In the 1960's Soupy Sales was a national phenomenon with his whimsical, live TV show and the hottest record in America.
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The Prince Is Born
and Not a Pie In
FRANKLINTON, NC, 1926-1933
HUNTINGTON, WV, 1934-1949
I got my genes from my grandmother. On her 76th birthday the doctor told her to run five miles a day. Now she's 94 and we don't know where the hell she is.
* * *
I guess I might as well start from the beginning, since starting anywhere else doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless, of course, you're reading this from back to front.
I was born in Franklinton, North Carolinaprimarily because I wanted to be near my mother. Franklinton, which wasn't far from Wake Forest University, was a small, sleepy town with a population of fifteen hundred, and that number never changed. Every time a baby was born, some guy left town. Coincidence? I don't think so.
Being a small town, there wasn't much to do around Franklinton, which probably explains why my mother gave birth four timesand not all of them were me. The first born, Marvin, died in childhood; then there was Leonard; followed a few years later by Jack, and then there was me, Milton, yes, Milton. Do you honestly think anyone would actually name their son, Soupy?That name came later.
My parents, Irving and Sadie Supman, came to Franklinton after World War I and opened up a dry goods business called the Wonder Department Storeand if you're wondering what dry goods are in relation to wet goods, you're wondering the samething as I am. And if you're wondering why they wound up in Franklinton, so am I, because if it weren't for bowling, Franklinton wouldn't have had any culture at all.
My mother and father were both born in Baltimore, Maryland. In fact, they were both born on the same day, the Fourth of July, but my father was ten years older than my mother, so it wasn't really the same day, was it? My mother was always bragging about the fact that both she and my father were July fourth, Independence Day babies and wasn't that something special? Finally, one day when I was sick of hearing about it, I said to my mother, "Well, why didn't you marry Louis Armstrong? He was also born on July fourth."
When they met and got married, my father was working in Baltimore, but because his brother had a store in Raleigh, North Carolina, he decided to pack up and move down there to seek his fortune (the fame part was going to be left to me). Eventually, he moved to Franklinton and opened up his own store.
I arrived in the world on January 8, 1926, under the sign of Capricorn (I bet you thought I was going to say a stop sign, huh?). Nothing ever comes easy for Capricorns, or so I'm told, and this certainly turned out to be true for me. My brothers already had their nicknames in place when I made my appearance: Leonard was Hambone and Jack was Chickenbone, so the only thing left for me was Soupbone, which believe me, was a lot better than Milkbone. Besides, down south everyone pronounced our last name Soupman instead of Supman, so "Soupy" seemed very appropriate. I didn't mind, just so long as they didn't call me late for dinner.
I think growing up in the South affected my personality because I was brought up during a time when there was a lot of prejudice, much more than there is now, and being an observant kid, I couldn't help but see what was happening around me. I believe that observing this and taking it in made me a much better person. Years later, when I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, I really identified with those kids in their innocence and their lack of prejudice, even as horrible things were taking place around them.
It was a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a dominant and deadly force in the South. Fortunately, they never bothered usprobably because my father was the one who sold them their sheets. They even invited him to join the Klan, but for obvious reasons he turned them down. Back then racism was an accepted way of life, simply part of the social fabric. As a young child, I was blissfully unaware of itthat is, until a horrifying event took place when I was about seven years old, the aftermath of which I'll never forget. To this day, I still have nightmares about it.
Like most every public place in the south, the movie theater in townthe only movie theater in town, I should addwas segregated. Black people could attend, but they were made to sit upstairs in the balcony. One steamy summer night the manager, Mr. Brown, who lived in our neighborhood and had five daughters, discovered that a black gentleman was breaking the house rules by smoking during the show. When Mr. Brown ordered the man out of the theater, a violent altercation ensued, which wound up tragically with the black patron throwing Mr. Brown off the balcony to his death. Naturally, the patron was arrested and thrown in jail. But he never made it to court. A couple of days later, I was walking through the center of town and there he was, or what was left of him, hanging from a telephone pole for everyone to see. After they'd lynched him, the KKK had stuck a cigarette between his lifeless lips, just to get their point across in case anyone had missed it. This gruesome spectacle left an indelible, lifelong impression on me. I can still see that man swinging from that telephone pole with that cigarette butt dangling from his mouth, as vividly as if it all happened just last week.
In many ways, for those first years of my life, I led an idyllic childhood. In fact, if I had to choose just one memory to keep, even with all the success I've had, I think it would probably be a memory from childhood, especially a memory of me and my father, who died when I was very young.
One thing I got from my parents (other than my name, of course) is a love for others. They loved everybody and taught us to do the same. Even today, what with all I've been through, I think I'm still the same way. Another thing I inherited from my mother and father is a trusting nature, and I'm afraid that has caused some problems for me along the way. If I were asked what characteristic I would hope my two boys, Tony and Hunt, haven't inherited from me, I would say the inclination to believe what everybody tells them. After all these yearsfinallyI've learned that you've got to have a healthy dose of skepticism to get along in the world.
My father died of tuberculosis when I was only five years old, so I hardly knew him, not only because he died so young, but also because he was always working long hours in the store, hardly ever around the house. In fact, sadly, I have only a few vague memories of him and, interestingly enough, all of them took place in his store. I remember one time my mother and I were going up to Raleigh for a birthday party and I was all dressed up and ready to go, waiting for my mother to get ready, and my father bent over, patted me on the head, and said gently, "Be a good boy, Soupy." I looked up at him and said, "Okay." And I was a good boy, at least for a while.
When my father passed away, he was only forty-one years old. Nobody came up to me and said, "Hey, your dad died." I didn't even get to go to the funeral. That just wasn't the way they did things in those days. I guess they figured kids couldn't handle death and so it was better just to ignore it and make believe that my father was just on a very, very long business trip. His death affected me very much, because after that, I didn't really have much of a family life. He was buried in Baltimore, and that's where my mother was buried, too, right beside him, when she died in 1970 at the age of seventy-four.
It wasn't easy for my mother, bringing up three boys, but she did a damn good job of it. She was a strong woman and I probably inherited my sense of humor from her. I remember she'd come back from playing cards with her friends and she'd say to me, "Everyone says how funny I am," and I'd say, "Okay, what did you say that was so funny?" She'd say, "I don't know, but everybody said it was funny." I guess I had to take her word for it.
About a year after my father died, when I was six years old, I made my stage debut playing the title role in my elementary school production of "Peter Rabbit." It was, without doubt, the pivotal event of my life, because when I heard those two hundred or so people laughing and clapping when I made my grand entrance from a barrel and then sang a song, I felt like a bolt of lightening had struck me. To this day, I think that the thing that makes me happiest is the applause and laughter I get from an audience. And the thing that probably makes me unhappiest is the reality that you can't work all of the time, which means that the applause and laughter is limited to the time you're actually performing. I know all you amateur head shrinkers out there are probably nodding your heads and saying, "Well, that's why he's in show business today. He needs constant reassurance, constant demonstrations of love." And the truth is, you may be right. I am a workaholic. But I also love to entertain people. I love to make them smile. And even if I'd listened to my parents and become an optician, I suspect I'd be a very funny one.
Anyway, I don't know whether it was a message from God or not, but after that gig as Peter Rabbit, I said to myself, "Soupy, this is what you're going to do with your life." It's weird, I know, because I was only six years old, and yet somehow I knew that entertaining people was going to be my life.
I once asked Frank Sinatra if talent was hereditary or a special individual God-given trait. He said, "Well, Soupy, your two brothers aren't in show business." He felt that people like us were put here on this earth to entertain people and make them happy. And listen, I wasn't about to go up against Frank, or else I'd probably wind up being a right turn on Route 95.
Once my father died, I wound up spending a lot of time by myself. My brothers were older and, like most older siblings, didn't pay too much attention to me. My mother, now the sole wage earner, spent most of her day working. My mother would leave the house at seven in the morning and come home at seven at night. On Saturdays, I'd go to the movies and spend the whole day there. I'd be half asleep when my mother would come and pick me up and take me home.
I loved the movies. They gave me a taste of what I thought my life was going to be like when I grew up. I was going to be a performer, just like those folks up on the silver screen, which was going to be a way for me to relate to other people. And, in my own small way, even as a child, that's exactly what I didperform.
* * *
Huntington has a great device for removing snow. It's called July.
* * *
Our family remained in Franklinton for a few years after my father died, but it was rough on my mother, running the store alone and all. Eventually, she met a traveling salesman (not that traveling salesman) from West Virginia, named Felix Goldstein. They were married in 1934. He was much older than my mother and already had two sons, one of whom was a doctor and the other was studying to be a dentist.
After my mother remarried, we moved from Franklinton and settled in Huntington, West Virginia, the place I still think of as my hometown. I love the place. It's where my roots are, where my first experiences in life were and my best friends still live. I grew up there and I plan to be buried there ... when I die, of course. Before that would be a little premature, don't you think?
I took to Huntington like a duck to water, and I guess Huntington took to me, too, because today the city is proud to claim me as one of their own. I know this is true because in the center of town, near the municipal complex, the town fathers erected and dedicated the Soupy Sales Plaza, where I still go once a year, usually in the month of June, to perform a free comedy and music show. At the same time, I get a chance to visit with the many friends I have who still live there. Even today, I have very strong emotional ties to Huntington. It doesn't make any difference where I am or what I'm doing; when I think of homeand believe me, over the years I've had a lot of themI think of Huntington. It's where I spent the happiest years of my life, and sometimes I wake up and I just know I've got to go back there.
And yet, I think that growing up in a small town limited me somewhat in terms of my career. Perhaps it had something to do with being unprepared for the kinds of people I was going to meet in the business, the kinds of people who didn't know how to be straight with you, the kinds of people whose only interest in you would be what you could do for them. I think the one thing I like least about show business is the fact that there are a lot of people in our business who do not stick up for, or try to help, other people in the business, whether they're trying to get a break, climbing up the ladder, or having a difficult time. Throughout my career, I've tried to be as generous and kind as I possibly could to everyone. In factI know this sounds cornybut it's the truth; my motto is, was, and always will be, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
When I finally did get out into the world, the thing I remember being the most difficult for me was to adapt myself to people other than those I knew in my hometown. I mean, people in clubs and other cities in other areas of the country didn't know me, and because they didn't know me I had to make it solely on the basis of being a performer and entertaining them enough so that they would accept me.
I was very excited about moving, because where I'd come from the main street ran through a car wash. Now, in a bigger town, I figured there'd actually be things to do, places to see.
CHARLIE COOK, SOUPY'S CHILDHOOD FRIEND:
Huntington really was a small town and this story kind of proves that. I remember one time Soupy was standing on the corner waiting for a bus. This was back in the early forties and we were just coming out of the Depression and there weren't many cars around, so we rode the bus. Anyway, he's standing there and a lady comes out of the house in front of which he was standing, comes over to him, and asks, "Are you Soupy?" And he says, "Yes." She says, "Well, you're wanted on the telephone." And then she invites him inside. It was a friend of ours, Bill Young, who said, "Hey, where ya goin'?" "Downtown," said Soupy. "Well, I'll meet you down there." Evidently, Bill, who was a little wacky himself, had called Soupy's house and his mother had told him where Soupy was and he just found the woman's name and number and called her up and described Soupy and asked her to look outside for him. What was really amazing was that the woman just let him in. But that's just the way it was back in those days.
* * *
Huntington was always a very social town. They even had fraternities and sororities in high school. We had great dances and, unlike today when every day is casual Friday, everybody dressed up. We had great events like the Beau Brummel Ball, and places like Amsbary Johnson's, Dunhill's, Angel's, and Foard & Harwood would donate clothes. Everybody would plan for months to go to the Beau Brummel Ball and nobody would tell anyone what they were going to wear.
All in all, those were terrific times back in Huntington, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. And the friends I made back then are still very much in my life.
Soupy and I both moved to Huntington when we were in the fourth grade, and we wound up living in the same neighborhood, so we became best friends. We went all through high school and a couple of years of college at Marshall together, and then I attended pharmacy school in Cincinnati while Soupy began his career in show business, which didn't surprise me at all, considering some of the things we did when we were kids.
There are lots of stories I could tell about Soupy, but a few in particular stand out. One of them took place back in the early `40s, around Christmastime. Soupy and I found we didn't have any money, which wasn't all that unusual for us, so, we came up with this scheme to have a turkey raffle. We had the tickets printed up and we talked the Clique Club at the high school into selling them for ten cents a chance to win a fifteen-pound turkey. We were going to have the drawing in the lobby of Frederick's hotel, which was the biggest hotel in town, only we didn't bother to inform the hotel that we were gonna do that. Well, Saturday morning comes and there's a hotel lobby full of kids; gosh, we must have sold several hundred tickets, and when we drew the winning guy's name we asked him if he wanted the turkey or the money prize, which we pegged at five dollars. He said, "You can't buy a fifteen-pound turkey for five dollars." And we said, "If it's alive, you can." He said, "I'm not taking a live turkey, I'll take the five bucks." We made about fifteen bucks apiece that day, and by the time the hotel figured out what was going on, we'd high-tailed it out of there.
* * *
CHILDHOOD FRIEND FROM HUNTINGDON
Soupy moved into our neighborhood in the summer of 1934 and we became close friends, and our friendship lasted all through high school and college. In fact, I was best man at his first wedding.
I remember, when we were kids, maybe nine or ten years old, we used to put on shows for the neighborhood kids in his garage. I was the straight man and he was the comedian. We charged a penny and we even had a sideshow that we put on. We had one kid from the neighborhood, Otis Cavendish, who could drink down a bottle of pop without moving his Adam's apple. He was quite a draw.
In high school Soupy used to send his joke material to comedians like Bob Hope and Red Skelton. I'm not sure he ever had anything purchased, but that didn't stop him from sending them out anyway. He was also a big band expert to the point where he could tell you who played every instrument in every band.
I was also on the high school newspaper with himand we both wrote about sports. I was on the basketball and track team and little Soupy was the track manager. One of his duties was to keep the broadjump pit, which was filled with sawdust, all fluffed up so that the athletes wouldn't hurt themselves. One time, during practice, Jack Jenkins, the star broadjumper, broke his ankle and the coach blamed it on poor Soupy for not keeping that pit properly fluffed up. The track team would travel to other schools for meets and Soupy and I had this special sign language thing so that in the car we'd be laughing all the time, till it came to a point where the coach wanted to throw us out of the car.
* * *
I was an inveterate class cutup, but I don't think you could consider me the class clown. If you ask me, I just think I had a little more personality than most people. And maybe that's why I was voted the most popular kid in school. Or maybe it was all those free sodas I handed out to the voters. Okay, why beat around the bush? I guess I was a pretty funny guy for around thereafter all, we're talking about Huntington, West Virginia, which isn't exactly Las Vegas, is it? But, let's face it, if you look like I did then you had to be funny. Speaking of looks, someone once asked me if there was a physical feature I would change and I said, yes, I would like to have another nosenot two noses, just another one other than the one I have.
I also played a few pranks that got me a little attention (sometimes more than a little). For instance, I once gradually whittled down the bottoms of two canes that were used by one of the older teachers at school until one afternoon the guy ran screaming into the hall, "I'm taller! I'm taller!" But of course, there were other stories about me that floated around that weren't true. For instance, no matter what anyone says I never did try to get a goat onto the roof of the high schoolalthough I did try to get a couple of girls to go up there with me.
Soupy was well-known among the kids at school. He was popular and a good dancer. As teenagers, Soupy and I used to double-date all the time, and I recall one night we stayed up all night trying to list all the girls we'd dated. I believe we came up with over 100 different girls, and since I used to have a steady girl most of the time, most of the girls on the list were Soupy's.
I remember one night we were on a double-date and after we did whatever we'd dogo to a movie, go dancing, whateverwe'd go over to the park for some, uh, extracurricular activities. The girl he was with didn't want to go. She said she didn't feel that well. Anyway, after we'd finish over in the park, we'd usually go to get something to eat. But this time, it was obvious that we were taking this girl home, and so she said, "Aren't we going to get something to eat?" And Soupy said, "If you're too sick to neck, you're too sick to eat."
* * *
Like most kids, I was movie mad, and during those early days I became a lifelong aficionado of the western serials, especially those starring Buck Jones, Bob Steele, and Johnny Mack Brown. But from the movies I also absorbed some of the influences that would shape my comedic style as an adult: the anarchic mayhem of the Marx Brothers and, in particular, the zany slapstick antics of the Ritz Brothers, especially Harry Ritz, who was the leader of the trio. And then there were Laurel and Hardy, who also had a big influence on me. I especially admired the physicality of the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers. Physical comedy was always appealing to me because I was feeling very physical in those days and, when you think about it, this was and is a very physical country (and, if you recall, a good deal of my comedy had a physical component to itI was always moving around, sliding back and forth, falling down).
The movies were pretty much it in terms of entertainment. Certainly, there were no nightclubs in North Carolina or West Virginia. And in those days, it seemed to us that nobody went into show business unless you lived in New York or Hollywood, or maybe in Chicago, which played a big part in the early days of both radio and television. But it's different today. You can be in Youngstown, Ohio, or Kalamazoo, Michigan, and find a comedy club to work in. They're everywhere. Nick's grocery store, down the street, is featuring the hottest comic in town. And Tony, the town barber, tells a pretty mean joke, too.
Once I entered high school, I started to channel my performing urges by appearing in plays and, because I loved music, especially the big bands, I even took up the clarinet. But I didn't really like to practiceI was much too busy doing other thingswhich meant that I wasn't going to grow up to be Benny Goodman (or even play him in the moviesthat was left to Steve Allen).
Excerpted from SOUPY SEZ! by Soupy Sales with Charles Salzberg. Copyright © 2001 by Soupy Sales and Charles Salzberg. Excerpted by permission.
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