Our Gal Sal will always be Philadelphia’s immortal cowgirl.
One thing is clear: The old gal’s still got it. And though you can bet a sizable share of Sally Starr’s hyper-self-confidence must be the natural byproduct of 22 years spend ad-libbing a non-scripted daily broadcast of Popeye Theater live and with no rehearsals, some of it must come from simply being 73.
Sally Starr—an old-time cowgirl who prides herself on honesty at all costs—is quick to pony up her age. And why not? She’s happier now than she was at the height of her career, some 40 years back. Besides, when you get to be Sal’s age, why not brag about it? How many septuagenarians, after all, can stay out smoking and singing and drinking fuzzy navels at a cowboy bar till past midnight Saturday, then negotiate the 15-minute trip home in a fully loaded conversion van, only to wake up a few hours later for her weekly trip to the local radio station for a country music broadcast the next morning? I don’t know the exact numbers, but I can tell you that they aren’t that big. Not too many folks like Sally Starr around these days, that’s for sure.
Truth is, the world couldn’t handle more than one.
And though Sally isn’t polished in the way of today’s super-slick entertainers—the coddled, two-bit fakers who get another take every time they blow a line—Our Gal is smooth in her own, old-fashioned way. “In the taping of shows today,” she demurs, “everything’s so perfect.”
Sally recently appeared on the Geraldo show titled “Reversal of Fortune.” She complained that it took three hours to complete a single episode’s taping. “My guess is everybody’s riding a clock with this taping bit. They’re puttin’ in for hours they’re not actually working.”
Sally Starr has no regrets. She’s sad she never got to have children of her own, but as she says herself, “I’m not lacking for kid affection.”
Though the years have exacted their tolls,
“It’s getting harder for me to tell the kids there is a Santa Claus,” says Sally, who maintains a steady stream of parade work and public appearances through the holiday season. “I feel like I’m tellin’ kids a big lie when I tell them there’s a Santa Claus. It never used to bother me. I guess my conscience is just speakin’ to me more clearly these days.
“Kids will ask me, ‘Do you believe in Santa Claus?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, yes and no…’”
When they press her, she says, simply, “Well, you have to believe what you have to believe…”
To which they usually respond: “What do you mean, ‘You have to believe what you have to believe?’”
“I tell them lots of things are like Peter Pan and Cinderella. They’re all make-believe…’
“The kids don’t understand it, and I don’t understand it myself. I wish someone would give me the answers—or I wish they wouldn’t ask the questions. But somehow I get through it.
“I think the kids are living in a mythical world, with the drugs, the good cop, bad cop; they don’t know which way to turn… Someone tells him, ‘Get a college education. Someone else tells him, ‘Don’t get an education, look at my friend, he went to college and he’s pushin’ hamburgers for a minimum scale. What good is his education?’ They hear all this stuff and I don’t think it’s fair to them.”
But life isn’t fair. Sally Starr, after all, has seen enough of it over the last 73 years to now at least that. And it’s not her way to mince words. Though our favorite Philly cowgirl may be the last remaining icon of an otherwise dead genre of wholesome kiddie entertainment, the last thing she’s prepared to do is lie—even if the truth hurts.
* * *
Editor's note: Former PW senior editor Sara Kelly now teaches communication and journalism at National University in San Diego.
In Memoriam: David Brenner