Retro Recaps: The Adventures of Pete and Pete ( Season 1, Episode 10) – What We Did on Our Summer Vacation
As Nickelodeon moved out of the 80’s and into the 90’s, they continued (like other cable TV channels) to see where they could go regarding programming. And thus, original, unconventional programming found its way to kids everywhere.
One of the most well-known shows from the Nickelodeon cable channel, is The Adventures of Pete and Pete. What started as a few minutes of two brothers named Pete (and a girl named Ellen), soon snowballed into a weekly series that ran on Nickelodeon for several years in the 90’s.
Taking place in Wellsville USA, (big) Pete (played by Michael C Maronna) and (little) Pete (played by Danny Tamberelli) were often at the forefront of weekly adventures, of which (big)Pete would narrate. It seemed normal enough, but there was plenty of weirdness to be had. As if the boys’ mom having a metal plate in her head wasn’t strange enough, the boys and their friends also had a personal superhero: the tights-wearing, facially-spastic Artie (“the strongest man, in the world”).
I recall watching some of the episodes, but was never a big fan of Pete and Pete. Even so, there were plenty of episodes that spring to mind when I think back to yesteryear. Out of the three seasons, there was one that definitely stood out (most likely because it was in many of the TV commercials for the series).
The episode starts with (big) Pete, reminiscing about their recent summer vacation. He then begins to tell of the sights and sounds of what summer brings: the landscaping wars between his father and a neighbor, the lengthening of your shadow, and the thundering sound of more electricity surging through local powerlines.
For the local kids of Wellsville, there is one day they all look forward to. On the first really hot day of summer, an ice cream man named Mr Tastee rolls into town in his Tastee-mobile, and hangs around serving cold treats until the final day of summer.
Unlike your conventional ice cream vendor, Mr Tastee is never without his swirly-topped head, which causes many of the kids to wonder who he really is. The only clue so far, is from a blind millionairess in town, who calls him: “Leonard.”
While the Pete brothers are exploring the summer with few cares, (big) Pete’s friend Ellen (played by Alison Fanelli) has a job at the QwikPik photo booth, in the local mall’s parking lot. One day, Ellen shows Pete and Pete a shocking thing: photos that were developed, from a person simply known as, “Tastee.” Eager to quell the mystery that has plagued the local kids, they break QwikPik company protocol, and look through the pictures.
They do belong to Mr Tastee alright…but in each picture, he’s still wearing the giant swirly-head, keeping the mystery alive! Seeing Mr Tastee by himself in all of them, Ellen can’t help but think that he looks lonely in his pictures, and the group begins to wonder: for being such a nice guy, does their summer savior have any friends?
Over the next few days, the group visits Mr Tastee on his stops, trying to get him to open up beyond just talking about the treats he sells, but Mr Tastee doesn’t provide them with anything concrete.
One day, they attempt to invite Mr Tastee to go fishing, but he declines, claiming he has to wax the Tastee-mobile. When they offer to help him, even here he refuses. The more they try to get him to open up, the more defensive the ice cream man becomes, before finally just giving them each a Blue Tornado Bar, claiming the sweets are “all they really need.”
“They’re just popsicles,” retorts Ellen.
“Exactly,” replies Mr Tastee. “And I’m just an ice cream man, and you’re just my customers, and that’s the way it has to be.”
Reluctantly, the trio take their Blue Tornado Bars, and Tastee rolls away…but the next day, he doesn’t show up. Or the day after that. Pretty soon, a heatwave takes hold, and the kids are unsure what to do, as Mr Tastee seems to have vanished!
Hope comes when Artie (The Strongest Man in the World), uses his super-sight, and far off (in Kentucky!), catches a faint glimpse of the Tastee-mobile!
Ellen and the Pete’s then start a major plan of action to try and find where Mr Tastee is. Ellen violates more QwikPik regulations, looking through customer photos, in which several show Mr Tastee or his truck in the background. (big) Pete also mans a local phonebooth, in which a hotline number has been posted to numerous fliers that have gone up arond the country. And even (little) Pete takes up watch on a local high-dive board.
Eventually, the Pete’s and their parents go to Cloghaven Beach, as part of a regular summer ritual the family performs. While wandering around, (big) Pete comes across a scummy-looking ice cream vendor named Captain Scrummy (played by REM‘s Michael Stipe). Pete inquires if the man has any Blue Tornado Bars, but all Scrummy has for sale are sludgesicles, claiming the sale of the Blue Tornado is only through Mr Tastee.
Figuring that maybe the Captain is in-the-know, he inquires if he knows where Mr Tastee is. Scrummy says he has no clue, but there was rumor of some nosy kids who ran him out of town.
When Pete claims that maybe these kids just wanted to be friends with Tastee, Scrummy gets defensive. He also tells how that giant swirly-head serves a purpose: to keep kids from asking personal questions.
“Why?” asks Pete. “What are you guys so afraid of?”
“Look,” explains Capt Scrummy. “Aren’t we here on the first hot day of every summer? Don’t we carry 49 different flavorrific flavors like ‘Pineapple Blurt?’ What else do you want from us?”
The question catches Pete off guard, and he ponders Scrummy’s words.
Eventually, the sights and sounds of summer begin to fade, and it feels that Mr Tastee may be gone for good. As August turns to September, and the weather begins to chill, (little) Pete steps down from the high-dive board, calling off his search efforts.
As the kids begin to disassemble their base camp in the photo booth, a knock comes on the window…and the kids are surprised to see Mr Tastee!
He tells the kids that he was surprised to see the fliers looking for him all over America, though returned to pick up his photos that had been developed during the first weeks of summer.
When Ellen tells how they missed him, Mr Tastee pleads with her not to say things like that, claiming that having friends is hard on a person who only comes around for a few months out of the year. When (big) Pete tells Tastee he doesn’t need to go, Tastee claims he HAS to go.
“I’m an ice cream man,” Tastee explains. “I am what the summer is: fireflies, thunderstorms, butt sweat on the car seat. And when it all goes, I have to go with it.”
When Ellen requests if maybe he can stay a little longer, Tastee offers the group a consolation: they can help him wax the Tastee-mobile before the sun sets. They accept the invite, and the trio emerge from the photo booth to help him (with (little) Pete waxing Tastee’s swirly-head as well).
Finally, the wax job is complete, and the sun has almost set. Tastee promises he’ll be back as usual next year, but before he goes, requests if he can get a Polaroid shot of himself with the kids. Once it’s developed, he places it on the dash of the Tastee-mobile, and drives away. As the kids watch him go, (big) Pete gives his final words on their summer mystery:
“Noone knows who he is or where he comes from, and probably noone ever will. I guess some things are supposed to stay a mystery. All we know is that he’s more than just an ice cream man. We’re more than just his customers. And when it comes to people missing you, it’s really not that terrible at all.”
The childhood tradition of ice cream trucks rolling through the neighborhood was not a common thing where I grew up in Iowa. I do recall some that criss-crossed around my Grandma’s neighborhood in California. Though much like how Mr Tastee and Captain Scrummy tell of their positions in the world of summer, the people in the trucks were just there to dispense cold treats. The closest our family had to a Mr Tastee or our own, was the local Dairy Queen owner who I only know as Mr Roberts. He was a constant fixture at his location, always with a kind word for our family, and perfectly topped each ice cream serve with the typical DQ swirl on top.
Though in Wellsville, because Mr Tastee is such a regular in these kids’ lives, one can almost see why they would be concerned for his well-being. There is a scene where (little) Pete has no money, but offers Tastee a nasty-looking bug in a jar as trade for a Blue Tornado Bar- and Tastee obliges! Oftentimes, it’s the little things that make all the difference.
The search for Tastee almost feels like it serves two purposes. On one hand, (little) Pete and his young friends, seem a little more enamored around Tastee because of the “bodacious” Blue Tornado Bars he has, and want that return of normalcy to their summer experiences. In the case of (big) Pete and Ellen, they are a little older, and are more concerned about ‘who’ Tastee is as a person. That dynamic of “what does Mr Tastee mean to you,” probably helps make it stand out. The writing also is fun, notably in the speeches given during the show (of which most of the recap is filled with). Tastee’s speech about how he “is what the summer is,” is funny, but also a little sad in its own right.
The ending where he allows the kids to wax the Tastee-mobile, and include them in a picture, shows that he may have softened on his policies about getting too close to his customers. Not to say the Petes and Ellen are his friends, but maybe these gestures are his way of simply saying, “thank you for caring about me so much.”
With Summer Vacation, the sub-stories do get a little ridiculous seeing Artie doing battle with a wily Queen Bee, as well as (little) Pete ticking off the local pool’s lifeguard by continuing to keep jumping (and jumping) off the high-dive board until the authority figure snaps…though the weirdest bit is when the the Petes and their parents finds a 1978 Oldsmobile buried in the sands at Cloghaven beach. Of course, the show is just strange enough that one can accept it. Even (big) Pete casually tells Ellen about their find, as if they had just found a usable pair of shoes by the curb.
The episode serves as an interesting time-capsule as well: a world in which phonebooths existed, and parking lot photo booths were in their twilight years (I’ve seen a few turned into to-go coffee huts these days).
The best part I feel, is that in the end, the mystery of who Mr Tastee is, lives on. Though personally, I can’t help but speculate if he laid low for awhile, and assumed the identity of Captain Scrummy. The way Scrummy mentioned about a “rumor of nosy kids,” and then got defensive about Pete asking questions as well, almost seems like the other side of Tastee coming out.
The episode also reminded me of the structure of one of the best films about kids on a summer adventure: The Sandlot. Much like how that film was a narrative with a main story snaking through it, there were plenty of little side-stories popping up here and there with Summer Vacation as well.
Since seeing this episode, I’ve caught up on about a dozen more episodes of Pete and Pete, and I must say it is quirky, but still entertaining after almost 2 decades, actually seeming to get better with age unlike some shows from my youth. Maybe a few more episodes will be brought into the realms of Retro Recaps in the future.