Obituary for a Prop Comic: Henry Soapfloats, 1883-2013 by Ian Abramson

Famed prop comic, Henry Soapfloats, has recently passed away.

Henry Soapfloats was Chicago's oldest comedian. He started in Vaudeville, and first gained notoriety for an act where he used a hat as a pot to cook stew in, and would then get food poisoning on stage. Within just a few years, he became the top billed act in Chicago. His initial plans to move to New York were postponed due to a lack of money. He stayed in the city, already considered a local legend.

Vaudeville slowly died out as the film industry grew. People didn't want to pay to see Henry use a cane as a toothbrush on stage, when they could see someone use a regular toothbrush on the screen. They grew tired of watching him try to shave using a blade made of newspaper that went limp when wet, when they could watch someone shave for real on the screen. There was a night only one person was in the audience as he had a puppet made of noodles recite the "Spaghettisberg Address." His commitment to the bit in an empty theater as the one person fell asleep is what always made him the standout professional he was.

He made plans to transition to film by moving to LA, but a month before moving, he met Lara Sholt, fell in love, and wouldn't go until they were ready to move in together. Lara was to become his 1st, 2nd, and 4th wife.

After getting married, Henry was broke. Most of his bookings were between acts at burlesque shows. The audiences were aggressive, but it forced his act to get tight. His comedy evolved from simple prop comedy gags to more long form, story based prop comedy gags. He went from juggling tomatoes (so that when he dropped them the audience wouldn't have to throw their own), to acting out his morning routine with a bucket on his head. He performed all over Illinois, and several times made it to Milwaukee. He headlined the biggest theater in Milwaukee (a highlight of his career).

When television came around, he got his own local show. Each episode would open with him trying to fix a TV set, and pulling out a silly prop that had broken it. Chicago absolutely loved him. He considered moving to New York in hopes of getting a show there, but fear of jumping into the big unknown stopped him from making the move.

Over the following year he became more and more contentious. His favorite prop became the bottle, and he would empty several on stage each show. He would then fly into a rage, because he had spilled all that booze. Despite high local ratings (they even loved him in Milwaukee, which he was always proud of), the pressure of creating weekly content was too much. He was canceled due to creative differences with the producers, after he did a sketch as a police officer, but was so drunk that he ended up handcuffing himself for public intoxication and falling asleep on air.

It was a dark time for Henry, and a dark time for comedy. He got his first divorce with Lara, and was completely broke. He put comedy aside, and took up poetry. He became a Prop Poet. The only paying gig he got was in Milwaukee, but he had no means to get there, so he was stuck. A lost man with only his props and his poetry to guide him.

The next ten years were bleak. Night clubs would book him for comedy, but he would spend twenty minutes rearranging furniture, and calling it a poem about suburban desperation. Watering flower pots on stage that were filled with instant pudding, claiming man could only make mud, and then slurping it down when it had settled. He would make paper mache sculptures of E.E. Cummings out of advertisements for hardware stores, and even he would have no idea what it meant.

This period of his life is the hardest to track, as he was largely homeless. He performed his prop poetry on street corners, his favorite props being a can, and a cardboard sign. The only time it is officially documented that he wasn't homeless was when he married Lara for the second time, but they divorced again several months later.

In the '60s, national tension was high, and the cultural climate begged for new bold forms of expression. Through this Henry transitioned from his prop poetry into an entirely new kind of comedy. His material was strictly cutting edge political commentary. He dropped the old act completely. He still exclusively worked with props, but now it was all about local politics. On a large sketch pad, he would draw himself, flat footed, and claim he had drafted, but excused as a rough draft. Rather than burning his draft card, he would freeze it. Saying he was putting it in a cooler until he saw a cause worth fighting for. He once claimed he was giving up his long hair and liberalism, but when he shaved his head, he left the word "HIPPY" on his scalp.

He bought another plane ticket to LA, but as he felt he was making a real effect in Chicago, he decided at the last minute that the time just wasn't right.

Local politicians paid off law enforcement to keep a closer watch on the radical comedy movement. Venues that would book Henry would receive unscheduled checks from the health board, and harassment from cops. During a particularly passionate performance at a small club, Henry acted out a small dialogue he had with a cop, and was arrested for impersonating an officer.

Frustrated with the systems censorship, he put down prop comedy and took up motivational speaking, using props. He would demonstrate the necessity of uplifting comments using a makeshift elevator. He would ask for a volunteer from the audience, and then applaud them for raising their hand, to demonstrate what one can get out volunteer work. He would end his speeches by drawing two interlinking circles and encourage everyone to speak from their Venn Diaphragm.

During this time he met local self-help author Laura Shoolt. Their love for inspiring others connected them, and they were married at a convention for positive thinkers.

In the early '80s, while giving a speech in Milwaukee, an offhanded remark got a big laugh from the audience (they always loved him there) and it brought him straight back into comedy. This change of lifestyle was unexpected, and difficult for Laura, leading to their divorce after 3 years of marriage.

Henry was once again a local sensation. He had dropped motivational speeches, and hit all the clubs in Chicago just in time for the big comedy boom. He would spin left in a circle, and ask "Am I right?" and then yell "No, MY right" to enormous laughter. He would open shows by passing out a single serving of airplane food to each audience member. For the late shows, he had fifteen different props that showed, in graphic detail, the difference between men and women. It was during this time he reconciled with Lara, with whom he lived happily ever after with until 1992, when they got divorced for the last time. He considered moving to New York, but during this period of his life he said that he hadn't quite done everything he had wanted to in Chicago.

When the boom ended, and the clubs closed; it left Henry devastated. He lashed out, burning bridges between he and the few bookers left in the city. Even Milwaukee wouldn't book him (he considers this a low point in his career).

In the '90s, because he could no longer perform in clubs, he started finding small, alternative rooms; bars, laundromats, and music venues. This was a new phase for Henry Soapfloats. His comedy became much more free formed, and for the first time, he stopped bringing props with him on stage. People we're shocked to see him find props in the audience, and just improvise.

Henry would throw a beer bottle in the air, saying he wanted to smash the glass ceiling when it shattered. He would take someone's glasses from their face and claim "19 more of these and I'll have 20/20 visions." Henry once would take one mans coat, throw it on another man, and yell, "suit yourself!" He made plans to move to LA, but decided not to, as he hated the industry, and wanted his comedy to remain pure.

Since around 2002, Henry began independently producing one of the best shows in Chicago "Props to You." Thanks to donations from the audience, he was able to have enough money to buy comics that were on the show a drink, as well as pay his monthly electric bill. He made plans to move to New York, helped along by a Kickstarter to get him started. Last month, after a huge send off show, where he brought out two dozen sheep to say "Thank Ewe," he boarded the plane.

By the time it landed, he had died peacefully in his nap. Doctors say it happened early on in the flight, probably when they were over Milwaukee (just like he would have wanted). He was 130 years old. RIP Henry Soapfloats, for longer than any of us can remember, when Chicago was down, your comedy propped it up.

-Ian Abramson