Friday, October 23, 2009

The final pie in the face for Soupy

Today is a day of sadness for me that ranks in my mind with the date six years ago when Bob Hope passed away. Soupy Sales, the clown prince of television during the days of my youth, has joined the ranks of other great comic performers who have gone on to perform on the celestial stage. It's not that the 83-year-old Sales (born Milton Supman in 1926 in North Carolina) was all that funny. In fact, he was probably more juvenile than jovial in his comic patter. He was just plain silly and his creations of "White Fang"("the biggest meanest dog in the United States") and "Black Tooth" ("the biggest sweetest dog in the United States") were among my boyhood TV favorites. I remember the black and white world of early television and the grainy reception we had for the upstart ABC network over which "The Soupy Sales Show" was seen. Somehow that black and white medium seemed perfect for throwing shaving cream pies, Sales's trademark, and his non-stop joke telling ("Did you hear the one about...?"). Even a stellar celebrity like Frank Sinatra was perfectly at home having a pie lobbed at his kisser by Sales. Sales gained his nickname while growing up in North Carolina. His Jewish parents ran a dry-goods store and allegedly sold sheets to local Ku Klux Klan members. His other brothers' nicknames were Ham Bone and Chicken Bone. He was given the moniker "Soup Bone," which he shortened to Soupy. After a stint in the Navy during World War II where he performed for his fellow sailors over the public address system, Sales attended Marshall College, earning a journalism degree. He began his broadcast career in his home of Huntington, North Carolina using the broadcast name of Soupy Hines before journeying to Cincinnati, where he got involved with the television industry. Early in his career he changed his last name to Sales so it wouldn't get confused with Heinz (as in 57 varieties). Oddly enough, he then traveled to my former home of Cleveland, where he established himself as a local celebrity and received his very first pie in the face. Sales claimed he left Cleveland "for health reasons: people got sick of me." It wasn't long before he jumped to Detroit and became a major local TV star there. Eventually his shtick got him noticed by the network brass and he relocated to New York, where he became the darling of ABC and the delight of diminutive devotees such as I. His skits were decidedly puerile in nature, but I loved them, even if many of them went over my head. In truth I may have been exposed to modern jazz for the first time on Soupy's program, where the sweater and oversized bow-tie wearing host employed that brand of music for several of his segments. He was the precursor to the Benny Hill Show, only his show was for kids and the former was definitely for adults. There is no doubt that a part of me never outgrew Soupy Sales, and I think it safe to say that were it not for him, there would never have been a Pee Wee Herman, who was my son's favorite in his formative years. I had not seen or heard of Soupy Sales for at least a decade, but his death at a New York hospice yesterday saddens me and diminishes us all.

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