October 22, 2009: Soupy Sales Dies

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Soupy Sales demonstrates TheMmouse

Soupy Sales demonstrates The Mouse

When we baby boomers talk about the anarchic spirit that guided us in the ’60s, we usually start with rock ’n’ roll for good reason: The musicians we idolized the most were forever bucking authority, protesting one thing or another, talking tough and getting in trouble. Whether it was The Who smashing their instruments, John Lennon claiming the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” the Stones getting busted for peeing in public or everyone seeing the inside of a jail cell at least once for drugs, we learned how to rebel from our rockers.

And then there was Soupy Sales. If you were a kid who was lucky enough to live in a part of the country where one of his programs aired, all you had to do was turn on your television to find a grownup who didn’t behave like your parents. Soupy was nuts, and we loved him for it.

There’s one incident that’s always cited as proof that Soupy was a bad influence. It took place on New Year’s Day, 1965. The Soupy Sales Show was airing on New York’s WNEW at the time. The bowtied host instructed his young viewers that afternoon to find their parents’ wallets and purses, remove the “funny green pieces of paper…put them in an envelope and mail them to me, and I’ll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico!” It was a joke, of course—that’s the kind of irreverent silliness Sales specialized in—but days later money started pouring in to the station. Sales was suspended for two weeks, then went right back to being his usual crazy self.

Related: Gene Wilder, ‘Willy Wonka’ star, dies

He was born Milton Supman in North Carolina in 1926 (his family were the only Jews in the town of Franklinton, he said). He took on the nickname of Soup Bone as a child, so when he started his professional career in radio, he went first as Soupy Hines, but soon changed that to Soupy Sales. He was a natural for the new television medium, starting out in 1949 with a teenage dance program in Cincinnati (he claimed it was the first of its kind) and eventually moving on to programs in Cleveland and Detroit.

At some point during his early years on TV, Sales became known for being the hapless recipient of cream pies in the face (usually they were filled with shaving cream, which was easier to remove than actual cream). He estimated later that he’d been pied more than 20,000 times in his career: Celebrities, from Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis on down, took turns on the show tossing pies in Soupy’s face; sometimes they got one back in theirs.

Frank Sinatra takes a pie from Soupy, who has already taken his own

Frank Sinatra takes a pie from Soupy, who has already taken his own

His Lunch With Soupy program, which began in 1953, established Sales as a major children’s TV star. He created a dance called the Soupy Shuffle, he told the corniest of jokes and he carried on conversations with puppets—who remembers Pookie the Lion, Black Tooth and White Fang?—that regularly came close to crossing the line of what was acceptable on a kids’ show at the time. He played his own wife, Peaches, and a detective named Philo Kvetch. Other kids’ shows may have been funny, but Soupy’s was surreal.

He moved to Los Angeles and, finally, to New York, in September 1964. It was the perfect time for his antics—there was something very rock ’n’ roll about Sales’ brand of humor and he counted millions of teens and tween rock fans as his biggest fans. Although his own musical taste gravitated more toward jazz—he would often work it into the show, for example having Pookie mime the swinging but silly “Mumbles” by Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry—he also knew what the kids liked. Sometimes he’d bring hit rock groups onto the show and then, in 1965, he created a new dance, the Mouse, which he’d perform often on the program, doing the dance—which basically involved putting your thumbs in your ears, baring your teeth and wiggling your hands as you rocked back and forth. The single “The Mouse,” released on ABC-Paramount, made #76 in Billboard and he had two albums on the trade publication’s chart simultaneously in 1965, Spy With a Pie and Soupy Sales Sez Do The Mouse! and Other Teen Hits. He also hosted a 10-day Easter show at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan, featuring such acts of the day as the Hollies, the Hullabaloos, the Detergents, Shirley Ellis, Little Richard, the Vibrations, the Exciters, the Uniques, Dee Dee Warwick, Roddy Joy, Sandie Shaw and King Curtis (the famed saxophonist led the house band).

As his core audience grew older and the world became a more serious place, Sales’ shtick was a victim. In his last decades, he hosted other television and radio programs, spent a lot of time appearing on game shows and hung around on the periphery of the entertainment industry but he never regained the prominence he’d held in that heady era. His two sons, meanwhile, Hunt and Tony Sales, playing drums and bass, respectively, became highly respected rock musicians, playing with such giants as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Todd Rundgren.

Soupy Sales died at age 83 on October 22, 2009, in The Bronx. It is unknown if any guests brought pies to his funeral, but you can be sure some at least thought about it.

Watch Soupy Sales perform his hit record (and do some funny stuff)…

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