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Largo fights the not-so-sweet soundtrack of ice cream truck music

Largo finds ice cream truck music aurally offensive, as does antique shop owner Leah Randall, holding her iguana, Boogie. 

WILL HOBSON | Times

Largo finds ice cream truck music aurally offensive, as does antique shop owner Leah Randall, holding her iguana, Boogie. 

LARGO — The ice cream man flipped a switch and a familiar tune wafted from his van. Children know it as Do Your Ears Hang Low? Fans of the rapper Jibbs know it as Chain Hang Low. But it's probably best known as "the ice cream truck music."

As the Krazy Ice Cream van ambled through downtown Largo just before 1 p.m. on Nov. 5, it passed Officer Carl Carbaugh, who was working a special detail that day. The ice cream tune was soon joined by a police siren.

Carbaugh gave Steven John Hopkins, 46, a $93 ticket. Hopkins had broken Largo city ordinance 16-99(a), which bars trucks from using amplifiers or loudspeakers to sell or advertise.

The ordinance was passed on March 2, 1976. Purveyors of Choco Tacos, Fudgesicles and snow cones operated for years in wanton disregard of the law, it seems, until a Largo resident made a fuss this year. The song is noise pollution, she says, and a city commissioner agrees. The owner of Krazy Ice Cream disagrees and has threatened to sue.

A prominent member of the international ice cream vending community hopes for a peaceful resolution but issued a warning: Ice cream trucks are part of the social fabric that holds our communities together.

Stop the music, he says, and you'll cause us all to know our neighbors just a little bit less.

• • •

Leah Randall really hates ice cream truck music. Randall, 46, is the owner of World Peas antique shop, off West Bay Drive. But it's at her Largo home where, every day, she was plagued by that song.

Randall has several problems with the ice cream truck's music. It's unfair, she says, since she can't blast music from a truck to promote her business. It's unhealthy, she says — it's promoting ice cream when kids are too fat already.

But most of all, she says, that song is really annoying. And it sticks in your head. All. Day. Long.

"I don't begrudge him the right to make a living," she said of the ice cream man, "but do I have to have that song playing through my head for the rest of the day?"

City Commissioner Curtis Holmes agreed. He made sure the city sent letters to ice cream truck drivers reminding them of the music ban. Largo police were reminded they could, and should, enforce the law.

So on Nov. 5, Officer Carbaugh was given a special detail: Keep an eye out for villainous ice cream trucks.

• • •

The tune that sticks in Randall's head dates to the 1800s, when it was sung in minstrel shows with a variety of lyrics. The song is best known as Turkey in the Straw, with lyrics about farm animals.

Ice cream trucks appropriated the tune, which has survived for decades without lyrics. Its ability to sell frozen treats is rivaled only by its ability to annoy. Randall and Holmes are not the first people to enlist the long arm of the law to deal with Turkey in the Straw.

Stafford Township, N.J., banned ice cream truck music in 1998, prompting a federal lawsuit. Playing Turkey in the Straw from an ice cream truck is protected by the First Amendment, argued Jeffery Cabaniss, owner of Jef-Freeze Treats. He won.

When he returned to the streets after the ruling, though, he played different music.

"To tell you the truth," Cabaniss told the New York Times then, "I was getting sick of Turkey in the Straw myself.''

• • •

To Chris Long, there's more at stake here than an ice cream truck's ability to play an arguably annoying song.

Long, 32, is general manager of Kansas City, Mo.-based Frosty Treats, which operates about 450 trucks in the Midwest and South. Long is also a lawyer and legislative chairman of the International Association of Ice Cream Distributors & Vendors.

If you're an IAICDV member and a municipality is giving you trouble, you call Long.

"My goal is not just to advocate for ice cream trucks," said Long. "My goal is to find solutions for problems."

Long doesn't think the 1976 Largo City Commission intended to ban ice cream truck music. The ordinance bans "sound trucks," not ice cream trucks. Political candidates used to blare campaign messages from trucks, and Long thinks this is what Largo's leaders wanted to outlaw in 1976.

Other Pinellas cities have restricted ice cream trucks. Belleair bans all street vending, including ice cream trucks. Clearwater banned ice cream trucks until 1997. St. Petersburg allows them between 10 a.m. and sunset, but they can't play music for more than five minutes when stopped.

Long won't get involved in the Largo dispute unless someone asks him to, but he cautioned about the far-reaching impact of a city without ice cream trucks.

Just one truck off the streets hurts ice cream novelty companies across the country, he says. And then there's the vital social role Long says ice cream trucks play.

"Ice cream trucks, garage sales, block parties," Long said, "these are the things that bring a subdivision together. The world has changed, and we don't know other people like we used to."

• • •

Hopkins, the ice cream man who was ticketed, declined to comment. His boss, Bob Newman, says he has ordered his drivers to keep playing music anyway. Newman said he is considering suing the city.

This is the second time in a few months Largo has made news with an interesting legal ban. City officials discovered in September that all toy guns and water guns were illegal in Largo, according to a law they think was meant to apply only to city parks. The law was never enforced, though, and was rewritten this month. Squirt guns are now legal in Largo.

Ice cream truck music is not, though, and City Manager Mac Craig says it's going to stay that way. When told Newman had threatened to sue, Craig laughed.

"Well, let him come then," Craig said. "That'd be a fun one, to go to court over Turkey in the Straw."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at whobson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Largo fights the not-so-sweet soundtrack of ice cream truck music 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 10:56pm]
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