Sunday, June 11, 2017

Lunch With Soupy Sales in Detroit

Soupy Sales was born Milton Supman on January 8, 1926, in Franklinton, North Carolina. His father Irving Supman immigrated to America from Hungary in 1894. He was a Jewish dry goods merchant. Later in life, Soupy would quip that the local Ku Klux Klan bought their sheets from his father's store. Milton's nickname came from his family. His older brothers were dubbed "Ham Bone" and "Chicken Bone." The youngest son was "Soup Bone." Milton (Soupy) Supman enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the South Pacific. After the war, he earned a Master's degree in journalism. His oldest brother had become a doctor, and his other brother became a lawyer. Soupy had little choice but to go into show business.

After graduation, Soupy worked as a morning DJ and performed a comedy act in nightclubs. In 1949, Soupy Sales began his television career on WKRC-TV in Cincinnati with "Soupy's Soda Shop," television's first teen dance program. The show was cancelled after a year. Soupy moved to Cleveland and did a late night comedy/variety program called "Soupy's On!" where he took his first pie in the face which became his trademark. After a couple of seasons, Soupy left Cleveland for health reasons. "The station manager was sick of me," he quipped.

In 1953, Soupy Sales relocated to Detroit and worked for WXYZ-TV Channel 7, the local ABC station. Soupy not only had the Lunch With Soupy program, he also hosted a Friday evening variety show called Soup's On, which featured musicians and jazz performers who were working one of the twenty-four jazz clubs operating in the Paradise Valley entertainment district in old Detroit. Top performers like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Della Reese, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, to name a few, made guest appearences on Soupy's show. After an appearance, jazz artists would regularly sell out their venues.

Lunch With Soupy had a fixed-set of a kitchen with a window and a table and chair to the left and a door center stage in the background that would interrupt Soupy mid-sentence with frantic knocking. Naturally Soupy would stop and answer the door. Usually, Soupy would play against only an arm and a voice appearing from the door jam.

Soupy wore a dark Orlon sweater, a white shirt with an oversized checkerboard bow tie, and a beat up top hat. Besides the pie-in-the-face running slapstick gag, Soupy was know for the Soupy Shuffle (his signature dance) and his Words of Wisdom like, "Be true to your teeth and they won't be false to you."

Pookie the Lion and Hippy the Hippo
If it was noon in Detroit and you were planted in front of a television set with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and Soupy was on, you knew you were in for a good time. Regulars on the show were hand puppets Soupy interacted with. Soupy was the straight man for voice artist Clyde Adler who did the off-stage puppeteering and voice characterizations. The show's favorite puppets were:
  • White Fang, "The Biggest and Meanest Dog in the USA." He appeared from the left corner of the screen only as a giant white shaggy arm and paw with black triangular claws. Fang spoke in unrecognizable grunts and growls which Soupy repeated in English for comic effect. White Fang often threw the pies when Soup's jokes bombed.
  • Black Tooth, "The Biggest and Sweetest Dog in the USA." She had a black shaggy arm and paw with white triangular claws. She had feminine grunts and groans, and always flirted with Soupy. Her trademark move was pulling Soupy off-camera and giving him big, noisy kisses.
  • Pookie the Lion appeared on the ledge of the window behind Soupy. Pookie was a hipster with a wicked wit. He lip synced novelty records or prerecorded bits. My favorite memory of Pookie was a routine called "Life Got You Down, Bunky?" It was a pep talk he gave Soupy every time Soupy complained about feeling blue. Comically, it was inspirational.
  • Willie the Worm, a latex accordion worm that popped in and out of an apple. Willie was known as "the sickest worm in all of Dee-troit." Willie had a perennial cold and an exaggerated sneeze. He read birthday greetings to Detroit-area kids. Sadly, Willie's health failed him. He did not survive the show's move to the Big Apple in 1964.
When Soupy took his show to WNEW-TV in New York City, it went into national syndication. This was the height of Soupy's popularity. His guest stars included the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, Judy Garland, and Sammy Davis. 

On New Years Day in 1965, to fill a few extra moments at the end of the show, Soupy made an off-the-cuff remark to the kids in his television audience. He suggested they go into their parents' rooms, find their parents' wallets, and take out the green pieces of paper with pictures of bearded guys and mail them to him. In return, Soupy said he would send them a postcard from Puerto Rico. The show was aired live and no transcripts or videotapes exist, so the exact language he used is not known.

Soupy's remark was an ad-libbed gag not meant to be taken literally, but an angry parent filed a complaint with the FCC. The way the press reported the story, it sounded like this was the biggest heist since the Brink's robbery. Some adults were livid that a TV personality would manipulate children for commercial gain.

Show business legend has it that the prank netted some $80,000. Soupy revealed publicly that he netted only a few real dollars which he donated to charity--the rest was fake money.

The station suspended Soupy. The outcry from Soupy's fans swamped the station's switchboards and packed their mailroom with demands that Soupy be reinstated. Within a week, his suspension was lifted. Soupy worked for two more seasons before he gave up the top hat and bow tie and moved to Hollywood to become a panelist on many game shows including What's My Line, To Tell the Truth, Match Game, The Gong Show, and Hollywood Squares in the 70s and 80s.

Milton (Soupy Sales) Supman died of cancer October 22, 2009, at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx. He was eighty-three years old. Soupy Sales is best remembered by his many fans for his trademark pie-in-the-face gag, but in the comedy world, Soupy is remembered for his inventive, anarchic brand of riotous, television comedy. 

 Soupy and Pookie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB8e_uRzhMU