The television screen flashed that all-to-familiar headline of a death in the nation: a photo followed by a birth date and an exit date: In this case, a picture of Soupy Sales followed by the dates 1926-2009.
"Nooo! Soupy's dead!"
Detroiter Rodney McDonald, like many of us, grew up enjoying the antics of Soupy Sales, whom he often referred to by his given name, Milton Supman. I'm sure that even his parents stopped calling Soupy Milton, but Rodney enjoyed doing that. Like calling the Lone Ranger Brace Beemer (one of the Lone Ranger's voices on radio-- one that made him come alive for us), or referring to the singing cowboy, Roy Rogers (born in Cincinnati, Ohio) with the given name, Leonard Slye. Rodney has a thing for trivia.
Milton came into his life around the time that Rodney's family moved from Paradise Valley-- a slice of Detroit better known for its night clubs, speakeasies, and fast street life-- that encapsulated a small part of black life from the 20's to the late 50's. Buffeted by new wealth from a revved up automobile industry, former migrants from the South and now settled European immigrants were on the move: blacks eastward and westward, white immigrants closer to the suburbs in all directions but south.
For youngsters, black and white alike, it was a time of change and confusion that had more to do with the problems of adults and their inability to get along. We were caught in the middle of something that we really didn't understand. And on top of all of that, there was the Atomic Bomb, and then the Hydrogen Bomb, all certain to blow up the world before we got a chance to know it.
For us, Soupy Sales and his friends Black Tooth and White Fang were a breath of fresh air. These two imaginary dogs were opposites, but equals in Soupy's world. "If there was ever a fool," says Rodney, "it was Soupy. Just looking at him made you laugh; you couldn't keep a straight face."
Soupy was a hit across the racial divide. Better yet, when it came to him, there was no divide. We all rushed home to have lunch with him and did the Soupy Shuffle together, birdbaths one and all. He seemed to be the one thing that even our confused parents could agree upon.
We didn't know it at the time, but Soupy's pies were the great equalizers. Soupy took the brunt of them, but no one was immune. He started in Detroit and then moved across country. Before long, everyone wanted to be hit with a pie thrown by Soupy, even Sinatra. No one was too big or important to get a pie in the face. It took us all down a notch; we learned to laugh at ourselves.
The day after Soupy died, Rodney went by the Hat Shop, a kind of neighborhood clubhouse where mostly retired school, factory or office buddies hang out, reliving the past and trying to keep the future at arm's length. That evening, everybody seemed to have a Soupy story. "Mouse called me out," Rodney recalls.
"Can you do the Soupy Shuffle?"
"Hell, yea!" was Rodney's response.
"Let's see!" Mouse demanded.
"Mouse, take a good look. This is as close as you're going to get," Rodney said, easing out of the door.
After fixing dinner for his wife, who is partially disabled because of a minor stroke, Rodney goes to the kitchen where on a small television set, he continues watching a Piston's game that the home team will eventually win. It's half time. He takes a Miller's from the fridge, lights up a Pall Mall and takes a deep drag. He starts humming "It's a Wonderful World" as he does the Soupy Shuffle.
Eat your heart out Mouse!