NEW YORK — A funny thing happened to me on the way to pick up a Pulitzer Prize. I met Soupy Sales.
"Hey, Howard, how are ya?" he said in that familiar hoarse voice as he entered the lobby of WNBC radio, where he has had a weekday show since late April. He extended his hand. He seemed open and uncomplicated.
I'd never met Soupy, who will live in history as the mugging, slap-shticky comic who took thousands of cream pies in the face on a slew of kid and adult TV shows going back almost 35 years. More than 19,000 pies, in fact, according to Soupy, who counts them like McDonald's does hamburgers.
What prompted the meeting at this time?
When notified of winning a Pulitzer several weeks ago, I was in a restaurant interviewing that classy actress Jane Alexander. Counting my blessings that I had been with Alexander when the word came, I wrote in my next column that I easily could have been with less distinguished company.
Pulitzer Prize Winner Notified While Lunching With Soupy Sales The next day, Soupy called from New York and, instead of being angry at being ridiculed, he thanked me profusely for mentioning his name. Then it was my turn to get smacked with a pie. Soupy informed me of what Ozier Muhammad, a photographer for Long Island-based Newsday, was doing when notified of his 1984 Pulitzer.
"He was taking pictures of me," Soupy said. Not wishing to be outdone by Muhammad, who was part of a three-man team that received a Pulitzer for international reporting, I arranged to meet Soupy a few hours before the awards ceremony at Columbia University.
I have a weakness for insulting TV legends with such names as Pinky Lee and Soupy Sales. After suffering my slings several times, Pinky pleaded to be left alone. I told Soupy about that incident and asked why he wasn't equally upset.
"Oh, c'mon," he replied. "I studied journalism in college. And besides, I'd rather you mention me than Pinky Lee."
Not that Soupy is defenseless. Once, when Tom Snyder noted in an interview that some of his detractors regarded him as "the Soupy Sales of the newsroom," Soupy replied:
"Let me add there is nothing wrong with being a Soupy Sales. I must admit, though, when I have a bad day, I feel like I'm Tom Snyder."
Soupy is a proud man who takes his craft seriously. Pie throwing is a harmless joke designed "to relieve tensions and frustrations," he testified at the 1974 Navy court-martial of a sailor accused of throwing a pie in the face of an officer.
He took his first pie in the face in 1951 on a kids show he hosted in Cleveland. It was live TV and Soupy was dressed like an Indian. But he admits now, after reviewing a clip of it, that his first pie was no thing of beauty.
"The terrible thing was that it was in a pan," he said. "You should not throw a pie that's in a pan."
Since then he has perfected the art of splat. "A pie has to have a crust," he continued. "If it has a crust, it explodes all over the place." His eyes brightened. "If a pie has a crust, it goes apart in a thousand pieces. It's a very serious business."
Isn't that a terrible waste of a good-tasting pie? "Oh, nohhhhh," Soupy replied. He was trying to be patient. "You don't use a regular pie. A regular pie won't stick. If someone throws a pie at you, it's gotta stick. It's gotta be gooey. So you use a whipped cream pie. And if it's shaving cream, you can wipe it off. I can clean up in 14 seconds," he boasted.
Soupy wasn't always Soupy.
Now 58, he was born Milton Supman in Franklinton, N.C., and was reared in Huntington, W.Va., where kids pronounced his family name "Soupman" or "Soupbone." So Milton became Soupy. His station manager in Cleveland gave him the professional name of Soupy Hines, which his station manager in Detroit changed to Soupy Sales, which became his legal name in 1957.
Just saying Soupy's name makes you smile.
He has made up funny words, made funny faces and made fun with puppets. He has been the star of "Soupy's Soda Shop," "Lunch With Soupy Sales" and various versions of "The Soupy Sales Show." He has hosted numerous programs and taped 1,500 episodes of "What's My Line" from 1968-1975. He has appeared on game shows galore and now provides the "Donkey Kong" voice for the "Saturday Supercade" kids show on CBS.
His gift is the gift of smiles. "A lot of people grew up watching me," Soupy said. "I'll probably be remembered for the pies, and that's all right. That's fine and dandy. I'm flattered."
Unlike many of us, Soupy knows who he isn't and knows who he is. How would he describe himself? "I'm a pioneer in television comedy," he said. "Because of me, a lot of people are a little bit healthier, have a little better sense of humor . . . and are a little bit nicer."
They award Pulitzers in the domed rotunda of the Columbia University library, a truly impressive place that reeks of history and scholarly achievement and has tall marble columns that make you feel sort of puny. And I won't say receiving the Pulitzer isn't the most important thing that's happened in my career. It is by far.
Yet in another way, the prize I received from Soupy--an autographed copy of his album, "Still Soupy After All These Years"--is just as meaningful. I accept as it was intended.
From one Soupy to another.