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An appreciation: Soupy Sales, hip and elemental

Soupy Even though the occasion is sad, there is something oddly bracing in setting out to write about a man who called himself "Soupy." We need more Soupys in this self-important, don't-you-dare-throw-that-pie world -- and now there is one less, Soupy Sales having died Thursday at the age of 83.

Born Milton Supman to the only Jewish family in Franklinton, N.C., Sales first got into children's television in Detroit in 1953 -- he also had a grown-up nighttime show there -- but his years of greatest renown were from 1959 to 1966, when he worked out of Los Angeles and New York and was seen all over the country. His costume, such as it was, comprised a black pullover sweater and a floppy bow tie; early on he also wore a top hat, later on he ditched the tie.

My memory of "The Soupy Sales Show" (originally "Lunch with Soupy Sales") is not of specific bits, but an impression of noise and energy and a cheap, sketchy set fit with the usual appurtenances of a midcentury kids' show: a window (for Pookie the lion puppet to appear in), a door (for Soupy to answer). Waving in from the side of the frame were the paws of his otherwise unseen very big dogs, White Fang, the Biggest and Meanest Dog in the USA, and Black Tooth, the Biggest and Sweetest Dog in the USA, whom I never could keep straight in spite of the color-coding. (White Fang is the one I would imitate by saying, "Oh-reah-oh-reh-uh," unless it was Black Tooth.) There were pies in the face, mostly in Soupy's face, though sometimes in the face of a celebrity guest: Frank Sinatra took one, and so did Tony Curtis. The jokes were already old when vaudeville was new: "Show me a giant rooster chasing a member of Parliament.... And I'll show you a chicken catch a Tory." ("Now, just what do we mean by that?" Soupy said afterward, never answering the question.)

The corniness was knowing -- it was jazz, basically, like a bop musician ad-libbing on "Sweet Sue." Not so much written as riffed, "The Soupy Sales Show" was both hip and elemental, obscure and accessible, because even when it was obscure it was silly and energetic. Although the show was ostensibly for kids, the sound of laughter coming off the screen was wholly that of the grown men on the crew, to whom Soupy would play as a nightclub comic plays to the band. (That is a sound you don't hear much on TV now, the sound of the laughing crew.)

It was a musical show, driven by jazz and pop records lip-synced by Pookie and danced to by Soupy. (He put out a dance record of his own, "The Mouse": "Hey, you can do it in your house.") But there was also music in his voice, a sleepy, latent Southerness that gave his craziest passages the lilt of a lullabye. In one episode, he tells White Fang -- or is it Black Tooth? -- about the prizes at a local talent show, and it sings like poetry:

"They're givin' away a big satin pillow" -- prounced "pillah" -- "and it says 'Mother'; and they're givin' away a eight-by-ten glossy photo of the World's Fair pavilion of 1939; and they're givin' away a big apron that says on there, 'HI! I'm the chef'; and they're givin' away a Howard Johnson all-day sucker, and a eight-by-ten picture of Howard Johnson eatin' pistachio ice cream; and they're givin' away an autographed picture of Bob Steele, my favorite; and a Kay Kyser record of 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition' and also a record by Elton Britt, 'There's a Star-Spangled Banner Wavin' Somewhere.'"

It is true that children like a reassuring voice of gentle authority, but it is also true that they like to go where the wild things are. They like an adult who does not talk down to them, but they particularly like an adult who doesn't talk down to them because he is already on their level.

There is more kids' television now than ever; whole networks are devoted to it. And yet with all those hours to fill, you will find nothing like Soupy Sales. (The closest thing to him on TV nowadays is Craig Ferguson; they have a similarly free style, and like to get up close to the camera.) There is sometimes the impression of mayhem, but it is never actually spontaneous or free. They have sealed up the cracks where the Mouse gets in.

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo credit: KABC-TV Channel 7

 
Comments () | Archives (27)

RIP Soupy. Barely old enough to remember alot of what you did but you were a funny guy.

Soupy Sales who can forget him! Do you remember when he asked all of his young fans for an important item? He said, "Children please go get one dollar and send it to your old friend Soupy." He had such a tremendous following that this could generate tremendous revenue. I often wonder what happened with that request? He was, however, incredibly entertaining. 30

Ferguson is frequently spontaneous on his show. Do some research!

Another memory of my youth has gone away along with Deforest Kelley and Walter Cronkite.

I do not remember Soupy Sales, in particular, because we were in the military and kept moving and moving and moving. But, I do try to stay awake and watch Craig Ferguson . . .he makes me laugh so much, sometimes the farts comes out. . .Ooooooohhhhh! What a wonderful "idiot"!

I watched Soupy on ABC 7 in LA in the 60's. I adored his humor. White Fan, Black Tooth, Pookie and Hippy. I loved them all. Soupy had the wackiest facial expressions.
Soupy, you are with us forever. RIP.

In the 80's..The Soupman (as Imus called him) was on between 10am and 3pm on 66/WNBC radio in NY.
Yes, it was Imus in the Morning, Soupy, and then Howard Stern.
It was a great "old time" radio show, with contests, schtick, and music.
It was great when Soupy played the piano....a piano in which, one day, a member of the Stern crew cut all the strings!!
That started the Sales/Stern war...which was a radio riot.
I'm sure Howard will talk about that on his show Monday....
Soupy was a PRO........all comedy, all the time.
I loved the "Soupy Shuffle."

Soupy Sales - the oft-forgotten link between the era of the Marx Brothers and the era of Laugh-In and later, Saturday Night Live. A truly funny and likeable man.

RIP, Soupy. If there's a comedian's heaven, you are there dishing out pies as we speak.

Ferguson is frequently spontaneous on his show. Do some research! Posted by: MI | October 23, 2009 at 01:03 PM

MI -- I think you misinterpreted the paragraph... the parenthetical comment about Craig Ferguson stands on its own. The sentence following the parentheses refers back to the first two sentences about "kids' television." But this isn't about you, or Mr. Ferguson, it's about Soupy, a true original -- even after 50 years, like nothing else I've seen on TV.

I remember soupy ... after school in the early sixties. I was maybe fourteen or a bit younger, and my friends and I wouldnt miss him.

You can check some old clips on youtube. What you see is just , as this writer suggests, a form of comedy now lost. Its anarchic and shamelessly silly and irreverent. Soupy had charisma, and unbounded energy. Just thinking of white fange makes me smile. Ohrehorehoreh...............

This is the most intellegent and touching eulogy I've read in a very long time.

To my sister and I, Soupy was a god. To my mother and father, he was a friend. The Muhammad Ali of TV comics.

Soupy says:

"When driving, don't lean your elbow out too far - it may come home in another car."

Thanks. Soupman.

Sad news. Like many other baby boomers growing up in the 60's, I
thought Soupy was the funniest guy on television. Who can forget
those great characters, Pookie, White Fang, and Black Tooth. I have to
smile just thinking about Soupy's Show. R.I.P. Soupy. You will never
be forgotten by my generation.

Thank you Robert for capturing the description of Soupy Sales so well. Watching Soupy Sales is one of my fondest childhood memories and you are right when you say that the world needs more Soupy Sales and less of the uninspired junk our kids now watch. Our kids are being short changed.

Soupy was near genius at improv comedy. His quick wit is unparalled in today's mindless TV vacuum. He was truly unique. The younger generation (stay off my lawn) has missed out on a true comic legend. Soupy can stay on my lawn.

One last thought: Soupy's show used to have him tune in to the radio -- full of insane programming, of course. I can remember one of the radio bits that I still spring on people today: It was simply a man's voice saying, "We don't have a sponsor, but, please, don't drink Cokes."

SOUPY WAS THE BEST...REMEMBER ALL THOSE AFTERNOONS OF SILLY TV DIVERSION AS A KID...R.I.P. SOUPY.

I was almost too young to remember Soupy. Except the White Fang hand coming out into his face. Blah... He did keep us interested as he knew he was the one on the other side of the mirror who wanted to come out and play. He was king and clown all rolled into one. And we needed a King like him for the tragic years we faced after childhood in the 60's. Like the Marx bros he was willing to take one for us if it meant a good laugh. King and clown he taught us the greatest lesson in life. Near take yourself to seriously or you will indeed get a pie in the face. Or a White Fang keeping you straight...

I remember that darn Soupy Sales really well; I remember one of his jokes--"What do you call a sculptor working in the basement? A low-down chiseler!" I will never forget "White Fang" and "Sweet Tooth" as I used to imitate them all the time! Your throat hurts after a while! He was one funny sucker, wasn't he? There will never be another Soupy Sales.

My sister was living in Detroit during the late 1950s. I would watch Soupy Sales when I would visit her. I remember him asking the audience " why doesn't Mama train and Papa train have any babies? Because Papa train pulls out to fast!" After that joke and several others, Soupy's T.V. show was kicked off the air.
In the early 1960s I would watch him every Friday night before going to my high school football game.
Thank you, Soupy, for the memories and the laughs.

 
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