Boomers Called Soupy Their Zany Friend

Born Milton Supman in 1926 in Franklinton, North Carolina, boomers knew him as the TV host, Soupy Sales. His nickname came from his family as a direct result of neighbors pronouncing the family name, “Soupman.” He had two older brothers who were referred to as “Ham Bone” and “Chicken Bone,” so Milton became “Soup Bone.” That was later shortened to “Soupy.”

His path to children’s TV began in his college years, where he was a radio scriptwriter and then a DJ and comedian. He entered the Navy during World War II, where Supman often entertained his fellow sailors with skits broadcast via the ship’s intercom. One of the recurring characters boomers will recall from his TV shows — White Fang — was developed then. A large dog character, Supman used it to play outrageous pranks on his fellow shipmates.

After the War he went back to college to pursue a Master’s Degree in Journalism. He worked as a comedian, singer and dancer while at school. Through several incarnations of local radio and TV shows in Huntington, West Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, Soupy became Soupy Sales. The last name was a reference to Chick Sale, a Vaudevillian comedian.

In 1953 he was doing a daily kids’ show in Detroit called Lunch With Soupy. The show was broadcast to other states in 1959, which prompted a move to Los Angeles in 1960. Lunch With Soupy was cancelled in 1961, but remained a local program through 1962. It was his stint in Los Angeles that exposed much of the country to Soupy and his slapstick, pie-in-the-face style. Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. appeared on his show for the honor of getting hit with a pie.

In 1964 Soupy re-emerged on TV in New York. Now his show was called The Soupy Sales Show, and it went national in 1966. Throughout his march toward becoming a national star, Soupy’s shows were composed of skits that were improvisational, slapstick and filled with puns and jokes. Of course, the major punch line often included a pie in the face, at least once per show.

Boomer kids loved him for his silliness, pies and puns. Though technically a kids’ show, adults could appreciate all those things, too. What’s more, Soupy was a big fan of modern music, and featured music in many skits. From his stint as a DJ, then later doing a nightly TV show in Cincinnati that often featured interviews with musicians, Soupy developed a love of jazz as an American art form. Like most kids’ shows of the era, puppets were used in Soupy’s skits, but one puppet character, Pookie the Lion, was used to introduce jazz songs to kids. Pookie was a product of 12 o’Clock Comics, the predecessor to Lunch With Soupy in Detroit. In the early days of his show, Pookie didn’t speak, but roared and often pantomimed to records. By the time Soupy arrived in New York, Pookie had his own voice.

Pookie lip-synchs Mumble by Oscar Petersen and Clark Terry.

Soupy had many characters parading through his show, but the three that Mister Boomer loved were White Fang, Black Tooth and Pookie. White Fang and Black Tooth were very large dogs, but unlike other puppet characters at that time, they weren’t sock puppets. Both were represented by only a furry paw capped with felt-triangle claw nails that extended into the TV frame. Neither spoke — well, not in English anyway. They grunted dog-like, White Fang the male, Black Tooth the female. Soupy, however, always seemed to understand what they were saying. It’s amazing that if you say “White Fang” or “Black Tooth,” how many boomers will immediately go into their impression of either — extending a hand out and producing the grunts, “wah-ooh-uh-uh-ooh.” White Fang had a low, grizzled voice, but Black Tooth’s was higher pitched, even though “she” may have been saying the same line. Black Tooth also had the habit of grabbing Soupy to kiss him off-screen. That prompted an often uttered, “Don’t kiss, Black Tooth,” from Soupy. Frank Natasi was the puppeteer for both.

One of Soupy’s classic skits.

Mister B loved the show, probably for the same reasons other boomers loved it: the show was fun, and Soupy and crew — who could often be heard laughing — looked like they had fun doing it. It also looked like they were making it up as they went along. Mister B recalls Pookie doing a bit with Dave Brubeck music, too. It would have been the first time Mister B was exposed to jazz. And to many of us young boomers, a pie in the face always evoked a laugh.

Most boomers remember hearing about the spectacular way Soupy was booted off TV, though Mister B can’t say he witnessed that program. It was New Year’s Day 1965, when Soupy closed the show with an improvised bit where he asked boys and girls to go into the pocketbooks and wallets of their hungover parents and send the “little pieces of green paper with pictures of men in beards on them” to him, care of the station address. Though Soupy said he got a great deal of Monopoly money, the station received $80,000 and Soupy was suspended.

Soupy describes his New Year’s incident to a nightclub audience.

Mister B did experience the episode when Soupy’s crew played a practical joke on him. On the back of the set was a door. When the bell rang, Soupy would open the door and either get a pie in the face or be surprised by something. On this occasion the crew positioned a stripper behind the door. When Soupy opened it, the song, “The Stripper” (by David Rose, 1962) was played as the girl behind the scenes danced for him. The crew had moved a camera backstage to fool Soupy into thinking the shenanigans were being broadcast. Meanwhile Mister B recalls that on his black & white TV he could see a couple of balloons making their way in and out of the door frame, and that was that. It was Soupy’s reaction and the laughter of the crew that made it funny.

For so many boomers, Soupy Sales was our introduction to real humor. We loved him for all his craziness. What memories of Soupy’s shows come to mind for you, boomers?

Boomers Count Down Another Year

Well, boomers, this week we’ll flip the life odometer on another year. 2011 will see the youngest boomers turning 47, while the oldest among us will reach 65. As the clock strikes midnight, we’ll still be wondering what “Auld Lang Syne” means. For the record, it’s Scottish for “times long past,” a phrase popularized by the poet Robert Burns in the song from the late 17th century. Are there boomers of any age who can recall all the lyrics to that traditional New Year’s song? Probably not.

Perhaps the reason is, unless your family was Scottish, the version you probably heard during your formative boomer years was an instrumental played by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadiens. It’s probably playing through your brain right now as you read this. (Sorry.) His TV presence and rendition of the song became synonymous with New Year’s Eve, first for our parents, then passed on to us through family TV osmosis. Mr. Lombardo had performed on a radio broadcast each year since 1928, then his first live New Year’s TV broadcast was aired beginning in 1956. He continued the tradition until his death in November 1977. His brother Victor took over for a year, but the band disbanded in 1978. In addition to his live broadcast from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, there would be coverage of the Times Square ball drop. While most boomers that Mister Boomer knows couldn’t stand Guy Lombardo (the “old fogey” that he was represented the past, man!), we did want to see the ball drop. That is yet another shared memory we boomers have in our history.

New Year’s Eve was one of the few days of the year when boomer children were allowed to stay up late. Mom and dad, along with possibly some family members, friends and neighbors, would down cocktails and watch Guy Lombardo on the black and white TV, until the time arrived for the big New Year’s countdown.

In Mister Boomer’s household, the children were dressed in their pajamas (with the feet on them), had coats draped over their shoulders like capes to ward off the winter chill, and were issued pots, pans and wooden spoons. The young troop was then marched out the front door, where Mister B and his siblings lined up along the porch edge waiting for the countdown. The TV volume would be turned up so it could be heard from the porch, as the group shivered in anticipation. “5-4-3-2-1 … Happy New Year!” was their cue to bang as furiously and loudly as possible. Their percussive cacophony was joined by a few neighborhood children also banging pots and pans on their porches, along with the sounds of horns, shouts of “Happy New Year,” and car horns that echoed through the neighborhood. Then, as the noise began to diminish, Mister B’s father would step out on the porch with his shotgun that he used for pheasant hunting. All eyes were on him as he loaded a shell into the gun. He raised it to his shoulder, and, aiming at the front lawn, fired into the ground as if the bang were a finale to the neighborhood noise-making.

As the years progressed, shotgun firing was dropped from the family tradition. It wasn’t long after that, that the banging of pots and pans also became “times long past.” We were getting older, and Guy Lombardo wasn’t going to cut it for the Pepsi Generation. Finally, in 1972, Dick Clark offered boomers another choice. Calling his show New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, he put the older generation on notice that his was not your father’s New Year’s celebration. We already knew Dick from American Bandstand, of course. We liked him, and we trusted him as a voice of our generation. If he wanted to rock New Year’s Eve, we wanted to rock with him.

As the decades-old tradition of one television for the whole family began to crack, boomers had New Year’s parties in basements, where they could watch Dick Clark on a second TV while their parents sat in front of Guy Lombardo, upstairs, for another year. That first Rockin’ Eve show in 1972 featured Three Dog Night as hosts, and musical guests Blood, Sweat & Tears, Helen Reddy and Al Green. Mister Boomer recalls several house parties in the seventies, when, rockin’ or not, the show seemed pretty boring. Since it wasn’t Guy Lombardo boring, we would continue to watch.

Any overview of boomer New Year’s celebrations would be remiss without the mention of The Soupy Sales Show. Almost every boomer remembers some version of The Soupy Sales Show on TV. It was New Year’s Day 1965 that marked a momentous day for boomer fans of Soupy. The network had forced Soupy to work the holiday, and that didn’t sit too well with the pie-man. Soupy jokingly looked at his young viewers and asked them to tip-toe into their parents’ bedrooms while they were sleeping and remove the “funny green pieces of paper with pictures of men with beards” from their pockets and purses. He then instructed his viewers to “put them in an envelope and mail them to me.” That week the station, WNEW in New York, received what has been reported as $80,000, though Soupy himself revealed that most of it was was play money or Monopoly money. Soupy was suspended for two weeks, but his show was not canceled and continued another two years.

It is said many boomers like to say they were among those who sent Soupy some dollars in 1965. Unfortunately, Mister Boomer cannot make that claim. Others say it’s more likely we have the same situation at work in the Soupy incident as the number of people who claim to have been at Woodstock. How about it, boomers? Does Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark or Soupy Sales loom large in the annals of your New Year’s memories?