I got a text message from my brother Clay yesterday afternoon informing me of the death of Soupy Sales. Sales was a staple around our house on Saturdays in the early 1960s. He had a children’s television show that was always the last kid show of the day on Saturday. Right after Soupy ate his lunch with you on the show, it was time to watch Baseball’s “Game of the Week” with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese (“Well howdy baseball fans, this is your old podnuh Dizzy Dean”…but we will leave him for another day).
It is no longer possible to understand how important Saturday morning T.V. was to my generation, just as it is no longer possible for my father’s generation to explain what was so important about going to the movies each Saturday morning. While children’s popular culture and adult popular culture have more or less merged in today’s world, things were quite different in my childhood. After a long and exhausting week of school work, it was indescribably wonderful to get up on Saturday morning and watch three to four hours of entertainment on television aimed right at you. Today there is never a time when a child cannot see something interesting to him/her on T.V. There are cartoon channels that run 24 hours a day, videos of favorite movies, TiVo’s from what was missed yesterday, and “on demand “ programming. In my childhood, once you were in school, you really had only the Saturday morning shows to look forward to.
As a young boy I’d get up early on Saturday, often before the shows started. I would usually have to endure watching the Saturday morning farm report show (which began with the sound of a dog barking). I recall being mystified by commodity futures. Some man would stand in front of the camera and say things like “pork bellies up ½”. What did that mean, who was buying only the belly of a pig ? At any rate, after getting through that (and when you are a child, thirty minutes creeps by) it was onto the kids programming.
Although I did not know it then, the first couple of shows each Saturday were old nighttime T.V. shows that were syndicated and sold locally to our channels. These shows had apparently been made for adults, but were so infantile that they actually became semi-hits as Saturday Morning staples. “The Tales of Texas Rangers”, “Sky King” and “Fury (the story of a horse and the boy who loved him)” were three I always watched, even though there were not all that many episodes made of each. You just watched them again and again, every time they came around. A little later were reruns of the “Lone Ranger” and “Superman” which were better known and better made shows, although you might get an argument from “Sky King” fans, especially those who had a crush on his “niece” Penny.
After these shows came the main events of Saturday, the cartoon shows. Some were straight cartoons, some were cartoons hosted by humans and puppets. Sherry Lewis and her sock puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse were big stars. The cartoons were just like the adult shows, there would be brand new shows and brand new episodes every September. The shows changed with the taste of the times. They started out being mostly reruns of old movie cartoons,the Warner Brothers stuff was the best. Then the cereal companies who ran commercials for most all of the shows (along with Hostess and Red Goose Shoes) started making cartoon characters from their cereal box stars. “Sugar Bear” of Sugar Crisp cereals was my favorite, he was a cool bear who sounded a lot like Bing Crosby. I recall him spying a witch one time and saying “Ring a ling Granny, here I come.” Pretty funny stuff.
There was Rocky and Bullwinkle, Linus the Lion Hearted, The King Leonardo Show, Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales, etc. Eventually, space travel became an important component of Saturday, “Fireball XL5” was a show about puppets in space. Well, not actually puppets in space, the astronauts were just played by puppets. Adam Ant, Secret Squirrel, Milton the Monster and others came on a few years later. By the time I was getting out of the Saturday morning business, the whole thing was being taken over by Super Hero cartoons.
But Soupy was something else. Soupy came on at lunch time, or just before. Indeed, the last thing on the show was sitting down to eat lunch with Soupy. Sometimes my mother timed our lunch so that we got to eat with Soupy. Once, I recall, we even had the same thing as Soupy (Tuna Fish). But when we bit into our sandwiches they did not sound like springs recoiling or gravel being turned in a cement mixer like Soupy’s did. Soupy’s world was different, the rules of physics did not apply, nor did the mores of Western Culture.
As near as I could tell, Soupy’s show had no script. Soupy would come out on the stage every Saturday and act, well, manic. That was the show, Soupy was manic. For thirty minutes, until he sat down for lunch, he would run around on the stage in disorganized skits which always ended up with him getting a pie in the face. He had at least three recurring characters on the show. There was a Lion puppet named Pookie, a dog named White Fang and another (I think) named Black Fang. The only part of the dogs that you ever saw was their out stretched arms and paw. Actually, just one arm. In White Fangs case, it was a long fury white arm that extended toward Soupy, occasionally grabbing him and pulling him off camera where you could hear his slobbering licking going on (Fang’s not Soupy’s).
The rest of the show, as best I recall, was literally Soupy running around the stage acting silly. This was not unusual in those days. Jerry Lewis had a similar act, and as hard as it is to believe today, it was funny. It was funny to a child because it was so different, it seemed almost risky. Soupy was the internal child in all of us who simply wanted to run amuck like we wished we could without having to be concerned about our appearance, our deportment, or whether or not we broke most of the items in any given room. It was no accident that he was the last children’s show of the day, the transitional show, the barely pre-pubescent show, Soupy had a purpose in life. He played to what is today called the “tweens”, although the culture is so different now that you could not get an eleven year old to watch one of Soupy’s old skits. Even with the pie in the face ending.
Childhood eventually outgrew Soupy, even though he never outgrew childhood. Children changed and Soupy did not. Thus his show left the air. The last time I recall seeing him on a Saturday morning, he was trying to introduce a song called “The Mouse” which he hoped would spawn a dance which would become a national rage. “Do The Mouse yeah, you can do it in your house yeah.” I don’t recall “The Mouse” making a splash and Soupy’s attempt to relate to a new generation of children was unsuccessful .He went off to become a regular panelist on day time game shows until he slipped out of site a couple of decades ago.
Now the generation who applauded him is aging rapidly. With them will die the memories of Soupy’s show and of White Fang. With them will die the innocence that childhood used to be before all of our children became too smart and sophisticated to laugh at a cream pie covering the faith of a hapless human being. I read an obituary a minute ago that said Soupy had taken more than 20,000 pies in the face. It is actually an enviable record, but unless the world turns backwards, it is a record which will stand forever.