Steven Heller | Essays

When Good Humor Ice Cream was Hot

Good Humor ice cream is as American as Wonder Bread and just as white, but this month the brand has taken a bold step. Working with Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA, they replaced their delivery truck jingle, “Turkey in the Straw,” a tune dipped in racist minstrel show history, with an original composition that hypnotically tinkles, and what for some could sound a bit like Bach or Beethoven concerto for triangle and whistle. The funny thing is, I never was aware that Good Humor even had a jingle. I never bought mine from the iconic truck but from the iconic pushcart. All I recall are the bells. Still, it is bit of marketing genius that RZA wrote and is promoting the tune, as well, giving a hot new image to the ice cream.

I always knew that Spring had arrived, not when the crocuses bloomed but when I heard the clanging bells on the Good Humor pushcart, which materialized like clockwork every April 1 and planted itself a block from my apartment house in NYC. The sanitarily starched white uniformed Good Humor Man was not just some itinerant, like a sidewalk Santa, who took a seasonable job to earn a few holiday dollars, and then disappeared. This was Tony and being an ice cream man was his “career;” he was our neighborhood friend who year after year, for as long as I could remember, stood his post proudly from April through September (rain or shine) selling Good Humors on stick and in cup — chocolate eclair, toasted almond — ice cream sandwiches and a chocolate sundae so delicious that the fudge still lingers in my taste-memory.

Tony was not an anonymous street vendor but a skilled frozen treat expert. He took a mandatory two-day class every year on how to be an extraordinarily good Good Humor Man. I would see him everyday except on Sundays at his choice venue, halfway been my school and apartment building.

When the Summer arrived, my family moved to our little cottage in Long Beach, Long Island. Good Humor was there too. But here it was delivered by a high school kid peddling a veritable freezer on wheels while ringing his four bells and like Pavolov’s dogs, hearing the jingling a street over, the neighborhood kids, would anticipate his arrival with pockets of change. We knew that vendor’s name too and treated him like he was like part of the family. In his spiffy clean whites and metallic coin dispenser with room for quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies on the front of his belt he bestowed joy.

If I had to pick the person whose job brought us kids the most happiness it was the Good Humor man. If I had to select the most American of all the logos and brand identities of the 20th century, it would be also Good Humor — from its comforting name set in a chiseled Cooper Black to the illustration of the mouth-watering chocolate coated vanilla ice cream bar with a healthy bite out of the top.

How can you not like Good Humor? In 1920 candy manufacturer Harry Burt created “a chocolate coating compatible with ice cream,” explains an online corporate history. “His daughter was the first to try it. Her verdict? It tasted great, but was too messy to eat. Burt’s son suggested freezing the sticks used for their Jolly Boy Suckers (Burt’s earlier invention) into the ice cream to make a handle and things took off from there.”

Burt called his confection a Good Humor bar, on the widely held belief that a person’s “humor,” or temperament made good people tick. Whatever the rationale, he got it right. I lost my taste for Good Humor when I discovered I was lactose intolerant. Now, after hearing RZA’s new tune, its Pavlovian tractor beam may bring me back — despite the consequences.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Music

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