A man named Milton Supman died last week. He died quietly, at 83. He'd grown up in the only Jewish family in a small North Carolina town, his father a dry goods merchant who had moved there from Hungary. His family gave him the handle which was to be the origin both of a stage name and of a peculiar, indescribably influential bond with millions of American children - Soupy.
When Soupy Sales died last week, a lifelong friend of mine posted video clips of his work on her Facebook page. Her daughter, herself an adult now, added this comment: "I completely understand your childhood now. Thanks."
She was joking, of course. But not completely. It's the nature of jokes, after all, to mask and condense insight in the slapstick shorthand of the one-liner. Just as it's the nature of children to know more about their parents than their parents do. In the blurry, black-and-white, lo-fi footage of a loopy childrens' TV show from long ago, my friend's daughter saw what we should have known all along: What Soupy Sales was trying to do, at root, was to explain our excruciating, bewildering childhoods to us, in real time.
This was an era when the original Mad Men ruled the collective unconscious, when a gleaming pastel future, and, by extension, a lavishly sterile present, were held up as ideals and goals. Children were the very hope of America, and were therefore routinely lied to. Television was sanitized for our protection. Networks could not bring themselves to show married men and women sleeping in the same bed. Minorities, their cultures, music, and disenfranchisement, were conspicuous by their absence, sidelined, stereotyped, silenced and in ways both sophisticated and brutal, shunned.
At the time, programs for children were unnervingly cheerful, unrelievedly sentimental, saccharine and coddling in tone and substance. They were the expression and the vehicle for the Disney-animated postwar America of the mind, in which wishful thinking, however understandably, came in large part to paper over and replace critical thinking.
On the surface, the Soupy Sales Show looked a great deal like other kids' programs. The host acted, talked, and dressed like a burlesque of an overgrown child. But Soupy, along with a crew of animal puppets whose thorny personalities were often much more human than the norm of human television acting at the time, was to have a diametrically different role. He was preparing an unknowing new generation for a radically broken future.
This was to be the legacy of the kids Soupy addressed: an unwinnable war which would betray the principles on which they had been raised, an explosive roar of music that sounded like nothing our parents had ever heard or would ever be able to stand, a pervasive distrust of authority and the language of blanket obedience. Soupy would prepare them for what was coming, and also for what would follow: a rust belt world.
Sandwiched between the silent movie-era gags and vaudeville vintage corn, the real humor, much of it unplanned, some of it unfit for television, was offhand, biting, irreverent, the best of it taking lethal jabs at the workings and deviance of television itself. And then there was the music. The son of a merchant who sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan, Soupy Sales was an unapologetic champion of African-American music, and at a time when much of it was banned from the airwaves as dangerous and valueless "jungle" trash.
And now in this, the rust belt present, a second peculiar milestone came this month, the 50th anniversary of the debut of another television series which, as well as any other institution, explained late mid-century American children to themselves.
So compelling was the program's message, it gave rise to a religious tradition of sorts in our house. On Friday nights, when we returned from Sabbath evening services at the Temple, we'd turn on the television and listen to a man whom I came to see as a true spiritual leader, recite the following:
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone."
This was where we lived. Minorities each had their special neighborhood in the Twilight Zone of white America. Many, if not most, still do. We knew very well where, as the series' business-suited, chain-smoking guru Rod Serling intoned each week, the signpost up ahead - the signpost to "our next stop," the Twilight Zone - led. It was the stop we took to go home.
Rod Serling, genius misfit, poet of estrangement, was lord mayor and master architect of the Twilight Zone, which, while written for adults, spoke perhaps most clearly to kids.
Soupy Sales and Rod Serling, like many a prophet, just two Jewish kids gone astray. Two fiercely on the margins, who brought children front and center.
I feel for the kids of this bend of the future. At least when we were small and left to our own devices, we had Soupy and Rod to raise us. To show us the value of an expertly targeted pie. And to make sure we didn't miss the signpost up ahead - and our next stop.
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