Our Gal Sal will always be Philadelphia’s immortal cowgirl.
Though no one was hurt or killed in the fire—the dogs had been rescued and Terry wasn’t home when the electrical fire broke out—Sally lost all her worldly processions. She lost her clothes—including all her priceless cowgirl outfits—and she lost all the plaques and mementos of her celebrated career. “A lot of memories went down the tubes,” she muses. And none of them insured.
When news of Sally Starr’s tragic fire hit Philadelphia, nostalgic Popeye Theater recollections triggered a whole new rash of public appearances for Our Gal Sal. Eventually, these appearances became so regular that Starr decided to return to her onetime stomping grounds for good. And she has no intention of ever leaving again. “They’ll have to haul me outta here by my feet,” she says of her pleasant three-bedroom home in Atco, N.J.
Sally Starr is grateful for everything she has today—and thanks the good Lord for the strength that’s allowed her to prevail. “I can do most of what any woman can do,“ she says, “and what most men can do, because I’ve had to.
“I have a tremendous inner strength.”
Part of that strength, she says, comes from her humble beginnings. The second of seven children born to a “dirt-poor” Missouri family, little Sally “Chub” Beller learned life’s bitter realities early on.
“Just because somebody has fleas and lays down with ya doesn’t mean that you have to get fleas, yourself,” she says of her family’s ability to rise above difficult circumstances.
“My mother was born in nineteen-three, during the nineteen-three flood in Kansas City, Missouri. Dad was one of the rescue boys, and 18 years later they met again. I guess they fell in love.”
Things were far from perfect in the Beller home. “My mom and dad had their problems, but they always worked them out.”
Not like today, when no one has the patience to look for real solutions, but opts instead to just finish them off in the quickest way possible. “I’m not a complainer,” says Starr, “but it seems like you take an animal to the vet these days and the first thing they want to do is put him down.”
Used to be, people would sit down together and talk things out. “Today, each goes their separate way and they forget that they have created a little individual. And it shouldn’t bother me, but it does. I believe that God brought us into the world to be kind to each other, to be clean in body and soul, to respect our elders.”
But folks these days aren’t willing to give their rocky relationships a chance—getting divorced right and left, the way they do. “I don’t know where this country woulda been today if our forefathers felt that way.
“And that’s another thing that goes against my grain: kids and people in this country have no respect for their elders—how the older people are shoved in the background. They’ve already paid their dues. They’re the ones that rode the devastatin’ wagon trains from Maine to California, to establish new frontiers. They’re the ones that fought with the Indians and then finally they came at peace with them. They’re the ones that went through the First and Second World War, and all the wars that followed. The younger people today think they’re such hot shit. Just because they can operate a computer—so what, I can operate a Morse code machine…”
“How many of my Baby Boomers are here tonight?” Sally asks the crowd. A controlled ruckus breaks out by the bar, and mostly around the inebriated sisters.
Sally’s here to sing a few numbers with the Swingin’ Outlaws, like she’s done every other Saturday for the last six months. (“I’m not good, but I’m loud, and you can hear all my mistakes…” she’d warn beforehand.)
Hee-Haw-style introductions take up the first 10 minutes of Sally’s set: She starts out with folks from the pool company—the reg’lars who sit there smoking and chewing the fat at Sally’s own table. There are a couple couples, a brother and sister—more Boomers. Then, of course, Ken, the pool guy who used to be an acrobat… And Evelyn, who owns this place, with her husband, Gene. The guy in the white shirt is Hank, Gene and Evelyn’s song (“Named after Hank Williams,” Evelyn bends over the table to explain). Over there at the bar, Sally points out are the Scallywag Sisters… (“We love you Sally,” they call back.) Then there’s Patty in the kitchen, who’s responsible for the tasty chicken fingers you all should try (“I didn’t know a chicken had fingers!” goes the joke)… “And that little later over there used to come and visit me at the show when she was just 14 years old…
“I got a secret,” Sally breathes into the microphone, still a tease at 73. “New, I can’t tell you… Oh, all right, but you can’t tell anyone. The Wilson Line is gonna start running their boats again on the Delaware, and guess who’s gonna be there spokesperson? Your Gal Sal, of course…”
And she talks like the natural-born spokesperson she is—full of glowing testimonials for her once-and-future employer. And though much of the crowd doesn’t seem all that familiar with Our Gal’s latest sponsor, her enthusiasm is contagious. Sally just does that to people—entertains them through sheer force of will.
It doesn’t take long for the savvy Sally fan to realize that white there may be no end to the old gal’s dramatic deliveries, there are no secrets, either. There are only questions Sally can’t answer.
In Memoriam: David Brenner