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Book in Focus
Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience
Manufacturing a Television Personality
By Francis Shor
How is a book about an ostensibly marginal television performer during his time in a Midwestern city a critical entry point into understanding the popular culture of the 1950s? The answer to this question is: when that television personality is the much-loved and wildly popular comedian known as Soupy Sales and the city is Detroit, the automobile manufacturing hub of the nation and, indeed, the world in that era.
The interface between Soupy Sales and Detroit represents a vehicle for investigating a variety of topics, including children’s television programming, Jewish-inflected comedy and comedians, jazz in the Motor City, and race, class, and gender relations in the 1950s. In order to interrogate these subjects and others, this book deploys a range of disciplinary perspectives and research methodologies. The result is a truly multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study.
In the first instance, the book examines the biographical background of Soupy Sales, born Milton Supman, before his arrival in Detroit at the age of twenty-seven. Taking his 2001 memoir, Soupy Sez! (co-authored with Charles Salzberg) as a key text to deconstruct, the opening chapter of the book scrutinizes the distinction that the well-known neurologist Oliver Sachs draws between “narrative” and “historical” truth. Because Soupy’s memoir and his various appearances on television talk shows rely on what I call comedic confabulation, the recounting of his life story often distorts the historical narrative to amuse and engage an audience. As such, this chapter places those memories in a socio-historical context by bringing in primary and secondary sources. Providing that context, while not diminishing the compelling quality of the narrative truth, nonetheless hews towards a more grounded historical truth.
The medium through which Soupy achieved his regional and national success was television. Emerging in the 1950s as a business and cultural enterprise, the second chapter synthesizes the work of television and cultural historians, such as William Boddy, John Fiske, Michele Hilmes, Karal Ann Marling, Susan Murray, and Lynn Spigel, in order to locate the role of television in providing the socio-cultural media landscape of the period. Probing the construction of family life and consumerism in the 1950s, Chapter Two incorporates other important studies by scholars, such as Stephanie Coontz, Victoria Grieve, Ann Marie Kordas, and Elaine Tyler May. Essential to locating Soupy’s television personality and his comedic appeals to children, teenagers, and adults, the chapter applies works on celebrity, children’s television programming, and Jewish TV comedic stars of the 1950s, specifically Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. The chapter reviews certain shticks of Berle and Caesar for their particular influences on Soupy’s brand of humor. For this section, material derives from the critical perspectives of Arthur Asa Berger, Lawrence Epstein, Gary Grossman, Gerald Nachmann, and Ruth Wisse. A comparison of that brand of humor with the spectacular popularity of the Mickey Mouse Club, via the insights on the Disney Empire by Stephen Watts, concludes the discussion of the role of television in reflecting and refracting the popular culture of the period.
Chapter Three looks at the social and cultural forces operating in Detroit during the 1950s. Citing the work of urban and social historians, such as Daniel Clark, Thomas Sugrue, and Heather Ann Thompson, helps to highlight the class and racial dynamics driving the Motor City. This section also integrates the life stories of two other significant players who arrived in Detroit at around the same time as Soupy did—Arthur Johnson, the newly appointed Director of the largest local branch of the NAACP, and Grace Lee Boggs, a leading political activist and organizer—in order to develop a more inclusive sense of the social scene. The chapter then turns to the role of jazz in the Detroit cultural landscape and as a backdrop to Soupy’s reliance on local and national jazz performers who appeared on his evening television program (discussed more fully in Chapter Five).
Although very few tapes remain from any of the daytime programs in which Soupy reigned during his time on the local ABC affiliate in Detroit, Chapter Four manages to subject the characters and performances on those shows to a critical analysis of their humorous appeals to children in particular. Beyond the various social psychological studies on children’s processing of comedy cited in this chapter, the findings drawn from questionnaires and interviews I developed and distributed to viewers of Soupy’s shows from the 1950s add to the analytical perspective on his daytime shows.
The next chapter spotlights Soupy’s evening program, Soupy’s On. Chapter Five incorporates never-before-publicly-revealed scripts from the skits performed on the show to situate the wide variety of jazz artists making guest appearances. Utilizing commentary from other sources about Soupy’s On, plus my own interviews of co-workers on these programs and spouses and children of a few of these co-workers, fleshes out the content of the evening show.
While Chapter Six uses numerous references to Soupy’s memoir in order to analyze his public persona, it also provides original research gleaned from the archival sources of Detroit newspapers. The focus here is on how Soupy’s television personality was manufactured through his own efforts, that of the television station, and a variety of public and business institutions in the Motor City.
The final chapter considers how Soupy built on his Detroit television personality for his endeavors in Los Angeles and New York during the 1960s and beyond. Again, secondary and primary sources are combined to construct a portrait of what is designated in Chapter Seven as “Detroit Afterimages.”
The Conclusion provides the reader with critical reflections on why and how Soupy became such a popular cultural icon in Detroit. Combining articles from Detroit-based television columnists with relevant excerpts from the memoir and my interviews of Detroit fans of Soupy harkens back to the opening question posed in this Book in Focus article.
“Francis Shor has done the painstaking research of relating Sales’ evening program, “Soupy’s On,” to the jazz life of Detroit. Many prominent jazz artists appeared on the program when they played in Detroit jazz clubs. This is a most unique and valuable addition to Detroit jazz history.”
Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Michigan; author (with Jim Gallert), Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit
“An entertaining read about a beloved pop-cultural icon that also captures the complexity of Detroit’s economic, political, and social landscape in the 1950s. This book will change the way you understand Soupy Sales’s humor, the wild popularity of his TV show, and his enduring impact on an entire generation of viewers. This is cultural history with pie-in-the-face explanatory power.”
Catherine Cangany, PhD
Executive Director, Jewish Historical Society of Michigan; author, Frontier Seaport: Detroit's Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt
“Entertaining and well-written, this story of Soupy Sales and his years in Detroit is a time machine transporting the reader back to the 1950s in a wonderful way. Supplemented with information about the comedy landscape of the time and the unique relationship Soupy had with Detroit, the book is historically valuable while simultaneously being warm and nostalgic.”
Author, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
“Francis Shor’s lively study of comedian Soupy Sales’ career in the early years of Detroit TV is a total delight! The stories about the young viewers’ engagement with the show at lunchtime, and Soupy’s innovative performances and production in both daytime and nighttime local television in the 1950s and 1960s are fascinating. Shor’s meticulously researched and captivating book adds wonderful new chapters to our knowledge of TV studies and the cultural history of Detroit.”
William P. Hobby Centennial Professor of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin; author, Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy
“Mention the name Soupy Sales to any Baby Boomer and you’ll most likely be met with a huge smile and a memory of one of his whacky shows that appealed as much to adults as they did to children. But few know about the early days in Soupy’s career, and the soil into which the seeds of his comic sensibilities were planted. Francis Shor does a terrific job of chronicling Soupy’s early days in television, especially those important Detroit years, before he made it to Los Angeles and then New York, where he created some of his most memorable characters. Shor makes a compelling case for placing Sales squarely in the pantheon of other legendary TV comedians like Pinky Lee and Milton Berle.”
Co-Author (with Soupy Sales), Soupy Sez: My Life and Zany Times and twice-nominated Shamus Award author of the Henry Swann series
Francis Shor is an Emeritus Professor of History at Wayne State University, USA. During his long academic career, he authored numerous books, the most recent being Weaponized Whiteness: The Constructions and Deconstructions of White Identity Politics (2020), and hundreds of articles covering a broad range of topics in 20th century US and global social and cultural history. In addition to his academic work, he has been a long-time peace and justice activist, serving on the Boards of Peace Action of Michigan and the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR).
Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience: Manufacturing a Television Personality is available now in Hardback and Paperback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. eBook and further sample pages available from Google Play.