Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Formerly Mister Softee

Today's New York Times has an obituary by the talented Margalit Fox (a name I am extremely partial to, given that it is my daughter's name, who is in turn named after my late mother, aleha ha-shalom)(Ms. Fox's father, David was a physicist blacklisted during the McCarthy era and indicted for contempt to refusing to fully testfy before the House Un-American Activities Committee).

James Conway Sr., 78, a Founder of Mister Softee, Dies

James Conway Sr., an entrepreneur whose company has been delighting the taste buds, if not always the ears, at this season for the past half-century, died on Sunday at his home in Ocean City, N.J. Mr. Conway, a founder of the Mister Softee ice cream company, was 78.
The cause was cancer, said his son, James Jr., vice president of the company, now based in Runnemede, N.J.
With his brother William, Mr. Conway began the business in Philadelphia in 1956, developing it into a multimillion-dollar concern. Mister Softee is currently among the largest franchisers of ice cream trucks in the country, with more than 600 trucks in 15 states.
Even more memorable than the company's soft ice cream is its jingle, played on a music box and broadcast through a loudspeaker atop each truck.Once heard, the song is not soon forgotten. For some listeners, it heralds summer. For others, it recalls childhood. For still others, it constitutes a form of torture.
Written in E-flat major in jaunty 6/8 time, the jingle was created by an advertising agency in 1960 for the company's early radio campaigns. Though the trucks play only an instrumental version, the tune does have words:
The CREAM-i-est DREAM-i-est SOFT ice CREAM
you GET from MIS-ter SOF-tee.
FOR a re-FRESH-ing de-LIGHT su-PREME
LOOK for MIS-ter SOF-tee....
James Francis Conway was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, 1927. In 1949, he earned an undergraduate degree in business from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and afterward served in the Navy during the Korean War.
With his brother William, Mr. Conway later went to work for the Sweden Freezer company, which manufactured ice cream machines. On St. Patrick's Day 1956, the brothers put one of the machines into a truck and drove it through Philadelphia, giving away green ice cream. And so they went into business, at first as the Dairy Van. Mr. Conway, the company's vice president, retired in 1998. William Conway, the president, died in 2004. The company is now run by the two men's sons.
In 2004, as part of a proposal to strengthen New York City's noise code, city officials tried to still the voices of ice cream trucks throughout the five boroughs. Outcry ensued.
Last year, the city and Mister Softee reached an agreement, which covers all ice cream vendors, under which the trucks may play music only when they are in motion.
Besides his son, of Medford, N.J., Mr. Conway is survived by his wife, Grace Roseman Conway; two daughters, Barbara Kemenosh of Haddonfield, N.J., and Cricket Newfrock of Mountain Lakes, N.J.; and nine grandchildren.

This is a classic example of a delightful obit: informative, funny, and full of great cultural facts. There is even a copyright angle, the work-for hire jingle created by the ad agency. The obit also recalls for me an outstanding, but little known 1984 movie, Comfort and Joy, by the Scottish director Bill Forysth. Mr. Forysth may be known from his earlier movies, in particular the sweet coming of age movie, Gregory's Girl (1981), and the off-beat Local Hero (1983), with Burt Lancaster and Peter Rieigert. Comfort and Joy depicts a silly Scottish radio personality, Alan Bird, who has a mid-life crisis when his girl friend leaves him. He decides he wants to do more serious work, a possibility that leads his boss (the wildly funny Alex North) to order him to go to a shrink. Bird then inadvertently gets mixed up in a bitter war between two ice cream truck companies, one of which informs him in a snarling way that it was formerly known as Mister Softee. It is an hysterical, perfect summer night movie, best enjoyed with ice cream and memories of the joys Mr. Conway brought countless children.


Anonymous said...

Mister Softee brings back fond memories of my childhood in upstate New York. THis was a well executed business model - the tight control on branding & quality. The trucks were special purpose vehicles - unlike the ice cream vendors of today - recent immigrants, who speak no english, driving converted beat-to-hell throw away vehicles from state auctions. In Washington state, Russian immigrants who run these operations play grimm russian tunes when they drive in areas of russian demographics..

mrg & grm said...

On your recommendation, Bill, I watched Local Hero and thought it was a delightful little movie a la Brigadoon. I'm moving on to Gregory's Girl! MRG