Soupy Sales: Anarchic and pioneering children’s TV personality

Author: By Michael Carlson

Not that adults didn’t get it. Getting pied by Soupy became a mark of
Hollywood hipness. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Mickey
Rooney, Jerry Lewis and even Burt Lancaster all received custard facials on
his show.

In the days before animation and pop music took over children’s TV, live shows
and puppet characters were the norm, though Soupy’s were anything but
normal. As a performer he was all three Marx Brothers rolled into one, but
pitched at the level of the Ritz Brothers. His supporting cast included the
jazz-hipster puppet Pookie, “America’s meanest dog”, White Fang,
and his counterpart, Black Tooth, both growling gutturally and seen only as
giant paws and claws, and Soupy’s girlfriend, Peaches (played in drag by
Soupy himself). For young viewers, Soupy’s house, into which he welcomed the
audience as well as his crew (“If I’d known you were bringing a camera,
I wouldn’t have let you in,” he’d say as they howled in laughter at
some gag, or flub, or double-entendre), was the gateway into a world of
adult humour that their parents usually found incomprehensible. In Soupy’s
world, things were always about to fall apart, just like his pies, which he
filled with shaving cream but made with lots of crust “so they would
explode in a thousand pieces”.

The chortling interaction with his crew and supporting cast (usually just one
man, first Clyde Adler and later Frank Nastasi) alerted his young audience
to what they otherwise might have missed, the knowing “nudge nudge”
that made them feel in on the jokes. It also provided a template for the
ensemble radio antics of Howard Stern and the children’s TV of Pee-wee
Herman. Stern, who grew up idolising Sales, was disappointed to wind up
feuding with him when they worked at New York’s WNBC radio in the 1980s.
Sales, whose rubbery facial expressions were crucial to his humour, chafed
at the limitations of radio, and even though his slot, between Don Imus and
Stern, was a good one, he never settled in.

Sales grew up a comic. He was born Milton Supman on 8 January 1926, in
Franklinton, North Carolina, where his parents owned a dry-goods store.
Though they were the only Jews in town, Sales joked that local Klansmen
still bought the sheets they used for their hooded costumes from his father.
He became known as “Soupy” partly because people mispronounced the
family name, and partly because his parents nicknamed his older brothers “Hambone”
and “Chickenbone”. Young Milton became “Soupbone”. When
Soupy was five, his father died, and his mother moved the family to
Huntington, West Virginia, where Soupy would eventually be voted the most
popular boy in his high school. After graduating, he served in the Navy,
taking part in the invasion of Okinawa. But he also entertained his
shipmates with comic routines over the ship’s tannoy.

After the war he returned to West Virginia and earned a BA in journalism at
Marshall College. He worked as a radio scriptwriter, stand-up comic and DJ.
Working on a radio station in Cleveland he became Soupy Hines, but when he
moved to Detroit, another station feared he’d be confused with the
ketchup-maker, and he changed his name to Sales. He debuted on television in
Detroit with a children’s show in 1953, which became Lunch with Soupy. His
breakthrough came in 1955 when the ABC network renamed it The Soupy Sales
Show and picked it up as a summer replacement for the children’s puppet
show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Sales moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he soon dominated the daytime market
as much as he had in Detroit. Entertainers who rose late became fans,
prompting the call from Sinatra, who asked to appear, but only if he could
get hit with a pie. In 1964 he moved again, to WNEW in New York, whose
mainstays were the child-friendly puppets of Shari Lewis and the smooth and
pleasant host Sandy Becker. The station managers at first didn’t know what
to do with him. “The dog is grunting too much,” they told him. “Who
says so?” “The salesmen,” he was told. “Well, they drink
too much,” Soupy replied, and White Fang continued to grunt as he
pleased.

Soupy was an instant smash, but soon created a sensation. On New Years Day,
1965, he told kids that if they went through their parents’ clothing and
sent him the little green pieces of paper with pictures of presidents,
they’d each receive a postcard from Puerto Rico. Although he’d used the gag
before, and tales of his receiving thousands of dollars are apocryphal, a
complaint to the Federal Communications Commission saw him suspended. When
he returned to air, his show opened with stock footage of a chorus line
high-stepping to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again”.

Lunch with Soupy had showcased his love of jazz; the only extant footage of
trumpeter Clifford Brown comes from that show. His own recordings ran to
novelty hits like “The Soupy Shuffle” and “Do the Mouse”,
which improbably peaked at number ten in the pop charts. He also loved the
movies, and in New York he created the parody movie detective Philo (for
Philo Vance) Kvetch (Yiddish for moaning complaint). Filmed on the cheap in
what appeared to be his studio’s stairwells, the cast included Nastasi as
Onions Oregano, whose breath would overpower his evil boss, The Mask, and
the Mask’s killer ape, Bruno, in a horrible gorilla suit. Guest-stars
included Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys. But sometimes the best parts were
what the audience didn’t see. Soupy once opened his back door to be
confronted by a naked stripper. Though only her balloon was visible to the
audience, footage shot by a second camera exists, and showcases Sales’
ability to recover and deadpan brilliantly.

Animations like The Flintstones changed the children’s market quickly, and
Sales’ show ended in 1966, though it was revived briefly in the late 1970s.
He became a regular on the TV panel quiz What’s My Line, and on the variety
show Sha Na Na and appeared frequently on game shows like Hollywood Squares
or $10,000 Pyramid. His acting career included roles in many television
dramas, and in films, most notably as Moses in the cult favourite And God
Spoke (1993). In 2005 he appeared in two films, the comedy Angels with
Angles, co-starring with Rodney Dangerfield and Frank Gorshin, and the drama
The Innocent and the Damned. He died in a New York hospice on 22 October,
suffering from multiple ailments.

Soupy Sales, entertainer: born Franklinton, North Carolina 8 January 1926;
married first 1950 Barbara Fox (marriage dissolved, two sons), second 1990
Trudy Carson; died New York 22 October 2009.

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