Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience: Manufacturing a Television Personality
When Soupy Sales left Detroit in 1960 after seven years on WXYZ TV, he was the highest-paid local television personality and one of the most well-known and loved celebrities in town. His daytime television programs in the early morning and noontime had an enormous and devoted following. The latter, Lunch with Soupy Sales, was nationally syndicated on ABC on Saturday, starting in the fall of 1959. His late evening program, Soupy’s On, featured everything from renowned jazz artists to pop singers to satirical skits. While he would achieve more celebrity status in Los Angeles and New York during the 1960s, the template for the puppet characters, comedy routines, and zany sketches had been set in Detroit.
This study of the content and context of Soupy’s time on WXYZ TV provides important insights into key threads of popular culture in the 1950s, including the role of television and its impact on the family and children, the influence of Cold War and consumerist ideology, Jewish-inflected humor, and jazz, especially as a component of the Detroit socio-cultural history in this period. All of these seemingly disparate topics, however, lead back to identifying the manufacturing of a television personality at a particular moment in time and in a specific location.
Beyond the network of Soupy fans, anyone interested in how a television personality achieves local and national prominence should consider reading this book. Also, those who want to understand the role of the media and popular culture in the 1950s will be enlightened, and even entertained, by this exploration of Soupy Sales’ Detroit experience.
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).
“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
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