. “I can tell you this — this is the last one I’m going to go to.”
In the ’60s, Waas’ Procrastinators’ Club, which claimed to have 14,000 members, staged a rally at Philadelphia City Hall. Its goal? To end the war of 1812.
The group, through Waas, would make predictions about the year just as the year was about to end. In December 1997, for instance, Waas predicted that “the year will see a boat sink with Titanic success, hearings on the IRS will prove to be a taxing experience and that Mia Farrow will become Woody Allen’s mother-in-law.”
Waas died on April 19 in Warminster. He is survived by two children and three grandchildren.