Anyone who's ever puckered up after sucking on a Lemonhead candy or fanned the mouth wildly after popping in an Atomic Fireball has Nello Ferrara to thank. Ferrara was the man behind those sweets, and he died in the Chicago suburb of River Forest on Feb. 3, at age 93.
All Things Considered host Audie Cornish talked with Ferrara's son, Salvatore Ferrara II, about his father's legacy. Salvatore says his father loved his family deeply — and, on at least one occasion, found inspiration for candy in them.
"I share this story — sometimes reluctantly — but he claims that when I was born, I came out with the shape of a lemon head," he says. "Which, if you ever met me, you'll know my head is not in the shape of a lemon. He claims that the first thing he said when he saw me was, 'Oh my God, I have a lemonhead for a son.' "
Lemonheads later became a staple of Ferrara Pan Candy, the company Nello inherited from his father.
Ferrara says his father loved candy and was a strident defender of it. He even challenged Ralph Nader to a "teeth fight" 30 years ago when sugar was being demonized.
"So my father sent him a message saying that 'I eat candy every day and I have all of my teeth.' And he did — he picked up a 100-pound bag of sugar one time with his teeth. He held a bag in his teeth and was able to get it off the ground," he says.
Singing Was A Second Passion
Ferrara says his father's other passion was singing, and he sang everyday. His favorite songs included "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Send in the Clowns."
He says Nello also had no qualms about singing in public, no matter whom he was with.
"His whole life, he would get up in any restaurant and the next thing you know he was going table to table serenading the people in the restaurant," he says. "Occasionally people got upset because, 'You're interrupting my meal,' you know, and 'Who are you?' But 99 percent of the people ended up with a big smile on their face — they watched this man, who they had no idea who he was, bring all of a sudden this unexpected, unprovoked enjoyment into their lives.
"He was really something."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And we end this hour with a bittersweet remembrance. For anyone who's puckered up after sucking on a Lemonhead candy...
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Or fanned their mouths wildly after popping an Atomic Fireball...
CORNISH: ...you have Nello Ferrara to thank. He was the man behind those sweets and he died last Friday.
SIEGEL: To remember him, we called up his son, Salvatore Ferrara, II. He says, though his father was raised into the candy business, he took his time coming around to it. He first got a law degree and served in the army in World War II. After the war, he helped prosecute Japanese war criminals in Tokyo, then came home to Chicago, then started a law practice.
CORNISH: Only when his own father wanted to retire from the family business did Nello Ferrara close his practice and take up the reigns. As his son Salvatore told me, it wasn't long before Nello struck gold by creating the Atomic Fireball. Then came his crowning achievement.
SALVATORE FERRARA, II: You know, I share this story, sometimes reluctantly, but he claims that when I was born I came out with the shape of a lemon head, that my head was in the shape of a lemon, which if you ever met me, you'll know my head is not in the shape of a lemon.
II: But he claims the first thing he said when he saw me was, oh, my God, I have a lemonhead for a son.
CORNISH: And the picture on the package has sort of like a child's face...
CORNISH: ...with a little bowtie.
II: Yeah. And so, from there, you know, he developed Lemonheads, which is, you know, spawned into a number of different varieties, you know, from hard center to soft center, chewy and various flavors.
CORNISH: Salvatore Ferrara, did your father have a favorite candy?
II: My father ate all candy. In fact, my father was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, probably 30 years ago, he challenged Ralph Nader to a teeth fight for...
CORNISH: Wait. To a teeth fight?
II: Teeth fight, yes. I mean, Ralph Nader was saying that sugar was no good for you, you know, there's no good qualities to sugar, you know. And while we certainly do not advocate candy as your main part of your diet, you know, an occasional treat is good for you and there is a place in your diet for it on occasion.
And so my father sent him a message, saying that, I eat candy every day and I have all of my teeth and I will eat - and he did, he picked up a 100-pound bag of sugar one time with his teeth. He held the bag in his teeth and he was able to get it off the ground. And he challenged Ralph Nader to a teeth fight.
CORNISH: One thing I have learned about your father and reading about him is that he also liked to sing.
II: That's an understatement. He sang every day of his life and it didn't matter where he was or who he was with. He sang every day of his life.
CORNISH: What was his favorite song?
II: "Wind Beneath My Wings," followed by "Send in the Clowns." But he was also great at Italian love songs and he knew everything. His repertoire was vast. And, I mean, we would go out to dinner regularly and we never went out to dinner and I don't care who we were with, we could be with business people, we could be with family members. He could be with all his grandchildren. It didn't matter.
But his whole life, he would end up getting up in any restaurant and the next thing you know, he'd be going table to table, serenading the people in the restaurant. You know, occasionally, people got upset because you're interrupting my meal, you know, and who are you? But 99 percent of the people, you know, ended up with a big smile on their face. They watched this man who - they had no idea who he was, you know - bring this all of a sudden, unexpected, unprovoked enjoyment into their life. You know, he was really something. He was amazing.
CORNISH: Salvatore Ferrara, thank you so much for sharing your story about your father.
II: You're welcome. Thanks for calling.
CORNISH: That's Salvatore Ferrara, II, son of Nello Ferrara, inventor of, among other candies, the Atomic Fireball and the Lemonhead. Mr. Ferrara died last week at the age of 93.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.