"I don't mind you guys comin' round my house," Soupy Sales once said to the off-camera guys who were cracking up at his jokes, "but why'd you have to bring cameras in?" His afternoon TV show, which was aimed at kids and ran in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York off and on from the 1950s through the '70s, had the seeming informality of a friendly fellow you would hire to entertain the tots. He'd crack venerable jokes, play with puppets, teach the occasional verity ("Don't eat just before dinner") and, at the end, get a custard pie in the face. Simple stuff, really, but delivered with a brio that kept generations of children giggling. So his death on Thursday in a Bronx hospice, at age 83 after years of declining health, had to raise a tear, and a reflective silly grin.
Born Milton Supman in Franklinton, N.C., he served in the Navy during World War II and earned a journalism degree from Marshall College. In his first radio gigs, he called himself Soupy Hines, but he changed it to Soupy Sales when he got a radio-TV spot in Cleveland. He later said he left that job for health reasons "They got sick of me." He clicked in Detroit, though, with his first TV kids' show in 1953. Supported by puppeteer Clyde Adler and a crew that provided the laughter (Sales rarely worked before a live audience), he adapted the hip lunacy of TV's avant-comic Ernie Kovacs to his own sunny personality, frequently telling his viewers, "I love you and give ya a big kiss." They returned the affection. Lunch with Soupy Sales soon gained converts of all ages and went national in 1959. For a brief spell in the early '60s, he was a prime-time star; Frank Sinatra showed up to get a pie in the face.
In a line of TV kids' comedy that stretched from Pinky Lee and Kukla and Fran and Ollie in the early '50s to Pee-wee Herman in the '80s and which is all but extinct today Sales was the sweetest and goofiest performer. Outfitted in a sweater and bow tie, his elastic features sporting a nonstop smile, as if he were laughing at his last or next joke, Sales was a Mr. Rogers for kids who didn't watch PBS. Yet there was educational value to his work. Dipping deep into the stock of humor that had sustained stand-up comics from vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, he taught kids what was funny.
And what was funny then still is today, if you look at the YouTube clips from his old black-and-white shows or can track down any of the three Soupy Sales DVD collections. Never too hip for the rec room, he connected with kids by telling jokes that were more venerable than the 2,000-year-old man but they were new to 5-year-olds, who got a daily tutorial in how to make people laugh. He would parry with two animals seen on camera only as long paws: White Fang, "the biggest, meanest dog in the United States," and Black Tooth, "the nicest dog in the United States." Or he would go to the back door and greet some (usually unseen) visitor. One was his "girlfriend" Peaches represented visually by Sales in a blond wig and baggy dress and vocally by either Adler or Frank Nastasi, who did the puppeteering from the mid-'60s on with whom he'd engage in buckshot banter. (Peaches: "Will you always adore me?" Sales: "Yes!" Peaches: "Then let's run off and get married tonight!" Sales: "I can't." Peaches: "Why not?" Sales: "I've got a date.")
With a half-hour to fill five days a week, the show needed musical interludes, and it got them from Pookie the Lion, a primitive hand puppet. Pookie would "lip-sync" the non-lyrics to Clark Terry's "Mumbles" or break into Johnny Standley's evangelist rant "It's in the Book" or the Animals' version of "(Boom Boom Boom Boom) Gonna Shoot You Right Down," and Sales would madly cavort along, a dervish of prepubescent ecstasy. (The show gave you a music education too.) In the mid-'60s, he had a hit of his own: a dance record, Soupy Sales Sez Do the Mouse, whose song "The Mouse" ranks in the novelty-song category up or down there with John Zacherle's "Dinner with Drac" and Steve Martin's "King Tut." That got him a contract as a Motown recording artist. Didn't last long.
Despite persistent urban legends, Sales never did blue material for the kids though his staff did play a prank in which a topless balloon artiste danced to "The Stripper" while the on-set monitor indicated that the career-ending nudity was live on the air. (It wasn't.) He did make trouble for himself on New Year's Day 1965, when, annoyed by having to work on a holiday, he impishly instructed kids to tiptoe into their parents' bedroom, take out "green pieces of paper with pictures of guys with beards" and send them to his New York station. The punch line: "And you know what I'm gonna send you? A postcard from Puerto Rico." For that he got suspended. He said that the kids were hipper than his bosses: many sent him Monopoly money. One adult enclosed a few dollars and wrote: "Now go to Puerto Rico."
By the mid-'80s, Sales was back on radio, hosting a mid-morning show on New York's WNBC that was improbably sandwiched between Don Imus and Howard Stern. His cheerful comedic style seemed antique compared with the grouchiness of those two audio superstars. But even in the '50s and '60s, parading his encyclopedic memory for shtick, he was a throwback to every baggypants tummeler, every silent-movie clown. And like those masters, he knew that a pie in the face was the visual equivalent of a rim shot. Set up the joke, do the punch line, get a goopy Soupy face. He explained this precise, predictable rhythm in a 2002 interview with Ed Grant on the Manhattan cable-access show Media Funhouse: "Guy says, 'Where's the watercooler?' I say, 'Alaska,' and get hit with a pie."
Levity may not have attended the passing of Milton Supman. There were presumably no last rites with custard filling. But given all the knockabout pleasure Soupy Sales gave innocent kids and sophisticated adults, he certainly deserves a pie in the sky.