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An appreciation: Soupy Sales, hip and elemental

October 23, 2009 | 12:29 pm

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

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