Soupy Sales, a comic with a gift for slapstick who attained cult-like popularity in the 1960s with a pie-throwing routine that became his signature, has died. He was 83.
Sales died Thursday at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx, New York, his former manager and longtime friend Dave Usher said. Sales had many health problems and entered the hospice last week, Usher said
As the star of “The Soupy Sales Show,” he performed live on television for 13 years in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York before the program went into syndication in the United States and abroad.
Ostensibly a children’s show, it had broad appeal among adults who found Sales’ puns, gags and pratfalls deliciously corny and camp. His cast consisted of goofy puppets with names like White Fang, Black Tooth and Pookie, and a host of off-camera characters, including the infamous naked girl.
The high point of every show came when a sidekick launched a pie into Sales’ face. Sales once estimated that he was hit by some 20,000 pies in his lifetime.
The gag became more than hilarious; it evolved into a hip badge of honor. Frank Sinatra was first in a long line of celebrities who clamored for the privilege to have pie thrown in his face, including Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Martin and Burt Lancaster.
“I’ve never done a pretentious show. It’s always had a live feeling — the kind of thing that comes across when you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Sales told author Gary Grossman in the 1981 book “Saturday Morning TV.” “I’ve never done anything simply because I thought I could get away with it. I’ve just wanted to do the funniest show.”
The possibility of humor dogged Sales from the start. He was born Milton Supman on Jan. 28, 1926, in the North Carolina backwater of Franklinton. The Supmans were the only Jews in town. Sales’ father ran a dry goods store that sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan.
The family name was often mispronounced as “Soupman.” To make matters worse, his parents, who had nicknamed his brothers “Hambone” and “Chickenbone,” dubbed him “Soupbone.” Eventually, Milton became just Soupy.
His father died when he was 5, prompting a move to Huntington, W.Va. Sales acted in school plays and in high school was voted most popular boy. World War II did not dampen his showbiz ambitions. He fought in the Pacific theater in the Navy, participated in the invasion of Okinawa, but managed to entertain crew mates with routines broadcast on the ship’s PA system.
After his discharge, Sales returned to West Virginia and enrolled in Marshall College as a journalism major, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1949.
In the early 1950s he moved to Ohio, where a Cleveland station manager gave him the professional name of Soupy Hines. That was nixed in Detroit, where his new station manager thought Hines would be confused with an advertiser, the Heinz soup line. Thus was Soupy Sales born.
Sales took his first pie in the face in 1950 when he played an American Indian in a spoof of the James Stewart movie “Broken Arrow.” That pie was real. Later, he would switch to shaving-cream pies. But he swore that the secret of a good pie was the crust: If it stuck to the face, it was, in Sales’ opinion, no good.