Big thank you to The Big Issue Australia for the opportunity to learn and write about ice-cream vans. Edition #628. 15 January 2021
YOU HEAR the chimes of the ice-cream van before you see the van itself. It’s a street or two in the distance, but you know it’s on its way. Those jingle-jangle chimes – sometimes a bit wonky but still recognisable as the song ‘Greensleeves’ – are as much the sound of summer as waves crashing, flies buzzing, air conditioners humming and barbecues sizzling. The sound of promise. The sound of hot, dry days. The sound of standing on the road or the footpath in your bathers and your thongs and holding onto your notes and coins and trying to decide between gelati or soft-serve. Lemon gelati? Chocolate ice-cream with a sprinkle of nuts?
Melbourne food truck owner Albert Cerminara, 41, has been an ice-cream man all his life. From the age of five he was helping his father serve gelati and soft serve ice-cream from Francesco’s 1977 Ford Transit ice-cream van.
Several of Albert’s uncles ran ice-cream vans in Melbourne’s western suburbs from the late 1970s.
“As a young tacker, I’d travel all over the western region with my dad, and then my younger brother joined us,” Albert recalled.
Albert worked in the van through primary school, high school and while studying his law degree.
“At the height of summer we’d be out at nine in the morning and sometimes not home till eleven at night. It was pretty crowded and back then we used to have the hot and noisy generator for the ice- cream machines inside the van!”
Traditonally, ice-cream vans are solid, sturdy vehicles. Reliable. Familiar. Friendly. A little slow, by necessity. (You don’t want all that ice-cream flying around by taking a corner too sharply.) A little daggy with their pink and white paint scheme and drawings of cartoon characters and ice-cream products. And a little romantic too, in a nostalgic way.
The vans preceded hipster food trucks by many years, though there are also hipster ice-cream vans nowadays. The old-fashioned vans are a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s; memories for the baby boomer generation, and a novelty for their children – and grandchildren.
I was somewhat surprised, and mystified, when Albert’s van came tootling along my suburban street one warm day back in spring, when Victoria was still in hard lockdown. There I was, at my desk, working away, when the sound of ‘Greensleeves’ drifted into the neighbourhood. My mind soon drifted to distant summers past, to the sweet relief of enjoying an ice-cream under the hot, hot sun. I showed great discipline when Albert arrived by not rushing outside immediately and elbowing the local kids out of the way – off the soft green grass and out of the shade of the bottlebrush tree – so I could be first in line!
Across Australia ice-cream vans are commonly known as Mr Whippy vans, regardless of their official business name. This stems from 1962 when the British-based Mr Whippy franchise sent ten vans on a ship from Southampton to Sydney. Twelve months later another two dozen vans were sent to Australia. During the 1970s, the Mr Whippy company decided to sell its ice-cream via its own shops rather than from its fleet of vans. Within a few years, the company had sold off the last of its vehicles. The name lived on, though.
Ice-cream vans are part of summer days and summer memories, and of popular culture. A Mr Whippy van appears in the 1965 Beatles film Help! A song called ‘Mr Whippy’ was the B-side to the 1969 John Farnham hit song ‘One’. (Yes, you’ll find it on YouTube!) The 1984 movie Comfort and Joy was a lighter look at the real (and very violent) turf wars between two Italian crime families and their ice-cream vans in Glasgow. The Harry Potter film sets often received visits from an ice-cream van, courtesy of actor Rupert Grint (who plays Ron Weasley). Grint realised a childhood dream when he bought a 1974 Bedford ice-cream van some years ago. On the film sets, and elsewhere, he gives away free ice-cream. And a recent video by Briggs, for the song ‘Good Morning’, featured not only Muki on guest vocals but a contemporary ice cream van parked at the Carriageworks arts precinct in Redfern.
When Francesco Cerminara and son Albert started 35 years ago, a gelati or a soft serve ice cream started at 65 cents.
Nowadays, things have changed a little – prices begin at $4.50, and people can pay via EFTPOS – but the joy of ice cream remains the same. “I’m loving what I do,” says Albert. “We mainly do public events but during COVID we were getting calls and Facebook messages and SMS requests from people asking us to visit their streets. We’d start the music – ‘Greensleeves’, of course – and the kids and their parents would come out smiling, always smiling.”
Albert has upgraded his ice-cream van from an old Ford Transit van to a new Renault food truck. “More room for stock, more room for the heart of any ice-cream van – the machine that makes the soft-serve ice-cream. And no noisy generator like the old days.
“Dad still drives his 1989 van, though. Hardly enough room to swing a cat. Nonno is old school when he heads out – no SMS requests for him!”
During the Melbourne lockdown Albert instigated a “pay it forward” donation jar, which has generated enough cash for the van to give away free ice-creams at schools, kindergartens, a nursing home, to staff at a small local hospital and at a respiratory clinic – and sometimes to children who may have no cash when the van arrives in a neighbourhood.
One 80-year-old nursing home resident told The Herald Sun newspaper the visit from Albert’s ice-cream van brought back memories from long ago. “The ice-cream man used to ring the bell – ding-ding-ding! He’d go up and down the street, up and down, around the corner. All the kids would be out in the street, screaming for mum, ‘I want an ice cream!’ It was fantastic.”
“I love the fact,” said Albert,” that even with things returning to “normal”, the spirit of care and generosity that was fostered during COVID continues.”
And does the Cerminara family tradition continue, with Albert’s children? “Absolutely. It’s a full circle. My sons Francesco and Luca often help out in the van.”
Albert says the most popular soft-serve ice-cream is chocolate with nuts. Lemon, and chocolate are the most popular of the gelatis.
And Albert’s favourite summer treat? “Gelati, mixed gelati. Part of my Italian heritage!”
The chimes of the ice-cream van fade away. You watch the vehicle recede into the distance, and around a corner. To another street. Another beach or park. You lick the ice-cream. Savour the sensation on your tongue. You taste the flavour. You feel ice-cream melting down onto and on-between your fingers. The sun is high. The sky is hot. Life is good.
The Story Behind Greensleeves
One of the most distinctive features of an ice-cream van is the music that it plays to announce its arrival at a beach or a playground or a public event or, especially, in a local street.
The song is usually ‘Greensleeves’, a tune that harks to 16th century England. Back then, ‘Greensleeves’ was a song for lute and vocals:
Alas, my love, you do me wrong/To cast me off discourteously/For I have loved you well and long/Delighting in your company/Greensleeves was all my joy/Greensleeves was my delight/Greensleeves was my heart of gold…
One persistent theory is that King Henry Vlll wrote the song about Ann Boleyn, the second of his six wives. Music historians note that the song, which was registered in 1580, was based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death in 1547. Regardless of its origins, the song has endured for centuries and over 60 years ago became a favourite for ice-cream vans in England, New Zealand, and Australia.
The founder of the Mr Whippy vans, Englishman Dominic Facchino, was apparently a fan of Henry VIII. When Mr Facchino was looking for a tune to herald the imminent arrival of Mr Whippy vans in local streets he settled upon the tune that was long credited to the notorius king. Elsewhere in the world of ice-cream vans you’re likely to hear the ragtime jazz tune ‘The Entertainer’ in the United States and the French folk song ‘Frere Jacque’ in, yes, France.