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.
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
Bertha Forman, Jane Hamilton and 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.
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
Occasional performers on the show included WXYZ announcer and
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
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.
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.
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.
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.