In Francis Shor’s Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience: Manufacturing a Television Personality, Shor analyzes the appeal of Soupy Sales for children.
Once upon a time, a star, a superstar, perhaps the leading television performer in all of America, lived right here in Jewish Detroit, seemingly next door to everyone.
In the 1950s, when school children had a lunch break long enough to allow them to walk home, enjoy lunch with their stay-at-home mom and get back in time for afternoon class, Lunch with Soupy filled a need. It gave households — those that already had the brand-new luxury of a television — a focus for their time together.
Soupy, wearing his oversized bow tie and his battered top hat, interacted with his family of characters, including a mostly offscreen pair of dogs, Black Tooth and White Fang, and a mostly offscreen angry neighbor. Often Soupy got a pie in the face as reward for his efforts. Somehow, Soupy also managed to eat his lunch during the show and tout his Jell-O brand dessert.
Even the littlest children responded to the unthreatening slapstick of Soupy Sales and the cartoons he showed. Older siblings and their mothers came to love his ridiculous puns and zany skits.
Remarkably, while Soupy perfected his program for children at noon, he also hosted a late-night program for adults. At 11 p.m., Soupy’s On featured music by Soupy’s guests, the greatest big-band and jazz musicians who appeared at Detroit music clubs, sophisticated conversation about music, and zany skits mocking various aspects of popular culture. Soupy would transform himself for these skits in an instant into the French actor Charles Vichyssoise, or the Western hero Wyatt Burp or noted author Ernest Herringbone.
Segregation flourished in the 1950s: Club owners presented some local venues as “black and tan clubs,” where the audiences could include white and Black patrons. Other clubs were not so accommodating. The finest musicians, Black and white, were honored guests on Soupy’s On. Club owners even insisted on inserting a clause in performers’ contracts insisting that, in addition to performing at the club, they appear on Soupy’s program.
While running a show at lunchtime and another at bedtime, what did Soupy Sales do with the rest of his day? He scheduled personal appearances all around Detroit, for nearly anyone who asked him. Dave Usher, Soupy’s manager at the time, said, “He would average about five or six calls a day from viewers asking, mainly because of his kid’s show, if he’d make appearance at various locations. So we’d show up whenever . . .”
When he announced on television that he would show up at a Big Boy restaurant or a movie theater, thousands of his followers would swarm him. He would also make appearances at private parties, just because someone asked.
Soupy explained why: “He felt he owed it to the people of Detroit.”
You learn all this and more in Francis Shor’s Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience: Manufacturing a Television Personality (Cambridge Scholars Publishing).
The Early Years
Soupy Sales started out as Milton Supman, born in 1926, firstborn son of the only Jews in Franklinton, North Carolina. His parents — like Jews all over the rural South — ran the general store. Milton’s father, Irving, died in 1931.
In 1934, Milton’s mother, Sadie Berman Supman, married Felix Goldstein, and moved with her three sons to Huntington, West Virginia. Milton graduated from Marshall College (now University) in his hometown, where he began his career as a performer.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy in World War II, he began his career as a radio, and then television, personality, eventually making it to Detroit.
Shor writes: “It’s also clear from the archives of the Detroit Jewish News that Soupy did not want to forget his own connections to the Jewish community. Starting in the fall of 1953, right through the fall of 1959, he participated in a variety of events as a master of ceremonies or special guest.”
He lent his talent to Jewish War Veterans posts’ Chanukah parties, to a children’s party of the Temple Israel Men’s Club and to an event at the Jewish Community Center of Northwest Detroit. He also headlined at Easter and Christmas events throughout Detroit.
Soupy called his followers, the swarms of children who showed up wherever he went, the “birdbaths.” Eventually, he formalized the title. Children could send in “something like a dime” for an official membership card, identifying them as members of the Birdbath Club.
With what in retrospect looks like extraordinary clumsiness, the station moved Lunch with Soupy from its natural hour at noon to breakfast time, and then to 4 p.m. His television audience somehow moved with him. Eventually, Soupy moved on to Los Angeles, and then to New York, going where his career took him.
Francis Shor analyzes the appeal of Soupy Sales for children. Soupy somehow managed to be both wholesome and subversive. He gave children good advice, writing on his “Soupy Sez” blackboard such wisdom as “Be true to your teeth, and they’ll never be false to you.”
Soupy treated children with kindness, while his skits seemed spontaneous and out-of-control, teetering on the edge of chaotic absurdity.
Shor develops a pointed contrast between Lunch with Soupy and The Mickey Mouse Club, a blockbuster of children’s programming of the same era. The Mickey Mouse Club appears under tight controls, carefully scripted, resolutely virtuous, directed by serious adults. Lunch with Soupy appears as if unscripted, in Shor’s words, “ordinary, familiar and spontaneous.”
Soupy seems unafraid of making a fool of himself, like a big kid himself, treating other kids as his peer group.
If you are too young to have seen Soupy Sales on television or if you’ve never heard of Soupy Sales, you can scarcely recover the phenomenon from the internet. Almost none of his work survives in video files. You can see a few bits on YouTube.
Soupy Sales published a book of his favorite gags, Stop Me If You’ve Heard It!, which includes this typical piece: Two goats are busy eating garbage. While they’re eating, one of them finds a roll of old film and proceeds to eat it up. After he finishes chewing on the film, the other goat asks him, “Did you enjoy the film?”
The other goats says, “Actually, I preferred the book!”
Francis Shor has the qualifications to write this book: professor emeritus of history at Wayne State University, Shor has the Detroit connections and the research skills to uncover every scrap of information about Soupy Sales.
Shor is also the right age for the enterprise; as a child enchanted by the magic of Lunch with Soupy Sales, he has remained enchanted. The subtitle of Shor’s work, “Manufacturing a Television Personality,” might give the impression that the professor intends to deconstruct the image of Soupy Sales, to show the performer as depressingly different from the performance. On the contrary, Shor’s extensive research reveals the performer’s authenticity. The broadcasting business built the image of Soupy Sales on the real person. Every bit of research reveals Shor’s continuing love for Soupy Sales.
Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience is available at cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-7553-0. At checkout, enter promotional code PROMO25. Charges are In British pounds sterling, the equivalent of about $29, which includes shipping.