Soupy Sales died at age 83 on Thursday. He hosted an afternoon kiddie show that reached its height of popularity in the mid-1960s. He was totally unlike other kids-show hosts of that, or any other, era. He wasn’t soft-spoken, like Mr. Rogers; he wasn’t grandfatherly, like Captain Kangaroo; he didn’t want to teach you anything, like Mr. Wizard.
What Soupy was was a unique combination of silly and hip. He mixed slapstick with self-conscious irony. He was forever getting a pie thrown in his face. He talked to puppets, especially two — White Fang and Black Tooth — that were really little more than offstage voices, with arms that entered the camera frame. He played jazz on his show and snapped his fingers like a nightclub performer. Cool cats and kitties of the era, like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine, dropped by to visit and take a pie in the face, because Soupy was, for a little while, himself very cool.
He had a Top 10 hit at the height of Beatlemania with “Do The Mouse.” His musical sons, Hunt and Tony, played with David Bowie in the band Tin Machine, and backed Iggy Pop on Lust For Life, among much other excellent L.A. session-work.
“The Soupy Sales Show’s” set decor said “clubhouse,” but the off-camera guffaws — when Soupy made the crew laugh with his constant ad libs — introduced a generation to the idea that there were real people behind the TV cameras, that this was a show, not a fantasy-world. Well before “The Larry Sanders Show,” Soupy was busy breaking the fourth-wall surrounding the creation of TV.
To his eternal and ambivalent fame, he was once suspended from the show for a New Year’s Day 1965 joke: he asked kids to go into their parents’ bedrooms and take the “little green pieces of paper” they found — i.e., money — and send them in to him.
I interviewed him for EW years ago, by phone. As the conversation began to fade, Sales thanked me for not asking him about the “little green pieces of paper” controversy. “Everybody thinks they have to bring that up — why?” he asked me, irritation in his voice.
“Because their editors tell them to, thinking they’ll get a bit more controversy out of it,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he said, sighing. “Maybe. Or maybe some people just like to make happy people unhappy.”
I hope Soupy Sales has found some happiness now.