For most of the 20th century, Les Waas was one of the most creative people on the planet. Waas, a Philadelphia native who died recently at the age of 94, was best known as the creator of the Mister Softee ice cream jingle, but that was just one of about 1,000 advertising jingles he wrote over his distinguished career, If you were unaware of that fact, it may be because Waas just never got around to pushing that item from his resume. That's not surprising considering that he was also the founder of the Procrastinators' Club of America.
Because Waas' entire advertising and marketing career was based in Philadelphia, it should come as no surprise that he had several ties to WFIL, Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Waas shared many stories about those days a few years back when I interviewed him for Bandstandland.
Since Waas' company represented several national brands whose headquarters were in New York City, he spent many hours on WFIL sets overseeing commercials, most of which were done live. For Bandstand, he would arrive early and run through rehearsals but that preparation wasn't always enough to avoid disaster.
He recalled one spot for Kissling sauerkraut in which the product was cooked in a bag in a pot of boiling water. Bob Horn's Bandstand co-host, Lee Stewart stabbed the bag with a butcher knife and raised it over his head, scattering the hot contents all over the set and in his hair. Waas was soon called into the control room where he took a phone call from an irate Mr. Kissling.
“As it turned out, Mr. Kissling never saw the commercial," Waas said." I think it was [Bandstand cameraman] Bill Russell.”
On another occasion, a hand model failed to show up for a live spot for Appian Way pizza. Waas pressed his wife, Sylvia, into on-air duty, where she was to make the pizza according to package directions. But Sylvia decided the dough needed more flour and added some. She also thought the meat topping was a bit skimpy so she added more. By the time she was finished, the 60-second spot had stretched to 2 1/2 minutes.
"The pizza company sent me a Western Union telegram, saying 'Congratulations on the best pizza commercial in the history of commercials',” Waas said.
On another occasion a postman won a Pepsodent jingle contest and part of his prize was to have the jingle premiere on a national TV show. He picked Bandstand. Waas recruited three of Dick Clark's neighbors in the Drexelbrook Apartments to sing the jingle live. After weeks of rehearsals, Waas was concerned that they might blow it once the big moment arrived. He decided to have just one of the trio sing the lyrics. Waas suggested that maybe they should have cue cards ready, just in case.
“There’s no possible way that I could forget these lyrics," the lead singer scoffed. "We’ve been doing it day in and day out. We’ve been doing it in our sleep. There’s no way.”
The rehearsal went fine. During the show, director Ed Yates ordered a camera to move in for a tight shot. As the camera moved in, the singer looked at the camera and panicked, thinking he was going to get run over. He forgot the words.
“They had to do it over again,” Waas said.
Many of the 973 jingles Waas wrote ended up on the radio. For those he worked closely with producer Emil Corson at the fabled Reco-Art Studio. He included Holiday Inn and the Philadelphia Phillies among his clients. Famed NFL announcer John Facenda did a spot for Esslinger Beer. Waas was at Reco-Art the day Charlie Gracie cut Butterfly.
"A few weeks after that, Emil Corson was driving a brand-new Chrysler Imperial," Waas recalled. "I said ‘Wow, how did you ever get that?’ He says Bernie Lowe ran out of money and he wondered if, for a piece of the song, he could record one last song. So I did it and I got this out of my first royalties.”
Waas got the message. He persuaded his jingle-writing partner to take a chance in the rock and roll business. Waas had noticed the popularity of a Bandstand regular, Tommy DeNoble.
"He was a good-looking kid," Waas said. Within weeks of his high school graduation, DeNoble was at Reco-Art to lay down a Waas-penned song, I Wanna Go With You. The song went nowhere. Waas was through with the teen music scene but DeNoble went on to have minor success as a recording artist before launching a lengthy Philadelphia television career.
The flip side was more prophetic, a little ditty called Don't Procrastinate With Me Baby. One of Waas' quirkiest creations was the Procrastinators' Club of America. The club never had more than 5,000 members but Waas was undeterred, explaining that "about a half-million members haven't gotten around to joining yet."
Waas and his wife became good friends with Dick Clark and his wife, Barbara, in the late 1950s. Waas saw how things changed as the payola investigation threatened to dislodge Clark from his duties as American Bandstand host. He thought that Clark never really got over it.
"That’s a very sore spot with Dick Clark," Waas told me. "He thinks everybody thinks about that all the time."
For Waas, who loved to play chess with Bandstand announcer Charlie O'Donnell during breaks, the payola probe presented a unique distraction. ABC sent Chuck Barris from New York to keep an eye on Clark before he was subpoenaed to appear before Congress. Barris and Waas were about the same size and dressed similarly.
"People were always confusing us," Waas lamented.
In a career that provided many more ups than downs, Waas was fond of pointing out that things usually worked out in the end. Like his 1966 peace march in Philadelphia to seek an end to the War of 1812. Procrastination has the virtue of 20-20 hindsight, after all.
Just in case you've forgotten:
Author Larry Lehmer is putting the finishing touches on a book about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. The book is called Bandstandland. It has lots of details about the show you've never read before. If you have any stories about American Bandstand or Dick Clark that you'd like to share in the book, contact Larry.