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Sally Starr, iconic Philly TV personality, dies at 90

SALLY STARR, the vivacious and maternal blonde TV cowgirl who served as a surrogate parent for the Philadelphia region's baby boomers, died Sunday morning, two days after her 90th birthday.

Sally Starr loved meeting her fans, who were also like family to her, as here, in 2000, when she met up with oldtime friend Louise Mitchell.
Sally Starr loved meeting her fans, who were also like family to her, as here, in 2000, when she met up with oldtime friend Louise Mitchell.Read more

SALLY STARR, the vivacious and maternal blonde TV cowgirl who served as a surrogate parent for the Philadelphia region's baby boomers, died Sunday morning, two days after her 90th birthday.

Starr died peacefully in a South Jersey nursing home shortly after 6 a.m., according to Michael Yip, a close friend of Starr's. She had been in poor health for years, both from various natural causes as well as from the effects of a 2005 car crash. The precise cause of death was not immediately known.

Word of Starr's passing spread quickly. People who grew up watching her took to social media to express their sadness and offer reminiscences. Local broadcasters and contemporaries weighed in on what made the woman who usually referred to herself as "Your Gal Sal" so special to so many.

"Sally Starr is an icon, and she will always be remembered as an icon," said DJ Jerry Blavat, adding:

"She was someone who was pure. Her persona was always Sally Starr. She understood the importance of being a personality on and off the air. She was always in costume. She represented the true style of what it was to be a personality."

Gerry Wilkinson, chairman of the board of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, a local organization that celebrates this market's rich broadcasting history, cited the irony of Starr's having no children and her relationship to so many others' kids.

"Sally Starr was like a substitute mother to many baby boomers here in the Delaware Valley," he said. "She was real. What you saw was what you got. Even though she never had any children of her own, she loved children. They were her kids and she cared about every one of them.

"When God made Sally, he broke the mold."

Music-industry publisher Kal Rudman also spoke of the bond between Starr and her youthful viewers. Rudman recalled the times when Starr would give him a lift to the Broadcast Pioneers' monthly luncheons in Wynnefield. "Sally often told me that . . . meeting the children in person [was] the greatest thrill of her lifetime."

Sally Starr was born Alleen Mae Beller, in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 25, 1923, the second-oldest of five sisters raised in a hardscrabble environment. In a 2011 Daily News interview, she recalled her excitement as a little girl when her father installed her family home's first lightbulb.

It was evident from an early age that Alleen had performing talent. As a child, she and her sister, Mildred, were featured on a network radio show.

In 1941, Alleen Beller legally changed her name to Sally Starr. She also married older-by-15-years country entertainer Jesse Rogers, and later that decade moved to Philadelphia.

Her first on-air job was as host of a country-western music program on radio station WJMJ-AM. In 1950, she was offered a weekday-afternoon cartoon show on what was then WFIL-TV, Channel 6 (now WPVI, 6ABC). For two hours a day, five days a week until 1971, Starr hosted "Popeye Theater." Dressed in her famed spangled cowgirl outfit, she introduced "Popeye" cartoons and Three Stooges shorts, and welcomed celebrity guests to her live telecasts.

She was so instrumental in introducing the Three Stooges to a new generation of fans that, in 1965, the comedy troupe invited her to appear as gunslinger Belle Starr in their final film, "The Outlaws Is Coming."

She also dispensed life lessons - about everything from fire prevention to getting along with others - to her young fans, and brightened their days by sending great big "smoocheroonies" their way, along with such signature lines as "I hope you feel as good as you look, because you sure look good to Your Gal Sal," and "Love ya lots! Love, luck and lollipops."

Although Starr logged thousands of on-air hours, only a handful of clips of her on "Popeye Theater" have survived. Early on, the show was telecast live. Later, her programs were videotaped, but were recorded over in subsequent years.

By the early 1960s, she had achieved unparalleled local fame and, arguably, the status of most beloved figure in Philadelphia broadcasting history. On any given afternoon a sizable percentage of local kids (and, often, their stay-at-home moms) were tuned in to "Popeye Theater."

Even in a market that boasted such kiddie-show heavy hitters as Happy the Clown, Gene London, Chief Halftown, Pixanne and Lee Dexter's puppet Bertie the Bunyip, no one came close to "Our Gal Sal" in terms of ratings. And her popularity extended well beyond her daily telecast.

Supermarkets, fast-food outlets, toy stores and car dealerships within a 60-mile radius of Philadelphia lured vast crowds by sponsoring her personal appearances. Such was her fame and the esteem in which she was held by her fans that Sally Starr yearbooks and dolls were highly coveted souvenirs.

In 1961, long divorced from Rogers - who, in later years, she accused of physically abusing her - Starr married Channel 6 camera operator Mark Gray, who she considered the great love of her life.

As such a beloved personality - who spent countless hours visiting sick children in hospitals and working on behalf of various charities - Starr should have been comfortable. But hard luck dogged her for most of her life.

In 1968, Gray died of a heart attack, a situation that launched her on a long run of misfortune. In 1971, she was fired without warning by Channel 6, and she was not given the chance to say goodbye on the air.

After briefly hosting a program on WIBF-TV, Channel 29 (now WTXF, Fox 29), she moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she held a series of nonbroadcast jobs, including that of an airport security officer.

In September 1984, after an absence of a dozen years she reappeared locally as honorary hostess of the RV Roundup, a recreational-vehicle exhibition, at the old Civic Center, in West Philadelphia. Throughout the show's three-day run, hundreds waited in line to meet Starr and to offer precious childhood memories of their experiences on TV or in person with her.

That gig led to offers of other personal appearances in the area, but she went back to south Florida, where, in 1987, a fire destroyed her home. She returned to the Philadelphia region for good, living in various places in South Jersey - where, decades before, she had owned a ranch.

Despite a full schedule of personal appearances and a return to radio on several stations, including Vineland's WVLT-FM (92.1), Starr's life continued to be difficult.

In 1993, while hosting a New Year's Eve party at a Northeast Philly restaurant, she suffered a major heart attack. In the late 1990s, she declared bankruptcy when her personal-appearance income was severely limited after New Jersey 101.5 radio talk-show host Jeff Diminski identified her on-air as a "lesbian cowgirl."

Her defamation lawsuit initially was rejected by a lower court, but the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court subsequently ruled in her favor. Her attorney in the case, Alexander Wazeter of Millville, N.J., told the Daily News in 2011 that she received an undisclosed amount in damages.

On Feb. 6, 2005, Starr hit another car while driving to WVLT's studios. A civil suit later was filed by the other driver, and was, according to the woman's attorney, Joseph J. Hoffman Jr., of Woodbury, N.J., settled for an undisclosed sum.

The accident inflicted serious injuries. During a winter 2011 interview with the Daily News, Starr proudly showed off the location where a metal plate was surgically implanted in her right forearm. And she needed a cane to walk.

During that interview, Sally Starr was asked how she hoped to be remembered. Without hesitation, she smiled and said, "Your Gal Sal. Period."

She is survived by a sister. Services will be private., 215-313-3134