Soupy Sales died on Thursday. That name is such a part of my childhood I feel compelled to pay tribute. Truth be told, and I guess this is awful to say so soon after his death, I never really “got” Soupy Sales when I was a kid. Today I can see how his physical comedy and wink-to-the-audience hi-jinks paved the way for all sorts of comedians and children’s entertainers that would follow, but back in the 1960s I just didn’t think he was very funny. I was unmoved by his pie-throwing antics and low budget puppets. I was a loyal fan of “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” and I didn’t think Sales could compete with the Kuklapolitan benchmark, not that he was trying to. There’s no question that Soupy Sales was a phenomenon in the 1960s. And it wasn’t only among kids. College campuses would practically empty out when his daily show was on. He held onto his goofy persona well into senior citizenhood, and like many comedians, occasionally got a chance to show off his acting chops in serious roles, often with a dark twist.
Looking back into the archives and knowing what a huge hit hit he was in various TV incarnations, I was surprised to see how wary the critics were of Soupy Sales from the very beginning. The first mention of him in the New York Times is a sour review from July 1955:
The kiddies, subjected to one abominable television pitch after another, have a new performer trying to woo their favor locally. He is called “Soupy Sales” and he made his local debut on Channel 7 last night.
The show was loud, unimaginative, and annoying. It introduced hand puppets that behaved like seedy relations of those appearing on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” the program for which “Soupy Sales” is a summer substitute. At times, “Soupy” himself suggested a combination of Pinky Lee and Jerry Lewis at their most obstreperous.
For children, too, the prescription would seem to be long hours in the fresh air away from video as long as the summer lasts.
But what could we expect from mid-1950s television, right? All TV back then was sophomoric and unsophisticated compared to today, yes? NO! I was flabbergasted to look at the TV listings from the day in July 1955 when Soupy premiered in New York and realize how much better television was 54 years ago. Take a look at this sampling and tell me if you think today’s idiot programmers would put most of these shows on:
2:30—Youth Wants to Know. Rep. W. Sterling Cole, member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the House Armed Services Committee will talk to teens.
3:00—Frontiers of Faith. The relation of churches to urban and rural life will be the theme discussed.
6:30—You Are There. “General Washington’s Farewell to His Officers,” CBS correspondents covering.
7:00—Report from Geneva. Latest news from the peace conference with Howard Smith, Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Sevareid reporting.
8:00—Variety Hour. Jack Webb, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, guests.
8:00—Producer’s Showcase. “The Four-poster,” Jan de Hartog’s romantic comedy about married life. With Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
8:30—Music ’55. Yehudi Menuhin and Duke Ellington will be the guests.
8:30—Concert. Leontyne Price, soprano, and William Warfield, baritone, guests.
9:00—Television Playhouse. Calder Willingham’s “Incident in July,” with Maureen Stapleton. A young married woman acquires a destructive affection for a seventeen year old boy. With Dick York.
9:00—“Man With Vengeance.” Story about a film director intent on making a superb motion picture while seeking revenge on an actor. With Barry Sullivan and Luther Adler.
10:00—Television Theatre. “Death of Billy the Kid,” with Paul Newman, Frank Overton, Michael Conrad, and others.
10:00—Name’s the Same. Panel show with Clifton Fadiman, moderator. Hildy Parks, Mike Wallace, panelists.
10:30—What’s My Line? Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, Fred Allen, panelists. John Daly is the moderator.
10:30—The Search. A new approach to the diagnosis and cure of deafness in children. Dr. William Hardy will explain the procedure to viewers.
There were so many great shows on that week. Every night featured several original dramatic productions for television starring the biggest stars of the day along with endless variety shows, classic sitcoms, concerts, serious news coverage, and cultural explorations. True, the commercials were mostly ridiculous, and some of the sitcoms would seem hideously dated today, but the overall quality of programming seemed shockingly high.
But back to Soupy. Despite my aversion to some of his antics, he definitely pushed the envelope. A few years later, he was given a night-time slot which featured classy folks like Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Shirley MacLaine getting pies in the face. Here’s an L.A. Times review of that 1962 show:
According to reports seeping back from the rest of the country, viewers tuned to the ABC network last Friday evening are still in a state of shock.
That was the night ABC unleashed a character named Soupy Sales. Here in Southern California we are more or less used to Soupy, especially those of us harboring teenagers in our homes.
This marked the first time, however, that a national night-time audience had witnessed Soupy—or anything like him, since Halley’s Comet last passed over.
Those who stayed the full 30 minutes got a bonus shock as Frank Sinatra (in person) came on and broke into “Foggy Day in London Town,” then stepped into Soupy’s alleyway and got pasted in the face with a meringue pie.
To the saner element in TV-land, it just didn’t square that the high-priced Sinatra would be found slumming on what probably is the lowest budget show on TV outside of the nightly weather reports.
Soupy might best be described as the poor slob’s Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. His nighttime network debut inspired many critics to dust off expletives they haven’t used since Ed Sullivan started on TV. “A mishmash of mediocrity,” said Variety. “For kids with low IQ’s,” snapped a wire service critic.
ABC executives so far have maintained a fearful silence. They won’t side in with these critics unless Soupy fails to get a mandate from the viewers, which he is just likely to receive.
After watching Soupy’s show, one gets the feeling that he is at least honest. He is not trying to tell us that TV isn’t a wasteland. He is simply saying, “Try me and see the best waste in town.”
Okay, now I feel guilty. With tributes like this, dearly departed comedians don’t need any enemies. Sorry, Soupy, I really do respect your drive and innovation. Especially after being consistently trashed by the snooty critics. Does anyone even remember that before Johnny Carson began his long stint on “The Tonight Show,” it was Soupy Sales who first took over for Jack Paar?
“Why should I be afraid to follow Jack Paar? I once followed Sharkey the Seal!” This display of reckless bravado comes from pie-in-your-eye Soupy Sales as he departs for New York to tilt at those sacred windmills left on NBC’s Tonight Show by the omniscient Paar.
“I was supposed to hit Paar with a pie when he bowed out on his last show,” Soupy reports. “He thought it would be better than a lot of tears, but he changed his mind. Instead of me, he had Bobby Kennedy and it was all tears. There was even a sign at the end of the show which read, ‘No more to come.’ I guess he figured his leaving would close up the network.”
Soupy may not be what the FCC’s Newton Minow needs to irrigate TV’s wasteland, but with a pie for a lance, he is ready to assault the problem singlehandedly.
When Soupy takes over the help of Tonight he intends to play it “cool, but enthusiastic,” just the way he did on that day he had to follow Sharkey the Seal.
“They’re always giving guys like this Carl Sandburg awards for something he did on TV. Sure, he goes on TV and picks up the bread, then turns around and makes a speech knocking TV. I don’t dig that,” says an indignant Soupy. I wanted to know if he had decided what to do on the Tonight Show.
“Not yet, but I’m not going to solve anything, you can be sure.”
Soupy could turn out to be the hit of the show.
It's not every comedian who has the hubris to publicly insult people like Carl Sandburg! Soupy was born Milton Supman in 1926. His was the only Jewish family in their small town in North Carolina. I can only imagine what that was like for him growing up in the 1930s and I’d guess that this helped lead him into a life of comedy. Soupy's life and career were not without controversy. He was famously fired from one national show in 1965 when he told kids to go into their mothers’ purses and send him all the “green paper” they could find containing pictures of the presidents. Hundreds of children across the children did this causing their parents to go apoplectic when they discovered why their kids had mailed the TV host their cash. Love him or hate him, Soupy Sales was an original. Here is some classic Soupy…