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The antic world of Soupy Sales!

Matt Schudel

I suppose not many young people today know the name Soupy Sales, but that's their fault, not his. Soupy Sales, who died this week at 83, was a huge TV star in the 1950s and '60s, with a kind of renegade kids' show that made Captain Kangaroo look like week-old oatmeal.

Soupy Sales danced around the stage in a goofy, bouncy way, he chatted with puppets before Jim Henson invented the Muppets, he had a nutty, stream-of-consciousness style that hinted at -- and sometimes exposed -- a strong streak of mischief. He was always reeling off a series of bad puns in his "Words of Wisdom," and his show seemd to be in a constant state of barely controlled mayhem, often crossing the line into madcap pie-throwing craziness -- as you can see in the clips from this interview with, all people, Bill O'Reilly.

And, of course, his shows were broadcast live, which led to all sorts of improvised humor and comic calamity. (There was a famous episode in which Soupy's played a trick on him and sent a surprise guest to greet him at the door at the back of the cheap set. I can't possibly link to it from the site of a family newspaper, but it has become a famous TV blooper.)

On New Year's Day 1965, Soupy was temporarily kicked off the air when he told the children watching his show to go through their parents' wallets and send him "little green pieces of paper." He tells the hilarious story here, in a 1990s nightclub appearance. (His claim that he received $80,000, however, is greatly exaggerated.)

Not many people realize that Soupy Sales began his career as a radio deejay in West Virginia. (He was born in North Carolina and retained a hint of a Southern accent throughout his life.) He was a huge jazz fan and, according to an article I read from the 1960s, had a collection of more than 3,000 albums.

When he was on television in Detroit in the 1950s, he had two daily shows, one at noon for kids and a late-night talk and variety show at 11 p.m. He had many top jazz musicians on his show, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. One one show in1955, his guest was the great trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in a car crash a year later, when he was 25. This video, which includes a chat between Clifford and Soupy at the end, is the only known film of Brown performing. Among jazz fans, this clip is considered a rare treasure indeed. But then, Soupy Sales was a rare treasure too, in his own zany way.

By Matt Schudel  |  October 24, 2009; 2:17 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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