Our Gal Sal will always be Philadelphia’s immortal cowgirl.
[Editor’s note: On Aug. 14, 1996, Philadelphia Weekly published this in-depth profile of Sally Starr, who passed away yesterday, Jan. 27, 2013, at the age of 90.]
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“We just wanted to tell you, Aunt Sally…” gush the tipsy sisters, conspiratorially, “you are so sexy.” Sally nods in quiet acceptance, half believing her ears. She’s none too thrilled about sharing her air space with such openly intoxicated folks—even if they are among her beloved Baby Boomers. These girls, though, are drunk as hell and bent on making fools of themselves. But Our Gal Sal’s not one to judge. She’s seen so much firsthand funny business over the last 73 years, few things faze her anymore.
At least not enough to stop old Sal from doing her thing.
The easygoing cowgirl just can’t turn her back on a fan—let alone two—no matter how many ounces they’ve downed in a one-hour period. So Our Gal the Entertainer takes a deep breath, switches seamlessly into celebrity mode and disgorges a stack of autographable black-and-white mattes from her purse. They reveal a vintage Sal, complete cowboy hat, fringed shirt and armed holster.
Easy as that, Sally Starr breathes new life into faded old TV memories.
For more than two decades, Sally Starr was Philadelphia’s own cowgirl queen of kiddie TV. In fact, she’ll be pleased to tell you, she was the first woman to ever hold the reins of her own daily TV show. (She worked in radio for 10 years before debuting on the little screen).
Sally Starr’s Popeye Theater was broadcast live on the heels of American Bandstand, from the studio the two shows shared in a now decrepit building under the Market-Frankford El at 46th and Market. In later years, the show moved up to Channel 6’s mod City Line Avenue location.
Popeye Theater first aired in 1950, when Sally was just 27. By the time it went off air for good in 1972, our favorite cowgirl was a full-blown 49. “I grew up on TV,” she explains. “I was just a kid when I got started.”
Sally entered an estimated 1.5 million family rooms throughout Delaware Valley just before the dinner hour, entertaining her beloved Baby Boomers six days a week for more than a thousand weeks over her 22-year TV reign.
“I had a lot of latchkey kids watching my how,” says Sally. “I was their mom and their dad until their mother and daddy got home. My secretary and I used to open our phones after the show in case the kids needed to talk about something. We were there to talk about anything. I didn’t care what it was.”
But all that caring in the world couldn’t have stopped the business deal that would mark the beginning of the end for Popeye Theater. In 1971, Cap Cities took over Channel 6 (then WFIL), thus summoning a new day in broadcasting—an end to the era of sweet, unscripted ‘50s-style entertainment and the beginning of a brand-new kind of polished small-screen professionalism. At about this same time, the upstart Children’s Television Workshop launched its politically correct stable of progressive kids’ TV programs, including such overtly educational shows as Sesame Street, Electric Company and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And, quite frankly, next to Burt and Ernie, Popeye’s brutish Bluto looked downright old-fashioned.
Sally’s TV legacy is legendary; the old gal’s ongoing hold on her devoted Baby Boomers, nearly biblical.
“Her popularity today probably still surprises her,” reasons 46-year-old Channel 10 reporter Clark DeLeon—one of Sally’s Boomers. “She must be delighted that so many people remembered her.”
And it’s no wonder: kids are impressionable. Those early experiences stay with them—even as they approach the mid-century mark.
“Sally Starr was an institution,” DeLeon adds. “the show represented its own time, it represented an ideal…”