Our Gal Sal will always be Philadelphia’s immortal cowgirl.
“Anybody asks me somethin’ and I’ll tell ‘em. And I’ll tell ‘em the truth, I say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t answer that.’”
A throwback to TV’s more earnest, pre-videotape days—Sally Starr, when she’s “on” (which is most of the time) remains wholly recognizable. In performance, Our Gal simply cranks the swagger up a notch to transform into a top-fuel version of herself.
“Used to be,” she says, “In the days of live TV, what the people would see, that’s what they got. Well, I didn’t even think about the public’s demands on me when I was doin’ the show.”
And what tonight’s country-lovin’ crowd gets is whatever happens to be kicking around in the old gal’s mind this very moment—dangerous territory for the highly controlled TV time we now live in.
But this isn’t TV; it’s South Jersey. The crowd is tame—at least by two-step standards—here at the Weasel, the Country Weasel, to be exact—a friendly little sawdust joint just off White Horse Pike in Laurel Springs, behind the Inter-Boro Bank. There’s a dirt lot out back for cars and pickups and a portable sign out front, spelling out the current attractions in moveable black letters.
More than half the country Weasel crowd tonight is old enough to remember the way entertainment used to be—before it got all polished and scripted and made you want to throw up from all that forced perfection. Though the younger folks can’t fully understand just what is meant by all those lengthy introductions and all those old-time jokes Sally warms up the crowd with, the older ones are quite familiar with her abilities. They are the talents of a stage performer—of a Shecky Greene, of an Alan King…
Sally takes pains to include the audience in her performance—controlling the crowd like Schwarzkopf. Her skills are almost perfectly vaudevillian. She can really work the room.
So long as she can do it her way.
“I’d shudder to think that someone would write a script for me that I’d have to adhere to,” says Starr. “A person writing a script has no idea whatsoever what that person who’s supposed to deliver is going through emotionally, or otherwise. I would feel like a Paul Parrot. Doin’ somebody else’s talkin’ for ‘em. Mimickin’ them. “
This matter-of-fact delivery kept Sally Starr foremost in the hearts and minds of most every Philadelphia kid during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Those, however, were different times.
“There was no planning for my show,” Starr continues. “They jut told me how many minutes I had to fill during the course of the show. I had a rundown on the cartoons and stuff, but that’s it. It was all off the top of my head. Whatever happened that day I’d tie into the program.”
The silly sisters still hover behind Sally’s spot at the table, hanging on each other more for balance than fun. The scene is something from a junior high school gym class. It’s hard to watch. But the girls are feeling good—about as sibling rivalry and being almost 50 will allow.
The two are so elated, in fact, that the age question gets offered up fearlessly. “How old do you think we are?” asks the obviously younger sister.
“I’m her baby sister!” she explodes, pointing to her other half, too impatient to wait for the answer.
Each sister has short hair and a silent husband who gravitates back to the bar between episodes of dancing to whatever slower numbers the Swingin’ Outlaws happen to crank out on this, their regular gig at the Country Weasel.
The husbands long ago learned the proper places in their respective marriages—safely behind their wives’ adolescent affections. They’re good and patient to wait out the girls’ regression in the presence of their favorite childhood TV heroine. But it’s almost midnight and these poor fellows are so very tired. They clearly didn’t grow up with Sally Starr—either that, of they’d prefer to hand on to their steamy memories of Our Gal Sal, salacious at 30.
“You are so sexy,” stammers Baby Sister. “I mean it, Sally. You are so sex-y!” The old gal flashes a quizzical look. Of course she appreciates the attention, but this, she thinks, is a bit much.
In Memoriam: David Brenner