Carvel wasn’t as welcome as his creations
Look, forget about those too-loud television commercials and instead beg the FCC to spare us those disturbingly bad TV spots in which the advertisers themselves insist on appearing. For that, we probably can thank Cookie Puss, my one-time golfing partner.
Now, this is not a slam on the “hue-juh” auto dealer. That guy — no doubt to the dismay of his “zero down, zero interest” competitors — knows exactly what he’s all about. No, instead I speak unfondly of all those business owners who think they are professional comedians and actors and comedy writers and insist on spending their hard-earned advertising dollars on unfunny spots that come across like “let’s-do-a-show-in-the-backyard” productions.
And for that you can blame/credit Cookie Puss, aka Athanassios Karvelas, aka Tom Carvel, who pioneered in the ’50s his own radio and TV ads featuring his scrape-your-nails-on-the-blackboard voice and avuncular visage. Long before Frank Perdue and Dave Thomas hit the airwaves, Carvel had become a minor media personality in the NYC metro area pitching soft ice cream creations like Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale to build a business empire that was the Ben & Jerry’s of its era. According to the official version of the Horatio Alger tale, Carvel was a Greek immigrant kid who in 1929 borrowed $15 from his future wife, Agnes, and began selling his softly frozen treats from the back of his truck.
He already was famous in 1981 when I interviewed him for a TV story at his second home and golf course in Pine Plains, Dutchess County. I like to think I did a fair, unfliching portrait of Carvel — not ignoring the many legal challenges by franchisees because they had to purchase all of their supplies, napkins included, from old Tom himself — but Carvel seemed semi-pleased. Or so I figured when he invited me to join his weekly golf foursomes at his home course, directly on the Taconic Parkway, which I did for most of the ’81 and ’82 seasons. Maybe it was the free golf or the unlimited ice cream goodies in the pro shop that had me making the 55-minute drive from Albany. But I thought this self-made multi-millionaire might make for interesting company. And he did for a while.
Carvel was a major-league name-dropper: He loved to relate all of the golf wagers he supposedly took from the likes of Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope and Perry Como (their photos on the wall) and all of the man-type secrets he professed to know about these guys. He was buddy-buddy with George Steinbrenner and crowed about how The Boss and other moguls would anxiously wait in the Yankees owner’s box for Carvel to show with a bag of Flying Saucers and other free frozen treats. Always there would be rumors about Steinbrenner or Lee Iacocca showing up at one of Carvel’s parties in Pine Plains, but
the closest thing to a celeb I ever saw was Bill Fugazy, the NYC limousine king who later got into some legal hot water. In July of 1981, for Carvel’s 75th birthday, I brought him an inscribed Baskin-Robbins cake, touching off much profanity.
He had been early to the franchise game — at its height, Carvel would have more than 800 stores — but claimed he might have been mega-rich had only he accepted Ray Kroc’s invite to get into McDonald’s at its start. Dave Thomas, he said, was the best of the franchising bunch, having studied both Mickey D’s and Burger King before launching Wendy’s. For reasons never explained, Carvel hated Haagen-Dazs, calling it “Haagen-Slop,” and he told me that Howard Johnson’s was the best widely available ice cream.
But the stories got tiresome and Carvel proved overbearing. He delighted in telling a story that would make most people cringe; how the NAACP threatened to picket one of his early stores because he had no African-Americans in his employ. So, in sweltering summer heat, he hired a young black man, dressed him in an extra heavy overcoat and fur cap and paraded him with a sandwich board back and forth in front of his ice cream stand until the kid understandably quit. Carvel said this was not racist; nobody, he said, would tell him how to run his business.
Sometimes, on the course, I had to hide my face. Carvel would arrive at the tee of a par-3 hole, the group ahead still on the green, and start shouting “this is my golf course, move aside, we’re playing through.” August of ’82 was the last I saw of Tom Carvel. Eight years later, he died in Pine Plains of an apparent heart attack and was buried near his first home in Westchester County, his estate estimated at $67 million.
But that’s where it got good. Carvel’s niece — he had no kids — claimed he was murdered and she launched a long-running legal battle to have his remains exhumed and thereby prove that he had been done in. She claimed that two Carvel employees, now deceased themselves, might have been involved, all in an effort to cover up the alleged disappearance of millions in company assets (the company itself was sold just before his death for $80 million). With their millions, Carvel and his wife had established a charitable trust that was supposed to provide an income for Agnes until she died, but the niece would claim that somehow these renegade employees conspired to leave the widow with virtually no support. The niece is portrayed by the other side as a money-grubber, and the battle has ensued for years.
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.