Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Soupy Sales

The pie in the face as a comedy caper was invented ages ago, probably about 10 minutes after the first pie. But whenever Soupy Sales was on the receiving end of a custard cannon — which was frequently — he seemed not abashed but happy. A pie wasn't just deserts for Soupy. It was just ... dessert.

Sales, who died Oct. 22 at 83 at a Bronx, N.Y., hospice, was born Milton Supman in Franklinton, N.C. After Navy service during World War II, he landed a series of radio gigs before hitting his stride in Detroit in 1953, hosting an afternoon TV show for kids. From Los Angeles or New York, he excelled in the role over the next three decades. For a spell in the early '60s, he was the darling of hip Hollywood; Frank Sinatra once showed up for the usual tart reception. Sales even had a mid-'60s novelty dance hit, the studiously inane "Do the Mouse."

In his V-neck sweater and bow tie, with his puppets and homely homilies ("Don't eat just before dinner"), Soupy was a Mister Rogers for kids who didn't watch PBS. But he taught children something priceless: how to laugh. An encyclopedia of one-liners, he'd sometimes footnote the jokes: "Henny Youngman, 1948." Blessed with the gift of silliness physically as well as verbally, he'd sometimes dance with mad abandon around the set. In the line of grown men who amused kids by behaving like them — from vaudevillian Pinky Lee to postmodernist Pee-wee Herman — Soupy was the goofiest and sweetest.

In the '80s he worked at a New York radio station that also employed Don Imus and Howard Stern. His cheerful shtick seemed antiquated in comparison with those hip grouches, but it was never old so much as classic. Congenial too: on TV, he'd often walk up to the camera and tell his young viewers, "I love ya and give ya a big kiss." That's how we'll send off our favorite professor of low comedy. No pie this time, Soupy.

— Richard Corliss