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Cream-pie-faced comedian Soupy Sales dies

In this 1966 file photo, comedian Soupy Sales rehearses for his Broadway debut in
In this 1966 file photo, comedian Soupy Sales rehearses for his Broadway debut in "Come Live With Me", in New York. Sales's anything-for-a-chuckle career was built on 20,000 pies to the face and 5,000 live TV appearances across a half-century of laughs. (AP)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009; 11:25 PM

Soupy Sales, 83, a loose-limbed comedian whose goofy skits, slapstick antics and pie-tossing shenanigans made him one of the country's most popular television stars of the 1950s and '60s, died Oct. 22 at a hospice in the Bronx, N.Y. He had a variety of health problems, but the cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Sales gained early fame in the 1950s as the host of a daytime children's TV show in Detroit and always had a strong following among young people, who appreciated his groaning puns, silly dances and runaway train of thought.

At various times, he had three live shows on national television, which featured Mr. Sales chatting with puppets and guest stars, mangling the language or making outrageous puns in a segment called "Words of Wisdom" and -- on practically every show -- getting smacked in the face with a cream pie or three. He was on the air five and sometimes six days a week and often appeared as a stand-up comic or talk-show guest on other shows.

On his own program, Mr. Sales frequently bantered with stagehands and with a gallery of puppets that included Pookie (a wry, hipster lion), White Fang ("the meanest dog in the United States," who merely grunted expressively and was seen only as a large, furry paw), Black Tooth ("the biggest and sweetest dog in the United States" who also appeared as a furry paw and gave Mr. Sales slurpy, offscreen kisses) and Hobart and Reba (two puppets who lived in a potbellied stove). Guest stars such as Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine and Sammy Davis Jr. didn't consider an appearance on his show complete until they had been plastered with a ritual pie.

Mr. Sales invented such recurring characters as Philo Kvetch, an incompetent private eye, and Peaches, an annoying girlfriend portrayed by Mr. Sales in drag. His jokes combined Borscht Belt fare with a broad humor that appealed to children:

"Is there any soup on the menu?"

"Yes, but I wiped it off."

"Show me a country that has only pink automobiles . . . and I'll show you a pink carnation."

Critics blasted Mr. Sales for presenting "a mishmash of mediocrity" intended for "kids with low IQs," but his show was undeniably popular and became a favorite of college students and teenagers. It was something of a romping, vaguely subversive "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and was even called by a New York Post critic a "phantasmagoria of Dada." His influence can be seen today in the Muppets, the faux-naif irony of Pee-wee Herman and the freestyle dances of comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Mr. Sales was so popular in the mid-1960s that he singlehandedly started two tongue-in-cheek dance crazes. The "Soupy Shuffle" -- a high-spirited hopping jig -- and "the Mouse," in which he revealed his upper teeth, chomped his jaw in time with the music and wiggled his hands beside his ears. Mr. Sales's song "Do the Mouse" became a Top 10 hit in 1965, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

He was sometimes suspected of telling suggestive jokes on what was ostensibly a children's program, but Mr. Sales adamantly denied that and had a standing offer to pay $10,000 to anyone who could prove he had done so. No one ever collected. (His stand-up comedy routines in nightclubs, however, were more crude and risque.)

Mr. Sales got in trouble for another reason on New Year's Day 1965. With one minute of airtime to fill at the end of his show, he told his young viewers to sneak into their parents' bedrooms, find their wallets and "take some of those green pieces of paper with pictures of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln and Jefferson on them."

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