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Remember Carvel's Fudgie the Whale cake? It's turning 40

On June 1, Fudgie the Whale turns the big 4-0.

The Carvel cake was invented in 1977 as a Father's Day promotion — "to a whale of a dad" — and almost immediately became a punchline. The whale-shaped treat has since hadcameos on David Letterman, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show; in the comedy sketches of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith and Billy Crystal; in the lyrics of ironic songsmith Jonathan Coulton ("expect a visit from Fudgie the Whale / Ice cream and crunchies in his fudgy tail"); and even as bizarre ammo in the years-long battle between President Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell.

If you grew up in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, like I did, you've eaten a Fudgie. The rest of the country, maybenot so much. Florida, with its loads of Northeastern transplants, is Carvel's second-biggest market these days, but Bashir Lalani owns the only Tampa Bay location at present, in Palm Harbor.

Even so, Fudgie is Carvel's most popular specialty cake, more than 50,000 whales melting unnervingly slowly at American festivities every year.Lalani is not precisely sure why Fudgie has had such staying power, but the whale is his top performer. He predicts he will sell 40 of them for Father's Day weekend ($24.99 plus tax).

For my own family, the cakerepresented a tragic capitulation, what you got someone as a clutch decision when you hadn't managed your gift-buying time effectively. We stooped to a Fudgie once or twice, I cannot lie. But I permanently fell out of love with Fudgie when we realized that Carvel's Santa Claus cake was — pregnant pause — Fudgie turned tail-side-up and gussied with special holiday icing. Party foul, Carvel.

Lest I get overly sniffy about Fudgie and his doppelganger, at least there weren't seasonal Fudgies. The original Cookie Puss, star of the Beastie Boys debut single of the same name,was another Carvel creation: a proto-alien with ice cream cone nose. In February, it turned into Cupie Puss and was again refashioned each March as the more Blarney Stone-kissing, green-trimmed Cookie O'Puss.

You could get Fudgie sitting atop a pale blue ocean of more ice cream if you needed to serve 20 people in a pinch, but his basic identity didn't waver: chocolate ice cream separated by a layer of chocolate crunchies, then vanilla ice cream, all topped with milk fudge, more crunchies around the edge and whipped frosting rosettes. What are the crunchies, you ask? Scott Colwell, who has been Carvel president for the past five years, said they're ground up flying saucer cookies.

There is fancier premium ice cream, for sure, and even more ingenious ice cream cake designs. So what accounts for Fudgie's long run?

It's Tom Carvel himself. He founded the company in 1934, sold it in 1989 and died a month later, some family members suspecting foul play. He is credited with creating the world's first soft-serve ice cream machine in 1936. But what he did in the 1970s and 1980s was genius: His raspy, Greek-born New Yorker voice provided the voiceover for a series of stunningly low production-value commercials. These were amateurish even by 1970s standards — Cookie Puss wobbling through the stars, an outtake from Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Like Sy Sperling of Hair Club for Men, George Zimmer of Men's Wearhouse or even Phil Rizzuto hawking for the Money Store, Tom Carvel's voice was annoyingly memorable, the kind you'd rehearse an impression of in front of the bathroom mirror. Al Roker does a passable Tom Carvel. Joe Piscopo's on Saturday Night Live was spot-on.

Several years ago there was a grassroots "Save Fudgie the Whale" campaign that seemed a little fishy. Colwell said Carvel was never thinking of retiring Fudgie; it turns out it was an ad agency in Fort Lauderdale testing the power of social media.

How long will Fudgie reign? Humpbacks live 50 years, blue whales as long as 110. Fudgie's species is unclear. Maybe in this market crammed with premium ice cream options, it's like fellow aquatic celebrity Dory says: Just keep swimming.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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