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TV-show comedian was a hit with pies and sidekick puppets

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

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) and Black Tooth ("the biggest and sweetest dog in the United States," a furry paw that gave Mr. Sales slurpy, offscreen kisses). 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, by contrast, were sometimes 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."

"Send them to me," he said, "and I'll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico."

Mr. Sales received only a few dollars in the mail, but people complained to the FCC that he was encouraging children to steal. His network, ABC, suspended him, but public protests led to his reinstatement. His ratings went up when he returned to the air, but his show was canceled in 1966.

By then, according to the calculations of entertainment writer Leonard Lyons, Mr. Sales had hosted 5,370 live television shows in a 13-year period, more than anyone else up to that time. Mr. Sales attributed his success to the madcap possibilities and mishaps of live television.

"Everyone else is filmed," he told TV Guide in 1965, "but I'm on there live, and people know the difference."

He was born Milton Supman on Jan. 8, 1926, in Franklinton, N.C., where his parents owned a dry-goods store. They were the only Jewish family in town.

By the time Mr. Sales was 8, his father had died and his family had resettled in Huntington, W.Va. Mr. Sales served in the Navy during World War II, returned to West Virginia and graduated from Marshall University.

The name "Soupy" evolved from his childhood nickname, "Soupbone." He worked as a radio disc jockey and stand-up comedian under the name Soupy Hines, but decided the name made him sound like a ketchup, so he became Soupy Sales.

In Cincinnati in 1950, he launched one of the country's first teenage television dance shows. After an intermediate stop in Cleveland, he came to Detroit in 1953, and his afternoon show on WXYZ-TV, "Lunch With Soupy Sales," drew a larger audience than the popular children's show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."

Mr. Sales also had a daily late-night talk and variety show, "Soupy's On" and, between the two programs, had as many as 1 million viewers a day in Detroit.

He often had jazz musicians on "Soupy's On," including a 1955 appearance by trumpeter Clifford Brown. It is the only filmed performance by Brown, who died in a car accident in 1956.

ABC picked up "Lunch With Soupy Sales" -- later called "The Soupy Sales Show" -- in 1959, and a year later he moved to Los Angeles. By 1964, Mr. Sales and his show were in New York. "The New Soupy Sales Show" aired for one year in the late 1970s.

From 1968 to 1975, Mr. Sales was a panelist on "What's My Line?" and often appeared on other game shows. He acted in several movies and television shows and continued to perform as a stand-up comic until recent years.

His marriage to Barbara Fox Sales ended in divorce.

In 1980, he married Trudy Carson Sales, who survives, along with two sons from his first marriage.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Sales estimated that he had been splattered by more than 19,000 pies. He became something of an expert on the messy staple of slapstick comedy and once testified at a Navy court-martial on behalf of a sailor accused of throwing a pie in an officer's face. The military court was not amused, and the sailor was convicted.

"A pie has to hit you and explode into a thousand pieces so you see the person's face and see it take away his dignity," Mr. Sales once said.

"I used to look like Cary Grant, but not after being hit with 19,000 pies."

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