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October 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


Soupy Sales died last night. For a brief period 45 years ago, he was a big part of our family’s life. That would be the fall of 1964 and the winter of 1964-65. I was in 8th grade. My brother was in 12th grade. I wasn’t that big a fan of Soupy, but my brother was. And reading the NYT obituary tonight, I realize that that was the peak of Soupy’s career.

Drawing on the physical comedy of the Marx Brothers and Harry Ritz, he entered show business after graduating from Marshall College in Huntington, W.Va. Working as a teenage dance-show host and D. J. on television and radio, he appeared on stations in Cincinnati and Cleveland, then began “Lunch With Soupy” in 1953 on WXYZ-TV in Detroit. He took the name Soupy Sales in part from the old-time comic actor Chic Sale. After appearing on local TV in Los Angeles and on the ABC-TV network, he made his debut on WNEW in the fall of 1964.

Then came an infamous moment. On New Year’s Day 1965, Soupy Sales asked youngsters to go through their parents’ clothing and send him little green pieces of paper with pictures of men with beards. He later reported receiving only a few dollar bills and said he donated them to charity, but Metromedia, the station’s owner, suspended him briefly after a viewer complained to the Federal Communications Commission that he was encouraging children to steal.

That stunt only heightened Mr. Sales’s appeal to young people as a tweaker of authority, and when he headlined a rock ’n’ roll show at the New York Paramount the following Easter, perhaps 3,000 teenagers were snaking through Times Square hoping for seats at the morning performance. “He’s great, he’s a nut like us,” a 13-year-old boy told The New York Times.

Aha! So the period I remember him so well from was none other than the period when he entered the New York television market, on WNEW. That makes sense. Of course, I had no clue at the time what shows were local and what were national. Especially confusing to any kid growing up in New York was the fact that the call letters of the local network affiliates are WNBC, WCBS, and WABC. After a network show, when someone would announce, “This is CBS, we pause now for station identification” and another voice came on to say, “This is WCBS,” I never knew what the point of that silly little exercise was. WNEW wasn’t a network affiliate. I knew something was different about it, but I doubt I knew whether an afternoon show like Soupy Sales was local or national.

In any case, my brother spent some time in the hospital that year, first for what was supposed to be routine surgery, then again after some complications. It was a scary time. I was busy preparing for my upcoming Bar Mitzvah. (The Bar Mitzvah pictures serve as a permanent record of his weakened, post-hospital state. They’re also the last record of the time when he was taller than me.)

I didn’t pay too much attention to Soupy, except when we’d go to the hospital to visit my brother, for whom he was the daily highlight. We’d watch him together. The nurses would join us. Everyone laughed.

Whatever else Soupy was, he was a godsend to our family.

Categories: Family, Obituary
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