Courtesy of Carvel Ice Cream

Carvel’s classic character started as a kitschy way to celebrate Father’s Day.

Forty years of anything is worth celebrating. It’s a ruby-studded wedding anniversary. It’s the first official birthday of “middle age.” And if you’re a fudge-covered whale made of ice cream, it’s a chance to reflect on four decades of pop culture icon status.

By the 1970s, Tom Carvel—the inventor of the soft serve ice cream machine back in 1936—had already been selling ice cream cakes via his franchised stores and order-by-phone delivery service in a variety of the usual shapes you’d expect—circles, squares, and rectangles—using the company’s made-fresh-daily ice cream. But Carvel, ever the innovator, started dabbling with less-geometric cakes, including early creations like Hug Me the Bear and Dumpy the Pumpkin, and soon a whole parade of ice cream-filled characters was be born.

“He’d say ‘I want something different, I don’t want Mickey Mouse and I don’t want Big Bird, I want something that people can associate with Carvel, with our ice cream,’” recalls Kathy Dumas, a former Carvel employee who started working at the company store in Yonkers, NY when she 16 years old. “Somewhere back in the history, and it was way before my time, there was some little logo or icon or something that a had a little fish at the top and he kept saying ‘you know we do everything big for Mother’s Day, for Christmas and these other holidays, but we do nothing for Father’s day. I want to do something.’”

Thus Fudgie’s story began on June 1, 1977 when Carvel’s research and development team (including Dumas) landed on a whale shape as the perfect Father’s Day cake, for “a whale of a dad.” “People said to make it look like a goldfish, but we didn’t want to be too cute or child oriented. He just wanted it to be a universal character that was fit for an adult or kid. I must have named a million fish of every shape and size you could possibly imagine,” says Dumas. Some aspects of Fudgie were predetermined, including filling the cake with chocolate and vanilla ice creams. “We decided not to cover it with a fruit, fish and fruit doesn’t sound good at all.”

Fudgie’s name was still yet to come, and it came about out of sheer necessity.

Dumas was shooting photos of the cake in Carvel’s in-house studio, but under the lights and with constant tweaking, a recurring issue arose. “The tail kept breaking because it has that little curve and I said we need glue or something to hold this thing together.” However unlike many commercial shoots, Carvel insisted the products shown in photos and on television were the real thing, exactly what you’d get in the store. But a bunch of broken whale tales just wouldn’t do. “So he finally decided we’d do it with chocolate. We covered it and it gave us the insurance that this tail would stay on. That’s how ‘Fudgie’ came about, because we had put fudge on actually to solve a problem.”

 Courtesy of Carvel Ice Cream

Fudgie was an instant hit. “The first year we put Fudgie onto the ice cream counters in the cabinets, I couldn’t make them fast enough,” Dumas remembers. “We were all shocked, because Father’s Day was not a big holiday back at that time. We had to get more molds made and we had to call around to get more product in and ingredients in. It was amazing how many people wanted that cake.” Quickly, the whale shape moved beyond Father’s Day and became a permanent fixture.

Fudgie’s success had to do, in large part, with Tom Carvel’s voice. The founder himself narrated the simple, no-frills advertisements for many of Carvel’s products and promotions, with a naturally gruff, grandfatherly delivery. “He was known for having this rough voice and he was doing these really low-budget ads,” current Carvel president Scott Colwell explains. “ He would just get on and start talking about making Father’s Day the most special by celebrating with Fudgie and because of his memorable voice, people got into it and they bought Fudgie. We hear all the time from people that there’s not a father’s day that goes by where they don’t have a Fudgie the Whale.”

Colwell adds that Fudgie’s impact is really all about personal connection. “The product is fabulous but it’s the memories and everything built around special family moments. At this point we sell over 50,000 Fudgies each year and while Father’s Day is by far his number one holiday, he sells year round for birthdays, anniversaries or anything else you might be celebrating.”

For the most part, Fudgie has changed very little over the years, (though that pesky tail was made a little thicker). Of course, he's also completely customizable with any of Carvel's ice cream flavors, any message, and you can even get a Ms. Fudgie made, if you prefer. He was followed by another zany Carvel creation: Cookie Puss—a space alien with an ice cream cone nose that was inspired by the popularity of Star Wars (and some say looked like the spitting image Tom Carvel).

 Courtesy of Carvel Ice Cream

Despite common misconceptions, Cookie Puss and Fudgie aren’t made from the same mold. “About a year ago Kelly Ripa drew the association that Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss were made out of the same mold and while that wasn’t actually a fact there became a lot of fun back and forth,” Colwell recalls. For the record, it’s Fudgie and Santa Claus that share the same shape.

Pop culture moments like that serve to demonstrate the way Fudgie has become much more than a frozen treat. “Everyone loves ice cream, everyone loves fudge, but it goes beyond that,” says Colwell. “It goes to the fact that he’s a character, he’s a shape, and the way Tom Carvel talked about him and celebrities endorse him and he becomes a bigger than life product and bigger than life experience.” Dumas agrees, saying “I’ll see it in a display case or I’ll see it made fun of on a TV sitcom or commercial or have some comedian or night time talk show refer to it, and it still amazes me to this day that that cake made such an impact.” Fudgie has been comedy fodder for shows like Saturday Night Live, How I Met Your Mother, The Office, The Simpsons and Family Guy, to name a few.

 Courtesy of Carvel Ice Cream

So what does an ice cream whale do for his 40th birthday? “Fudgie is going to do a tour of New York City and visit a bunch of really cool locations,” says Colwell. But the celebration also includes a greater cause. “We want to continue Fudgie’s passion of giving back, so we’re calling on our fans to donate to the charity Save the Whales, it’s a non-profit for marine life conservation. What’s exciting is that it’s also Save the Whales’ 40th anniversary, so we’ve got a double birthday going on.”

Friends of Fudgie can learn more at carvel.com/fortyyearsoffudgie, where you can send virtual birthday wishes to Fudgie, and support Save the Whales. Any donation of $25 or more will get you a plush Fudgie toy, plus, as a bonus, every $10 you donate gets you an entry to win free ice cream cakes for a year. And yes, they can be all be Fudgie if you want.