Soupy Sales wasn't the first kiddie show host to find a sub rosa appeal among adults, but he was the first to build a national following, and an entire career, on that foundation. His mix of wide-eyed, child-like wonderment, underscored by an awareness of the "adult" side of his humor -- which, in addition to a sharp satirical edge and an anarchistic component reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, also occasionally included some adult moments -- made him a unique presence on television and in American popular culture, and even allowed him to make the occasional jump into feature films.
He was born Milton Supman in Franklinton, NC, in 1926. And because his family's last name was pronounced "soupman" by their neighbors, he adopted the nickname "Soupy" as a boy. He attended Marshall College in Huntington, WV, but it was performing, and especially comedy as embodied by the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers, that appealed to him. Working initially as "Soupy Hines" -- which he later changed to "Soupy Sales" in honor of actor/comedian/author Charles "Chic" Sale -- he hosted dance shows on radio and television in the early '50s, mostly in Ohio, working out of Cincinnati and Cleveland, before making the jump to his own show, Lunch With Soupy, in 1953 on WXYZ-TV in Detroit. It was during this period that introduced such fixtures of his subsequent national show as Pookie The Lion, and he first worked with puppeteer and actor Frank Nastasi, who would work with him for more than a decade. Sales later moved to Los Angeles and had a show on the ABC network, before moving to New York City in the mid-'60s, where he got a show with Metromedia on WNEW-TV (Channel 5) in the fall of 1964, which was nationally syndicated by Columbia Pictures. That was the show that was most widely seen, and on which a lot of his reputation rested, with Pookie The Lion, Black Tooth and White Fang as puppet sidekicks; Hobart and Reba (the heads in the pot-bellied stove on his set), and his on-going Dick Tracy-style serial "Philo Kvetch," in which he played a private detective trying to track down his arch-enemy, "The Mask."
The Soupy Sales Show appealed to youngsters, but it also had a lure for adults, who could see in his antics a satirical edge -- old detective thrillers ("Philo Kvetch" being an ethnic play on "Philo Vance") and of politics (when "The Mask" was finally unmasked, he was revealed as an actor wearing a not-too-convincing mask of then-Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev -- this at a time when the Cold War had hardly cooled at all), among numerous other "serious" subjects. Sales' show became the thing to do, much as the late Ernie Kovacs' show had been; it became a treat for celebrities, including Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, and, in one celebrated instance, Frank Sinatra -- along with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Trini Lopez, at a time when Sinatra and Davis were two of the biggest names in show business -- to go on the show, do a sketch, and get hit in the face with a pie. Sales had carved out a unique niche for himself as a national entertainer, his humor somewhere midway between Rocky & Bullwinkle, Ernie Kovacs, and Groucho Marx. It was also reportedly a very wild set; one of the running gags was the knock-at-the-door, in which Sales would interact with whoever or whatever was on the other side. But on at least one occasion, out of camera shot, there was a well-endowed topless female on the other side of the door, and all one saw was Sales' stunned reaction and ad-libs.
The series was damaged, however, by a comic bit in which, on New Years' Day of 1965, Sales told his young audience to go through their parents' pockets and take those little pieces of paper with presidents' pictures and send them in. No one can say for sure how many children actually responded, but Metromedia was forced to take him off the air by the FCC over viewer complaints. This didn't stop his career momentum, however; he had a Top 10 hit record, as a single and LP in 1965, with "Do the Mouse," which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show that year (the dance was a zany jump-and-sway with mouse ears, and probably helped put an end to the goofy dance crazes of the mid-'60s). He also made the leap to movies that year. Sales had previously appeared in a supporting role in the 1961 feature The Two Little Bears, but in 1966 he starred in the comedy Birds Do It, directed by Andrew Marton, about a NASA janitor who acquires the ability to fly.
Sales' appeal to adults was codified by his appearances as a panelist on What's My Line?, and he had his own radio show in the 1980s as well. His later efforts at reviving his adult/kid show concept, however, never quite took off in the same way as his late '50s and '60s vehicles. The production values were higher (they couldn't have been lower; the Channel 5 set looked like it cost about $5 to decorate), and the shooting was in color, but the timing wasn't as tight, and he seemed to be trying too hard to do what he had done easily and effortlessly, and seemingly spontaneously, in earlier years. There were some clever bits, however, such as a sketch in which Sales is running from a security guard (played by Barney Martin) at a film vault and literally runs into and onto the action on a film strip (featuring Chester Morris, no less), with the guard still chasing him, now in black-and-white. He made a career over the 1980s, 1990s, and early 21st century simply by being Soupy Sales. He appeared as an occasional guest star, sometimes very effectively, on shows like Wings (where he played a champion Simon Says competitor), and also signed autographs at film conventions. He'd always had competitors, even in his prime; in the mid-'60s -- Sandy Becker and Chuck McCann had rival kids shows that also appealed to adults, though neither had Sales' satiric edge -- and in later years, there came successors, of whom the most well known is probably Floyd Vivino, aka Uncle Floyd, whose Uncle Floyd Show owed a huge amount to Sales' work. He remained active into the new century, and published an autobiography, Soupy Sez, co-authored with Charles Salzberg, in 2001. He died October 22, 2009, at the age of 83. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi