Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Soupy Sales Late Night Detroit Variety Show

After serving twenty-six months in the United States Navy in World War II--twelve in the Pacific theater--Milton Supman took his G.I. Bill benefits and earned a master's degree in journalism in 1949. While attending Marshall College in Huntington, West Virgina, Supman
was bit by the show business bug and began working part-time doing standup comedy in local nightclubs and dee-jaying a morning radio show on WHTN-AM.

Supman moved to Cincinnati when he landed a television spot on WKRC-TV hosting a teen dance show called Soupy's Soda Shop--the first in the country. Supman worked under the stage name Soupy Hines. When his show was cancelled, a friend at the station told Soupy about Detroit station WXYZ-TV that was looking for live entertainers to round out its local programming schedule.

The unemployed, twenty-seven-year-old performer legally changed his stage name to Soupy Sales; took his young wife and baby to stay with relatives in Huntington, West Virgina; and drove to Detroit with $10 in his pocket. He auditioned for Channel 7 general manager John Pival to host a daily, children's lunchtime show. Pival was impressed and hired him. Soupy used his fast-talking, improvisational skills to good effect and soon made his program a success. Soupy wanted to show he had the talent to attract more than a kiddie audience.

When an 11:00 PM slot opened up unexpectedly two months later, program director Pete Strand reserved the time slot for Soupy to do an adult-focused, variety show of comedy and music entertainment. Soupy's On debuted on November 10th, 1953.


Unlike his lunchtime show which was roughly outlined and ad libbed giving it a spontaneous flair, the evening show was scripted and well-rehearsed. Soupy and his stage director Pete Strand wrote the nightly opening monologue and comedy sketches each afternoon for the evening broadcast. The show opened with Soupy doing a standup routine followed by a cutting-edge comic sketch and live guest performances by some of the best jazz muscians of the era.

Soupy was a jazz lover living in a jazz town. Detroit at that time was the home to twenty-four jazz clubs before urban renewal in 1959 wiped out the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods where most of the jazz clubs were located. Soupy's nighttime show soon became a scheduled stop for jazz performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, George Shearing, Della Reese, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, who was living in the Detroit area at the time.

Soupy's house band "Two Joes and a Hank" led by Hal Gordon had some chops too. Guitarist Joe Messina and drummer Jack Brokensha later became members of Motown's Funk Brothers. Rounding out the group was Joe Oddo, who played bass, and Hank Trevision, who played piano. Soupy's theme song was Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite."

Soupy portrayed an array of comic characters like belching Sheriff Wyatt Burp, European crooner Charles Vichysoisse, Colonel Claude Bottom, and Western cowboy hero The Lone Stranger. Other performers were Clyde Adler who played Indian mystic Kuda Dux and Mississippi gambler Wes Jefferson; character actress Bertha Forman, with fifty years of show business experience, played Soupy's mother-in-law; attractive blonde Jane Hamilton played ditzy literary critic Harriet Von Loon and hip-swinging floozy Bubbles, Soupy's on-screen wife.


Detroit's most recognized voice actor Rube Weiss--announcer for Detroit Dragway commercials and the official Hudson's department store Santa for many years--played Charlie Pan and the Lone Stranger's sidekick Pronto.

Rube Weiss

Soupy and his troupe pioneered late-night comedy shows and paved the way for programs like Saturday Night Live. His show was before the age of videotape and only one Kinescope segment (a fixed 16mm camera filming a TV program directly from the screen) survives from the show which is linked below. Soupy interviews trumpeter Clifford Brown at the end of Brown's performance.

The final episode of Soupy's On aired November 27, 1959. Soupy had done 3,300 morning and evening shows for WXYZ in six years when his variety show was cancelled. At the time, Soupy was the highest paid celebrity in Detroit television. When the station declined to renegotiate Soupy's contract, he was free to shop his talents in Hollywood.

In a statement to Detroit local media, Soupy took a moment to make it real. "I've been working in a state of exhaustion for years. My workday begins at 9:00 am and ends at 2:30 am. I get three hours of sleep at night and another two hours in the afternoon. You wear a little ragged after awhile. I see my fans more than I see my own family," Soupy said. "But let's face it. Here in Detroit, local live television is dying because the networks are producing more of their own programming and crowding out local talent."      

Soupy Sales relocated to Los Angeles and appeared in some television episodes and several movies but never became a television or movie star in Hollywood. He wasn't leading man material, and his face was too well-known for him to be a convincing character actor. But he recreated himself as a "TV personality" and made a steady living as a panelist on the game show circuit doing programs like Hollywood Squares, $20,000 Pyramid, To Tell the Truth, and What's My Line.

Here is the only surviving clip of Soupy's On from 1956 featuring jazz great Clifford Brown.

Lunch With Soupy 

Friday, December 15, 2023

The Coca-Cola Santa Story

Santa's origin can be traced back to ancient Germanic folklore and the Norse god Odin. The modern character of Santa was embraced by America with the December 23, 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore's 56 line poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Here is Moore's description of the jolly fatman:
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself
Bavarian immigrant Thomas Nast became America's first political cartoonist. He is responsible for creating the American image of Santa Claus on January 3, 1863, for the illustrated magazine Harper's Weekly. In an wooden engraving named "Santa Claus in Camp," the mythic figure is presenting gifts to Union soldiers during the Civil War while wearing a costume patterned with patriotic stars and stripes. Santa manipulates a Jefferson Davis toy [effigy] dancing on the end of a string.

In 1881, Nast created the first of many Santa images based on the description in Clement's narrative poem. These illustrations were without the political and military context of his earlier work. With thirty-three Santa illustrations to his credit, Nast immortalized the figure of Santa Claus we are familiar with today.

Muskegon born Michigan artist Haddon Sundblom painted the iconic image we now recognize as the modern Santa Claus, for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 until 1964. His friend was the original model for his Santa paintings. It is believed Sundblom made $1,000 for his first commission, good money during the Depression era.
Haddon Sundblom at work.
Sundblom's Santa images have appeared in Coke's print advertising, store displays, billboards, posters, calendars, and on television commercials. He helped make Santa the most recognizable and successful pitchman in advertising history.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

West Dearborn's Muirhead's Department Store

Mrs. Alberta Muirhead

If you grew up in Downriver Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s, after the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day parade on Woodward Avenue, you had your heart set on a visit to Santa's igloo at Muirhead's on Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn. Baby Boomers have precious memories of riding the rails in Santa's sleigh with their parents and siblings to get their photo taken with Santa Claus. Over the years, several men have donned the red suit and white beard. Early on, Mr. Muirhead played the role, but succeeding Santas were Bob Oxley and Tim Pryce. There may have been others.

In 1946, John Muirhead married Alberta Jamieson, and they opened a neighborhood department store featuring women's clothing and a toy department. Dearborn resident Jon Jahr explained that his father drew up the blueprints for the original Muirhead's building which was on three levels.

"The basement was the storeroom, shopping was on the street level, and the Muirheads lived on the second level. As their business grew, they expanded the footprint of the building, and in the early sixties, they built a new building around the old building, replacing the street facade for a modern, upscale look." By then, John and Alberta lived in their own home, creating more sales space on the second level.

Mrs. Muirhead - 1971

Lynn Richards Tobin worked at Muirhead's in 1961 and 1962. She remembers, "Mr. Muirhead was in his early sixties. Mrs. Muirhead was younger, maybe in her forties.... She always wore the cash register key around her neck. She took care of their customers and oversaw sales on the main floor. Mr. Muirhead spent most of his time on the second floor in the stockroom and oversaw employees to make sure everyone was working and not goofing off.

"The main floor was girls and teen clothing in front and children's clothing in the back. A customer service center was in the middle of the sales floor where shoppers would take returns and ask questions. There was a cash register station near the front door and one near the parking lot exit in back. An elevator and a stairwell led to the second floor where the stockroom and business offices were. Dolls were sold upstairs including the exclusive Madame Alexander dolls. Another stairwell on the ground floor led to the toy department in the basement which featured bicycles."

My family in 1957. I'm sitting next to my mother.

During the Christmas season, Santa's igloo sleigh ride in the basement was the big attraction. As far as I have been able to determine, the sleigh was manually pushed back and forth on a rail track. Jon Jahr remembers seeing the sleigh in the Muirhead's warehouse in the early 1970s. Jahr asked Mr. Muirhead if he might bring the sleigh out just for Christmas photos, but he was done with it by then. I wonder if the sleigh is somewhere in Dearborn waiting to be rediscovered.

John died in 1983 at the age of eighty-three. Alberta operated the store by herself with the help of a dedicated band of loyal employees for seven more years. Then, she closed the popular store after forty-three years in business. Competition from shopping malls and Crowley's on Michigan Avenue off Outer Drive in particular cut into her business.

Alberta's story did not end with the closing of her boutique department store. Mrs. Muirhead--as most people called her--became a model for philanthrophy. She believed in giving back to the Dearborn community who had supported her and her husband John, making their business a success. Alberta devoted her later life to Dearborn and its people.

Alberta Muirhead parlayed her charismatic personality and charitable spirit to become Dearborn's biggest benefactor and philantropist since the Ford family. For starters, she donated her three-level building to the Oakwood Health Care Foundation for their data-processing center.

An avid believer in public education, Alberta became the namesake for Dearborn's Teacher of the Year award established in 1997. She supported both Henry Ford Community College and Rochester College giving generously to their scholarship funds to help needy and struggling students. Dearborn Public Schools awards an annual scholarship in her name.

In 2007, Alberta Muirhead established the Oakwood Healthcare Foundation with a $500,000 gift to support nursing education and advanced nursing degrees for Oakwood Healthcare employees. Many a nurse owes a debt of gratitude to the generosity of Mrs. Muirhead. Her support was not limited to people. Alberta was a supporter of the Dearborn Animal Shelter and received their Big Heart Award in 2006.

After the death of her husband, Alberta and Russ Gibb--of Grande Ballroom fame and Dearborn High School teacher--became friends. How and when they met is unclear, but Gibb was a deejay at WKNR-FM which was next door to the department store. They became lifelong friends and companions for nearly thirty years until Alberta's death on January 14, 2011 at the age of ninety-one. "Alberta put so many people through college," Gibb said. "She was a great, generous lady and I loved her dearly."

Ford Rotunda Christmas Memories