Children are now seen as nascent adolescents: rebellious, morbid, surly, little bags of endocrine
-fueled desire who wish nothing more than to be able to enjoy adult pleasures without adult supervision or responsibility, to outrage their elders with gross-out jokes, and to garner more MIB
injected-plastic collectables than the guy down the street. Children's media reflects this: chock-full of technological whiz-bangery, with numerous tie-ins, it veers wildly from little sermonlets on drug use
and sexual harrassment
to the potty humor of Captain Underpants
, from manic MTV
-style overproduction to Teletubby
leadenness. Time was, children's television was not like this at all.
The children's slot was usually taken over by the station manager's idiot son (or equivalent), a has-been star, or (sometimes even worse) a struggling young serious actor-type, which led to all kinds of awful personalities passing themselves off as Your Very Best Friend on the Air (yes, worse than Barney, Elmo, or even Evil Bert). Recall, in those days, Nickelodeon didn't exist, syndicated children's shows were rare, and most antennas could only pick up a few stations. Therefore, you tended to be stuck with whatever they were dishing out between the Farm News and the talk shows (in the morning) and soap operas and the evening news (at night). So it was that you got any number of permutations of spacemen, cowboys, clowns, Mother Geese and Story Ladies, ship's captains, firemen, and the like who, improbably though it may have seemed, all wanted nothing more than to be able to schmooze with puppets, run 15-year-old cartoons, and plug toys and sugary cereal.
Few of the people under the suits were in any way at their ease with actual children, and only a few more of them seemed to be able to deal with a childish audience. So it was that they tended to fall back on "zany" excesses of personality and weird gimmicks ("Time to look through the Magic Porthole, boys and girls!") to fill in the gaping minutes of airtime between Bugs Bunny and the latest in Suzy Homemaker Kitchen Sets...hardly the kind of thing to encourage self-esteem. As a last resort, they were encouraged to speak in stream-of-consciousness babbling, since you had to fill up dead air, the kids wouldn't understand what you were saying, and the parents were, in all probability, not listening either. All of the above led to all kinds of horrific results, as you might imagine, ranging from fill-in Story Ladies in drag, to drunken clowns weeping about their failures at the track, to the fellow who opened a door and found a naked woman inside...
Soupy Sales, a long-time veteran of this sort of mayhem, did nothing more than elevate all these quirks into schtick. If other sets tended to be bare, his was minimalist to the point of surrealism. If other hosts tended towards a faintly embarrassed plastic cheeriness, his grin was a pasted-on manic rictus. And as for gaffes and on-air mischief... everyone's got a SS story to tell about the time he said that his wife "made his banana cream (pie)" ....or exclaimed in exasperation "Everytime I show you F, you see K."...or the time he asked for "green pictures of presidents" in exchange for hand-signed postcards from Puerto Rico.. or his eloquent, Lenny Bruce-like, appeals to the station, after getting suspended for such shenanigans, that it was upholding freedom of speech, and that, with his adult humor, he was actually "treating kids with the same respect as his bank manager", and WON, and announced his return on the show with a stock shot of cheering crowds...
...But what actually sunk him, time and time again, was not his candor, nor was it the various stations he worked for, who "tended to get sick of him." The problem was that his ratings were terrible with actual children.
Anyone who remembers life on the schoolyard knows exactly how dangerous it can be to be too trusting when the other guy is winking and nudging his buddy while talking to you. It's even more dangerous when you can't understand why they're on the edge of laughter, and won't tell you. Watching Soupy Sales, in his heyday on Metromedia New York in the mid-Sixties was to watch an adult do these things, with the added turn-off that most of the time, he was boring.
You read right. For every "banana cream" joke, there were days, weeks, months, of watching an adult frantically trying to engage my attention in a bare set utterly devoid of warmth, lurching from "Do the Mouse", his take on go-go dancing, to a visit from Fang (his son in a dog suit), to singing along with a lion puppet, to an obligatory once-per-show pie-in-the-face, with what seemed to be a relentlessly over-familiar, yet strangely cheerless grin. Everyone, from TV Guide to lunchboxes, to my older stepbrothers were telling me that he was incredibly, screamingly, funny, and that I really ought to be watching in case he did something else to get thrown off the air...but about the best he ever did was to solemnly apologize for some mistake, which seemed genuinely meant, but disquieting, and of course not 'funny' at all.
Oddly enough, the one children's TV personality (other than Fred Rogers, who I found an acquired taste) that not only appealed to me as a child, but also through my adolescence, came on just before Mr. Sales. He was Sandy Becker, and though he had yes, puppets, cartoons, comedy, and music (by Carole King, no less), the part that stuck in my memory was his opening monologue, which was done, like a normal news or talk program, from behind a desk in front of a bookcase (now and then, he'd take a book, or other prop down to explain something about it -- the stories were always excellent). In this segment, he spoke quietly, and genuinely, and presented, with no gimmickry at all, news of the world, the show, and himself. Go figure.