12 O’Clock Comics with Soupy Sales made its TV debut in March of 1953.  Within weeks the new show took off big time, making Soupy the greatest thing in Detroit since sliced Silvercup Bread. It soon became apparent that WXYZ needed to use the funnyman’s talent for more than just a kids show. The result was Soupy’s On, a late night variety show with comedy and musical performances by some of the top jazz performers of the day.

 Local news wasn’t a priority at WXYZ until 1962, when General Manager John Pival was ordered by ABC network bigwigs to develop a television news department. While WWJ and WJBK offered newscasts at 11:00 PM, WXYZ aired Goin’ Steady, a 15-minute musical program starring Betty Clooney, younger sister of singer Rosemary Clooney. When the songstress decided to leave Detroit for greener pastures, WXYZ programming director Pete Strand grabbed the time slot for Soupy Sales.

 Soupy’s On made its debut on November 10, 1953. A typical show opened with Soupy doing a short standup routine, followed by guests, comedy and music. The house band,  “Two Joes and a Hank,” was led by WXYZ’s musical director Hal Gordon, with members of Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” Joe Messina on guitar and Jack Brokensha on drums and vibes. Joe Oddo on bass and Hank Trevision on piano rounded out the group.

 The show originally ran from 11:00 to 11:10 PM, expanding to 15 minutes after a few months, then to a full 30 minutes in November of 1956. The expanded time slot allowed for more music and comedy sketches.

 Soupy’s noontime show was completely unrehearsed. The only script they used was a loose outline that basically told where the cartoons and commercials went. The nighttime show, on the other hand, was well rehearsed. Soupy and director Pete Strand wrote the opening monologue and the comedy sketches for the show each afternoon. The performers picked up their scripts in the early evening and had a run-through an hour before the show.

 Soupy’s stable of comic performers included Clyde Adler, Bertha Forman, Jane Hamilton and Rube Weiss.  

Clyde Adler

Bertha Forman

Jane Hamilton

Rube Weiss

 At the noon hour Clyde Adler was White Fang, Black Tooth, Pookie, Hippy and the man at the door on 12 O’Clock Comics. At night he played turbaned Indian mystic Kuda Dux, Jefferson the Mississippi gambler and many others.

 Character actress Bertha Forman’s career spanned over 50 years on stage, radio and television. She acted on The Lone Ranger radio show at WXYZ, playing everything from sweet old ladies to nasty head mistresses, and was best known for playing Soupy’s mother-in law on the show.

 Willowy blonde beauty Jane Hamilton played the ditzy literary critic Harriet Van Loon, the hip swinging floozy Bubbles and Soupy’s wife Boris. She was Miss Channel 9 in 1955, local TV spokesperson for Swift Premium’s meats and was married to game show host Art James.

 Rube Weiss was one of Detroit radio and TV’s most recognized voices. Beginning in the 1940s he acted in a handful of radio serials such as The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and Hermit’s Cave. In the 1960s he was the voice of Detroit Dragway. “Sunday! Sunday at Detroit Dragway, Sibley at Dix!” And for many years he was the official Santa Claus for the J. L. Hudson’s Thanksgiving Parade. His Soupy’s On characters included Oriental detective Charlie Pan, the Lone Stranger’s sidekick Pronto and loudmouth songwriter Shoutin’ Shorty Hogan. Rube’s 50-year career lasted well into the 1990s.

  Some of Soupy’s characters on the show were belching sheriff Wyatt Burp, continental crooner Charles Vichysoisse, foppish cowboy hero The Lone Stranger, the completely mental mentalist Gunninger and Calypso King Harry Bella.

 Occasional performers on the show included WXYZ announcer and newsman Leon McNew, who played interviewer Mike Walters. John Todd, who was Tonto on The Lone Ranger, played a grizzled old timer in The Lone Stranger sketches, and 6 foot 4, 350 pound WXYZ telecine operator Jim Powers played the Baby New Year nearly every December 31.  

 The Restocraft Mattress Company commercials that aired live on the show were very popular with the male viewers because of the voluptuous Loree Marks. During the day Loree hosted movies on WXYZ as The White Camellia, but in the evening she was the Restocraft Mattress Girl. Retired WXYZ director Chuck “Chase “ Snead recalls an incident with Loree that predated the famous Janet Jackson Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction by about 50 years.                                                                                                                     

 “These are the days of live television, remember. One night while they were doing a mattress commercial and Loree was reclining on the mattress in a low cut, sexy negligee, her push up bra lost it’s control and suddenly, there was more of Loree exposed than there should have been. They immediately cut to Soupy on the other side of the studio and he totally lost it. I don’t think much happened for the next couple of minutes except for a lot of laughing and embarrassment all around.”

 In the 1950s Detroit was home to dozens of jazz clubs, and Soupy’s On was always a scheduled stop for all of the greats.  A list of  performers who appeared on the show reads like a Who's Who of  modern jazz.  Musicians who visited the show include Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, George Shearing, Wingy Manone and Charlie Parker, whose Yardbird Suite was the show’s theme song. Miles Davis, who at the time was living in Detroit, was a regular, as were Detroit musicians Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams and Yusef Lateef.  

 Sadly, Soupy’s On aired live, and for most of its history, before the advent of video tape. A single 16mm kinescope of the show has survived with a performance by jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, whose life was tragically cut short in a car accident at the age of 26. The footage of “Brownie” playing a medley of Lady Be Good and Memories Of You is the only visual record of the jazz great, and   was used in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Jazz.

 The final show aired on November 27, 1959. Taking its place was the 11 O’Clock Report. WXYZ finally had a local late night newscast, but still not being completely committed to the format, they had singer Dee Parker offer musical interludes between news stories.

 On April 9, 1960, WXYZ aired Soupy’s Spectacular, a one-hour comedy special with the old gang that was Soupy’s swan song to Detroit. A few months later, Soupy, Clyde Adler and WXYZ director Bill Carruthers were off to Los Angeles for fame and fortune.  

 Soupy Sales is without a doubt the biggest star to come out of Detroit television. In Soupy Sez! My Life And Zany Times, Soupy wrote, "...even today, more than forty years later, there still exists a great love between me and the Motor City. I go back there at least a couple of times a year, and I'm still amazed at the wonderful reaction I get." Soupy was on TV in Detroit for only eight years, but he will forever be known as Detroit's own Soupy Sales.

Copyright © 2009 Edward Golick Jr. All Rights Reserved.