Our Gal Sal will always be Philadelphia’s immortal cowgirl.
Popeye Theater persisted through five presidents—from Truman to Nixon—and the assassination of one. It spanned two American wars. It survived the McCarthy purges, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, the Summer of Lover, the lunar landing and Woodstock. By the time Popeye Theater went off air for good, Starr’s young fans were no longer the wide-eyed innocents of the ‘50s, but the sophisticated kids of a nation hardened by a declining economy, lagging patriotism and widespread civil unrest. And Sally was, well, Sally.
Back in TV’s early days, there was a surprising variety of children’s shows. In Philadelphia alone, there was Willie the Worm, Happy the Clown, Bertie the Bunyip, not to mention pixies, elves… “And Lee Dexter,” says DeLeon, “the worst ventriloquist ever…”
But none could hold a concha to cowgirl Sally Starr, who, aside from broadcasting such shameless paeans to adolescent testosterone as the Three Stooges, presided over the whole pre-dinner affair like a protective—though seductive—mother. “Don’t you go pokin’ the eyes out of your friends,” she’d warn kids after Moe’s frequent eye-poking sprees.
“Sally was a siren, a cowgirl presenting male-oriented entertainment. I couldn’t believe they could put on a show like that,” DeLeon marvels.
Popeye Theater, with its predictable billing of Three Stooges skits, cowboy shows and, of course, Popeye cartoons, served up everything an adolescent boy could dream to gorge himself on in the days before Nintendo: “safe sex; safe violence—and, of course, Sally herself. All you needed,” jokes DeLeon, “was a shot of beer!”
Late country crooner Roger Miller apparently saw the same side of Sally when he penned his half-bawdy, half-wholesome tribute to her called “Kansas City Star,” right in the living room of Starr’s Cherry Hill, N.J., home.
“My husband Mark,” she explains, “told Roger I probably wouldn’t like the song to be based on me, so he changed the character to a man."
Curiously, the refrain of Miller’s song pegs her as “the number-one attraction in every supermarket parking lot” –an attribute not lost on DeLeon.
“Sally Starr,” says the former Inquirer columnist, “was a first infatuation with accessible glamour. Like the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, she was everywhere. She was there to open every grocery store—Sally Starr and the Weinermobile… She was addictive. You did Sally…”
And Sally could be rough.
“I used to think that Soupy Sale was safe. He was scripted. But Sally, her patter,” adds DeLeon, “was different.”
“I stumbled a lot on the show,” admits Starr, “but the people used to love it when I made mistakes. ‘Cause I’d grab the brim of my hat and say, ‘Boy, I made a boo-boo!’ And they liked that.”
But there was much more to this cowgirl’s raw appeal than cute bloopers.
DeLeon, for one, recalls a high degree of “sexual tension” between Starr’s young male fans and her TV persona.
“What made Sally the sex symbol among adolescent boys was that she was this bosomy, platinum blond cheerleaders type: she rode a horse and she looked great in parades. Sally Starr was the perfect forbidden fruit of the ‘50s—all-American and secretly sexy.”
Back in those days, though, just about the only sex tolerated was the secret kind. Rebel Without a Cause, of course, changed all that by linking the unthinkable with good old-fashioned juvenile delinquency—the very pairing behind James Dean’s elevation to brooding hero.
Though equally sexy, Starr fell short of achieving the tough girl equivalent of Dean. Still, recalls DeLeon, “there were stories. Word on the ‘toon street was that she’d been done wrong by her first husband.”
Starr’s first husband, Jesse, a radio “entertainer,” was a talented yodeler and train whistler. He was also a legendary cheat. Starr ran off to live with him at 17. It wasn’t until Jesse’s wife, Lucile, showed up at Sally’s sister’s doorstep that the precocious teen realized her husband-to-be was already married. Though Jesse soon divorced Lucille, he remained unfaithful to new wife Sally. Worse yet, he beat her—once so badly she could never bear children. But hardly one to talk trash about the dead, Starr credits Jesse with teaching her about showbiz. She’ll save the rest of the story for her second self-published tell-all, Out of the Ashes, in which Starr promises to spill the bean son some of the otherwise well-kept secrets of her romantic dalliances when it comes out this winter. As a teaser, she offers: “I was Racing with the Moon to listen to Cattle Call.” (Song titles—get it?)
“There was a Marilyn element to Sally,” recalls DeLeon. “We’d heard that she was a stripper; we’d heard that she was doin’ it with her horse…
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide