January 8, 1926, is the birthdate of Milton Supman, the TV funnyman of the 1950s and ‘60s beloved by millions of children – though less so by their parents – and better known by his stage name, Soupy Sales. For baby-boom Americans, the name Soupy Sales is likely to evoke the image of a face buried in a pie, any one of the 20,000-plus pies Soupy claimed to have taken in the kisser over his career to keep the youth of America laughing.
- 1911: Phil Silvers, funnyman who played scheming Sgt. Bilko, is born
- 1948: Milton Berle debuts in game-changing TV show
- 1962: Happy birthday, Jon Stewart!
Soupy was born in Franklinton, North Carolina, where his father, Irving Supman, who had emigrated from Hungary in 1894, owned a dry-goods store. The Supmans were the town’s only Jews, and the son often joked that his dad supplied the local Ku Klux Klan chapter with all its white-sheet needs. His mother was the former Sadie Berman.
Soupy was the youngest of the couple’s three surviving boys, and just as his two older brothers were dubbed “Ham Bone” and “Chicken Bone,” he was called “Soup Bone,” which evolved into “Soupy.”
Irving died when Soupy was 5, at which point Sadie moved with the boys to Huntington, West Virginia, a veritable metropolis compared to Franklinton. He graduated from Huntington High School in 1944, and before attending Marshall College in the city, he spent two years in the U.S. Navy, stationed on a ship in the South Pacific.
‘They got sick of me’
Sales took part in the landing on Okinawa in the spring of 1945, though he may have been best known on the USS Randall for the comedy routines he delivered over the vessel’s PA system.
After earning a BA in journalism at Marshall, Soupy began working as a scriptwriter and disc jockey at a Huntington radio station. Initially he called himself “Soupy Hines,” but the station chief was concerned it would cause problems with the Heinz soup and condiment company, an advertiser, so he changed his last name to “Sales,” in tribute to the early 20th-century comic actor Chic Sale.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Sales hosted radio and then TV shows in Cincinnati, Cleveland (he left WJW-TV there, he claimed, “for health reasons: They got sick of me”) and Detroit. All played off his good-natured silliness and improvisational skills.
It was at the Detroit ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV that Sales, whose smile was wide and perpetual, began broadcasting the daily “Lunch with Soupy,” later called the “Soupy Sales Show,” in 1953. A Saturday edition was broadcast nationally, starting in 1955.
Like the variations of this show that followed, it included a lot of sketches, some with puppets (including White Fang and Black Fang, who only appeared as furry paws reaching in from the set’s fixed door), and much pie-tossing. The ostensible audience was children (“kids with low IQs,” as one TV critic had it), but there was evidence that a good portion of viewers were adults who dug Soupy’s campy, slightly anarchistic attitude.
New Year's Day controversy
By far his most notorious escapade took place on New Year’s Day 1965, when Sales was broadcasting nationally from New York.
Soupy was supposedly peeved that he had been slotted to work on the holiday, so at one point during the live broadcast, he instructed his young viewers to quietly enter the rooms of their still-sleeping parents, remove those “funny green pieces of paper with the pictures of guys with beards” from their wallets and handbags, stick them in an envelope “and mail them to me.” In return, he promised to “send you a postcard from Puerto Rico!”
Sales got a slap on the wrist from his employer, and apparently a lot of Monopoly money in the mail, but the episode became legendary.
In the ‘60s, during part of which Sales was based in Los Angeles, celebrities would stop by for a visit – and take a pie in the face. It became a trend after Frank Sinatra dropped in for a pie and then returned with other Rat Pack legends.
In the ‘70s, Sales was a regular participant in TV game shows like “The Hollywood Squares,” and in the ‘80s, he had a daily radio show on WNBC in New York.
Suffering from a number of ailments, Soupy Sales died in a Bronx hospice on October 22, 2009, at age 83.