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Soupy Sales dies at 83; slapstick comic had hit TV show in 1960s

The comedian acquired a cult-like following among adults with a show ostensibly meant for children. His signature routine, which he elevated to an art form, was pie-throwing.

October 23, 2009|Elaine Woo

Soupy Sales, a comic with a gift for slapstick who attained cult-like popularity in the 1960s with a pie-throwing routine that became his signature, has died. He was 83.

Sales had numerous ailments and died Thursday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, said Kathy O'Connell, a longtime friend.

As the star of "The Soupy Sales Show," he performed live on television for 13 years in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York before the program went into syndication in the United States and abroad.

Ostensibly for children, the show had broad appeal among adults who found Sales' puns, gags and pratfalls deliciously corny and camp. His cast consisted of goofy puppets with names like White Fang, Black Tooth and Pookie, and a host of off-camera characters, including the infamous naked girl.

The high point of every show came when a sidekick launched a pie into Sales' face. Sales once estimated that he was hit by more than 25,000 pies in his lifetime.

The gag became more than hilarious; it evolved into a hip badge of honor. Frank Sinatra was first in a long line of celebrities who clamored for the privilege to be cream-faced, including Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Martin and Burt Lancaster.

"I've never done a pretentious show; it's always had a live feeling, the kind of thing that comes across when you don't know what's going to happen next," Sales told author Gary Grossman in the 1981 book "Saturday Morning TV." "I've never done anything simply because I thought I could get away with it. I've just wanted to do the funniest show."

The possibility of humor dogged Sales from the start. He was born Milton Supman on Jan. 28, 1926, in the North Carolina backwater of Franklinton. The Supmans were the only Jews in town. Sales' father ran a dry goods store that sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan.

The family name was often mispronounced as "Soupman." To make matters worse, his parents, who had nicknamed his brothers "Hambone" and "Chickenbone," dubbed him "Soupbone." Eventually, Milton became just Soupy.

His father died when he was 5, prompting a move to Huntington, W.Va. Sales acted in school plays and in high school was voted most popular boy.

World War II did not dampen his showbiz ambitions. He fought in the Pacific theater in the Navy and participated in the invasion of Okinawa but managed to entertain crew mates with routines broadcast on the ship's PA system.

After his discharge, Sales returned to West Virginia and enrolled in Marshall College as a journalism major, earning a bachelor's degree in 1949. He went to work for a radio station in Huntington as a scriptwriter. At night he did stand-up in nightclubs. Soon he became a disc jockey.

In the early 1950s he moved to Ohio, where a Cleveland station manager gave him the professional name of Soupy Hines. That was nixed in Detroit, where his new station manager thought Hines would be confused with an advertiser, the Heinz soup line. Thus was Soupy Sales born.

In 1953, Sales launched a daily live children's show on Detroit's WXYZ-TV, called "Soupy Sales Comics." The show caught on, causing the station to give him a nighttime slot for "Soupy's On." Sales created characters such as Wyatt Burp, a belch-prone sheriff, and Calypso King Harry Bella, a crazy-eyed South American with a mop top.

In 1955, the show was picked up by ABC as a summer replacement for "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and renamed "The Soupy Sales Show." Its star soon became Detroit's top-rated daytime television personality.

Sales was joined by White Fang, "the meanest dog in the United States," and Black Tooth, "the nicest dog in the United States," of whom all that viewers saw were giant paws. Other characters included his irrepressible girlfriend, Peaches, the vivacious Marilyn Monwolf, and a bloodthirsty neighbor, the Count, who touted an album titled "Love in Vein."

Every show featured a segment called Words of Wisdom, an opportunity to offer silly sayings such as "Be true to your teeth and they won't be false to you."

The highlight of each show, of course, was the pie-throwing, which Sales elevated to an art.

Sales took his first pie in the face in 1950 when he played an Indian in a spoof of the James Stewart movie "Broken Arrow." That pie was real. Later, he would switch to shaving-cream pies. But he swore that the secret of a good pie was the crust: If it stuck to the face, it was, in Sales' opinion, no good.

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

By 1961, the face that launched several thousand pies in Detroit began to dominate local TV in Los Angeles. Critics were unkind, calling the show "a mishmash of mediocrity" that was meant for "kids with low IQs." But viewers lapped it up, making it the No. 1 local show by 1962. A survey at the time revealed that more than a third of Sales' fans consisted of adults. Some of them were hosting pie-lobbing parties in their basements.

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