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Sally Starr celebration tinged with sadness

A tribute to the late TV personality was a reminder of how much we've lost since her TV heyday.

Sally Starr, 87, sitting in her living room in her Atco home on March 3, 2010  (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer/File)
Sally Starr, 87, sitting in her living room in her Atco home on March 3, 2010 (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer/File)Read more

THE SUN was shining brightly yesterday afternoon, but even if ice and snow had been falling, I have to believe that ol' Mr. Sol would have been smiling on the Bala Golf Club.

Inside the historic Wynnefield clubhouse, dozens gathered to pay tribute to Sally Starr, the TV cowgirl who, during the 1950s and '60s, helped raise the Delaware Valley's baby boomers via her daily cartoon show on what was then WFIL-TV (now 6ABC).

I was one of the speakers at yesterday's bash, staged by the Broadcast Pioneers, the local group dedicated to preserving and honoring the city's rich legacy of TV and radio. It took place almost 11 months after "Our Gal Sal" headed to the great TV studio in the sky.

Among others who spoke: Jerry Blavat; Ed Cunningham of Channel 12; and Charlie Gracie, the Philly-born 1950s rocker. Each of us spent a few minutes offering memories of Sally, who passed away two days after her 90th birthday.

The Geator filled in the luncheon audience on her early years, and explained how Starr was a consummate show-biz professional who respected both the persona she had created and her audience. Cunningham cited her kindness when he was producing a documentary on Philly kid-show hosts of TV's "golden age," and how her star power was evident even in her later years. Gracie said just being seen in her company raised his social status.

My contribution was a series of anecdotes about how, in 1984, after she had spent more than a decade out of the limelight, I brought her back from Florida to serve as "official hostess" of the RV Roundup, a recreational-vehicles expo for which I was handling publicity (I was between newspaper gigs).

It was a warm and cheerful program, a fitting homage to a woman who brought untold joy to hundreds of thousands from Olney to Oxford Circle, Devon to Doylestown, Allentown to Atlantic City.

Still, I left the golf club feeling less than celebratory. Part of it, of course, was that the woman being feted, who had become a personal friend decades after I first saw her about 4 inches tall on my family's black-and-white DuMont television, was no longer with us. But it was more than that.

I was seated at a table with two people, both in their early 20s and both hoping for careers in broadcasting. When I asked if they knew who Starr was, they admitted they did not (I responded with a brief rundown of who she was and why she was the subject of the event). But their lack of familiarity with Sally - arguably Philly's most-beloved broadcaster - was just part of what bothered me.

Exacerbating my melancholy was the realization that not only did they not grow up with Sally Starr, but, thanks to the ever-changing media landscape, they had no Sally equivalent during their childhoods.

Sure, they had access to the staples of "Popeye Theater," Three Stooges shorts and Popeye cartoons (if they even knew about them), but what they grew up without - and what their kids and grandkids will never know - was the reassuring, loving and consistent presence of a Sally Starr.

Sally didn't just show the Stooges and Popeye, she imparted life lessons to her young fans, and, well, she was just always there, two hours a day, five days a week for us, a favorite aunt of countless nieces and nephews, an adult who, unlike our parents, really seemed to understand us.

This is no place to debate whether kids today are better or worse off than we were. But it certainly is the place to offer sympathy for generations who have had to - and will continue to - slog through childhood without a Sally Starr in their lives.

Thank you, Sally, for giving my fellow boomers and me a gift that can never be repaid.

To those who grew up elsewhere and never knew Sally Starr, and to those here who never will, I can only say I'm sorry.