Friday, October 23, 2009

When Soup Was On

His name was Soupy, but his game was pies.

He was Milton Supman by birth, and like so many stars of that era, his stage name was a cocktail of nicknames and nods to others.

Soupy Sales is gone, passed away at 83 and it would be nice if you had lunch today in his honor. Then, maybe tonight, take a pie in the face to top off the day.

Comedian Sales took, by his unofficial count, about 9,000 pies in the kisser over the years, beginning in the 1950s when he burst onto the scene in Detroit, hosting "Lunch with Soupy."

The pie-in-the-face routine wasn't invented by Sales, but no one made it more famous than he. It got so big that stars the likes of Frank Sinatra, no less, would line up to take a pie from Soupy, who wasn't always the recipient---he could play perpetrator, too.

Soupy Sales was minding his own business as Milton Supman, child of a Jewish dry goods merchant who had emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary in 1894, when his older brothers attained the nicknames Ham Bone and Chicken Bone.

They started calling Milton "Soup Bone," which eventually got shortened to "Soupy." Then, while working in radio as a DJ, Milton Supman went by the stage name Soupy Hines. Though spelled differently, Hines sounded just like the famous ketchup and pickle company, so the last name was changed to Sales, after old-time comedian Chic Sale.

Got it?

I'm too young to have grown up having "Lunch with Soupy," the show he hosted from the studios of WXYZ-TV in Detroit from 1953-59. By 1960, the show had gone national, and Soupy moved to Los Angeles.

"I didn't want to be an old man, wondering if I could have made it in another market," Soupy once said.

The show was live, at lunchtime, and though it was targeted at children, lots of those kids' parents sat and watched, too. The success of the lunchtime show spawned an 11 p.m. version for the adults, which was a variety show with some sketch comedy.

But maybe the thing that truly brought Soupy Sales to the national fore was a stunt he pulled on New Year's Day in 1965.

Irked that he was working on a holiday, Sales urged his young viewers to go into their still-sleeping parents' bedrooms and "take all the green pieces of paper with presidents' pictures on them" and mail them to him.

"Then I'll send you a post card from Puerto Rico!," Soupy said on the air.

He never imagined the joke would be taken seriously.

But it did. Within days, money started being received in New York, where Soupy was doing his show at the time, from WNEW-TV. An embarrassingly large amount of money rolled in.

The cash was donated to charity, but WNEW management suspended Soupy. There was an uproar---protests and even picketing---and Sales was reinstated. And much more famous than ever before.

Soupy wasn't just Soupy, which was entertaining enough. He developed a bunch of characters and penned some novelty songs, like "The Mouse," which I was caught on 8mm film depicting in one of those silent home movies my parents shot of me in the mid-1960s. Sales even performed "The Mouse" on Ed Sullivan's show.


Soupy Sales doing "The Mouse," circa the mid-1960s


There was a brief feud in the 1980s with fellow WNBC radio personality Howard Stern, who shared a studio with Sales and who would complain about the condition in which Soupy left things by the time Stern went on the air. Stern, in 1985, pretended to cut the strings in Soupy's studio piano, but it was just to "torture" Sales; Stern never harmed the instrument.

Stern, years later, regretted his little tiff with Sales because Soupy was one of Stern's childhood heroes.

The 1970s and '80s saw Soupy Sales become a big game show guy, appearing on many of them---usually What's My Line, Match Game, and Pyramid. Those and other pseudo-reality shows like Almost Anything Goes were good places to find Soupy.

Sales also participated in a TV ad campaign for Big Boys Restaurants and their homemade pies. Guess how those commercials ended?

Sales died in a hospice, afflicted with what was called "numerous" ailments.

Maybe Big Boys can offer up a special in his memory: a bowl of soup and a slice of pie.

1 comment:

  1. Soupy was great because Soupy came at the right time, to the right people. Most people will forget Soupy soon. However, here in Michigan being his start will never forget Soupy. He was one of many of the golden age of Detroit television. Soupy had mid-west vaules, and a good work ethic. Soupy did more than just infront of the camera. He wrote, acted, wrote songs, dance and a few other things. You don't see that today, nor will you see that in the future. We lost more than that of Soupy. Detroit lost a friend and we're the less for that. That's what so sad.

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