The Silencing of the Ice Cream Trucks

City Desk IconThe arrival of the first big heat wave of the season also marks the sight of wave after wave of ice cream trucks winding their way through the city’s neighborhoods, delivering cones and bars to its overheated citizens. Of course, this comes with the familiar sound of repetitive tinkling music, which can be heard from blocks away. In the summer of 1989, however, the tinkling was almost silenced.

Two weeks before City Council’s summer recess, Councilman Ralph Berks introduced legislation that would prohibit “the operation of mobile vending vehicles which are outfitted for the playback of recorded music or other audio, between the months of May and October and between the hours of 12pm and 8am, daily. During these hours of operation, they are to play any such music or other audio at the lowest volume possible.”

The measure was obviously directed at the city’s ice cream truck operators, especially the largest, Ice Cream Motor Novelty and Treat Co., whose garage and distribution facility was located in Berks’ district. Basically, the bill would only allow this and other independent companies to sell ice cream for four hours in the morning (when no reasonable parent would allow their kid to eat the stuff) and they would have to troll the streets in almost complete and utter silence. Public reaction was swift.

THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED,” read the front page headline in the News, referring to the (some say frightening) cartoon clown which adorned Ice Cream Motor’s gleaming white trucks. Local TV stations shot endless hours of b-roll of children eating Rocket Pops. On June 6, 1989, an army of 30 ice cream trucks surrounded Old City Hall during the lunch hour, all playing a perfectly synchronized jangly version of “The Entertainer” for five minutes, before observing a minute of silence and handing out free cones to the assembled crowd.

Observers and political insiders couldn’t figure out why Berks would even attempt something so unpopular, so politically stupid as messing with ice cream trucks, a sin tantamount to a newspaper comics page editor canceling The Lockhorns. Some investigation by the Journal-American finally revealed his true motives.

A new company, Lauren Valley Foods, had just signed a largish contract to become the local franchisee for the rapidly-expanding TCBY chain of frozen yogurt shops. Lauren Valley Foods had also made a rather nicely-sized contribution to Berks’ upcoming re-election campaign. With some more digging, it was also revealed that the company was partially owned by a commercial development company which was itself partially held by an investment firm whose founder was Whitman Berks, the Councilman’s younger brother.

When this all came out, the bill was withdrawn and the D.A.’s office began investigating Berks, who was forced to resign and the ice cream trucks were allowed to play Scott Joplin as much as they wanted. In 1998, however, Ice Cream Motor Novelty and Treat Co. sold their operation to Mister Softee, so it’s their song which is now mainly heard up and down the city’s streets in the warm months.

Corruption charges were never filed and Berks returned to private law practice. He addressed the incident only once in an interview with the Journal-Clarion in 1993. He said that his desperate plan was sparked by money troubles at the time and had been inspired by a similar scheme which had successfully driven the city’s popular singing sidewalk necktie vendors off of the streets in the mid-1950s.

Also, there are no TCBY outlets in the city, save for one kiosk in the Galleria at Woldman Heights shopping mall.
– R. White

Related: Why do ice cream vans sound the way they do? [MusicThing]

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