RIP Soupy Sales (1926-2009)

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My addiction to television started very early and my parents were enablers, even though that term hadn't been coined at the time. Mom tells me that I regularly refused my strained carrots unless she placed my high chair in front of the TV and tuned it to Channel 7 for Lunch with Soupy. The antics of White Fang, Black Tooth, and Pookie, not to mention the constant pies in the face, so mesmerized me that I ate anything Mom shoveled my way. Sadly, Sales (who'd been ill for several years) has left us, but here are a few Soupy facts that will hopefully invoke some warm memories for all you good little birdbaths:

From Milt to Soup

He was born Milton Supman to parents who had a habit of bestowing nicknames on their offspring.

Milt's older brothers had been dubbed "Hambone" and "Chicken Bone," so when he came along he was unofficially christened "Soup Bone." Soup Bone was eventually shortened to "Soupy," and when he got his first professional job as a disc jockey he adopted "Hines" as his surname. As he gained popularity, management was worried that "Hines" sounded too much like Heinz, a company that sold soup. Soupy forestalled any potential conflict of interest entanglements by changing his last name to "Sales."

White Fang

Soupy originally created the character of White Fang (later known as the meanest dog in all of Dee-troit) when he was in the Navy. Stationed aboard the USS Randall, he'd put together an onboard entertainment show broadcast via the ship's PA system. Someone had an LP of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Soupy used a sound effect on that record of a dog's growl as the "voice" of White Fang. Soupy continued to use that growl after he left the Navy and landed a spot on WXYZ-TV in Detroit with the show that eventually evolved into Lunch with Soupy. Sound effects at that time were all provided by vinyl records, and it was the responsibility of the Electronic Transcription person to have all the records cued up and ready to play. One afternoon, the ET frantically mouthed down from his booth to stagehand Clyde Adler "I can't find the record!" Adler, whose right arm encased in an elbow-length glove fashioned from an old winter coat served as White Fang on-camera, spontaneously uttered gutteral "Ruh-O-Row-O-Ruh" noises while manipulating the puppet. This new version of White Fang was an immediate hit, and added a new dimension to Soupy's interaction with the character, since Adler (who was promoted from stagehand to puppeteer) could alter his grunts and growls to "reply" appropriately to Soupy's dialogue.

X-Rated Soup

The atmosphere on Soupy's set was relaxed, to say the least. The crew did their best to throw the boss off-guard, especially in the days when the show was broadcast live. One classic example occurred in 1959, when the crew arranged a very special surprise "present" for Soupy's birthday. A woman's scream prompted Soupy to open a stage door to see what was wrong. The TV audience could only guess at what was going on from his reaction and the musical cue (David Rose's "The Stripper"). However, thanks to the uncut "blooper" reel that was eventually leaked, part two of this YouTube clip lets all of us in on the secret. (Warning: If black-and-white nude breasts are verboten at your place of employment, this clip is not safe for work.)

Fans in High Places

Soupy's show moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, and one of his biggest fans turned out to be Frank Sinatra, by way of his daughter Tina. Frank was a huge fan of slapstick comedy, and when Tina told him about this guy on TV who was as funny as the Three Stooges, he began tuning in daily. Frank appeared on Soupy's show more than once (Sammy Davis Jr. even joined him once) and gamely accepted a pie in the puss each time.

Here Comes the Science

The pie-in-the-face schtick that became Soupy's trademark originally featured real pies. Eventually budget restrictions dictated the switch to shaving cream-filled pie crusts. But the crusts had to be real. That was Soupy's secret—real crusts exploded upon impact, and fell away from the victim's face. The recipient's dignity crumbled away, piece by piece, as the crust did. A pie that fully stuck to the face simply wasn't funny. It became something of a status symbol to get pied by Soupy—even the most unlikely celebrities stopped by for a faceful of pastry.

Nanny State Rules

On January 1, 1965, Soupy was a bit put out at having to work on a holiday. During the closing moments of his show, he encouraged the kids who were watching to sneak into Mommy and Daddy's bedroom and take those little green pieces of paper from their purses and wallets with pictures of presidents (like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) on them and mail them to their ol' pal Soup. He concluded by giving out the TV station's address and promising to send the kids a postcard from Puerto Rico in exchange. Sales considered his remarks just another tossed-off ad-lib, meant to make his crew laugh. What he didn't count on was the outrage of the many parents who'd been watching. The station received so many angry phone calls that Soupy was put on a two week suspension. In reality, very few children had the wherewithal to copy down the station's address, get a postage stamp and actually mail a dollar bill to Soupy. His "punishment" was more or less a gesture on the part of management to appease the parents who'd been appalled at the possible anarchy Soupy Sales had inspired among their children.

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October 23, 2009 - 10:18am
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