Soupy Sales: Anarchic and pioneering children's TV personality

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The Independent Online

Although Soupy Sales, who has died aged 83, will inevitably be remembered with a pie in his face, as befits a comedian who took an estimated 20,000 of them during his career, his slapstick brilliance should not overshadow his influence on a whole generation of Americans, including many notable comics who, as adolescents, teenagers, or even young adults in the late 1950s and early 1960s, were enthralled by the anarchic pleasures of Soupy's so-called "children's" shows.

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.