Sally Starr Resolves To Get Tough At 72, Our Gal Sal Is Disappointed By The Returns On Her "Investments" In People.

Posted: September 01, 1994

It's the last word in the world you'd use to describe Sally Starr - Our Gal Sal for whom the prefix beloved seems invented, the woman who spent 22 years signing off her television show with "love, luck and lollipops," that same Sal who spent those two TV decades, and the two since, dispensing a wealth of ''smoocheroonies."

The same Sal who kept on going after a 1987 fire wiped her out, after a heart attack last year nearly killed her - who, at the age of 72, is moving

from the airwaves into the air itself. She is even learning to fly, climbing into the cockpit for the first time six days ago.

So that word doesn't seem possible, especially when you consider that Sally Starr is applying it to herself?

"Bitch."

But for just a second, when the light fades from her melting brown eyes and her perfect pink mouth goes hard and tight, the unthinkable becomes absolutely believable.

That, at the belated age of 72, Sally Starr has decided it's time to protect herself a little. And if that means becoming a bit of a - well, you know - so be it.

"I think," she said, "that on my forehead it says sucker."

And that hurts.

*

Everyone loves Sally Starr.

That's the accepted wisdom, and there's plenty of evidence to back it up.

From 1950 through 1972, her Popeye Theater children's TV show drew 1.5 million young viewers daily. Then there were the thousands of personal appearances - from a pig race in Smyrna, Del., to a lunch for orphans at the Navy Yard - that drew overflow crowds.

Even today, graying baby boomers with their own children in tow squeal when they recognize her on the streets of her home town, Atco.

Getting canned in 1972, when Sesame Street was just coming into its own, barely slowed her down.

She spent two years playing at retirement in Florida - "I did plenty of fishing, I collected shells, I almost went out of my mind" - and then went right back to work.

Boredom was only part of the reason, though. Sal, who dispensed money almost as plentifully as her 24-carat kisses, was broke.

Twenty years - and a house fire, a heart attack, and innumerable bad

investments - later, she's still broke.

It's her own fault, she said. "It made me feel good to help people," even if she had to borrow money when a friend asked her for a loan.

"I've made some good money, but some very poor investments. I've always invested in human beings, but I've got to stop. It's gotten me in very big trouble."

Sally Starr, a woman who says she thrives on the continuing love of her fans (the cards and donations poured in by the thousands after her 1987 house fire, and again after the near-fatal heart attack last year), has learned the hard way that what masquerades as love can be something else entirely.

To this day, she hasn't gotten over the way Channel 6 called her in 1972 - she was making an appearance at a fair in Reading - and told her it was canceling her TV show.

"I had to drive back (to Philadelphia) to do the night show with all of this" - she struck at her chest - "inside me." Yes, she said, as she awaited her first training flight. She is still very angry.

More recently, another "friend" moved out of town, still owing Sally money.

"It's been one continuous thing," said Sally. But no more.

"As far as she is concerned, I'm going to be one mean bitch," she said, and the lovely eyes flashed. "And you can quote me."

"I am ticked," she said later, "at people who were my friends, and I find their feet were made of clay. People are going to have to prove their friendship to me now."

So it is that, at the age of 72, with nitroglycerin pills in her overstuffed pocketbook, Sally Starr gets up seven days a week, cinches herself into spangled cowgirl tops and tight, tight pants, and puts on an extra pair of socks so the too-big cowboy boots that songwriter Kenny Rogers gave her after the fire will fit.

Then she pulls back the blonde mane (that she bleaches herself to save time and money) into her trademark sassy ponytail, dons her white-painted cowboy hat with sides curled up against the crown, and goes to work.

In her van with its CB radio (her handle is Sunshine Girl) and Port-a- Potty, she often drives two hours each way for a public appearance that will net her a few hundred dollars.

She dips ice cream for the March of Dimes. A freebie commercial for Old Swedesboro Day in Gloucester County. There's a radio show every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on station WPGR-AM (1540).

And now, another venture: She's the new "events director" for the Flying W Ranch, a resurrected airfield-restaurant-stable complex in Lumberton.

The new job will allow her to cut down on the wearying quick-hit appearances, and carries a more personal benefit, too.

The girl who learned to ride a horse at 14 - she would later parade around on her golden gelding as Your Girl Sal and Her Horse Pal - who mastered boats and vans and even 18-wheelers, was ready to take on one more challenge: flying.

"I've always wanted to fly since I was a little child raised near the Kansas City airport," the former Aline Mae Beller said.

Friday, she got her chance.

Flying W put a Piper Cherokee 180 and instructor John Morrison - also 72 - at her disposal. Cardiologist Nicholas DePace of Philadelphia stood by.

Sally - sweltering in a purple-suede fringed jacket - rushed Morrison through the preflight check. "I'm melting, I'm melting," she complained as the plane quivered beneath her like a racehorse.

Then, with a roar of the engines and a whoop from Sal, the plane was airborne, and 1,500 feet into a hazy sky, she was banking and turning and working the rudders with her feet like all get-out.

Morrison, her co-pilot for the moment, beamed approvingly. "Sal - ya got a great natural talent."

Eighteen minutes later, they touched down.

Sal paused on the wing, waved her hat at a small gathering of fans. Then she stooped and kissed her hand to the runway.

"Lordy, am I glad to be back on the ground!" she said. When did she want to go up again? That very afternoon, she said.

The money troubles, the turncoat friends, the hard work at a time when she should be taking it easy - she'd left them all behind in the air.

"It was powerful," she said, turning on the wattage that charmed a generation. "Those are God's open spaces, and He says, 'Here is your playground.'

"And for 10 minutes," said Sally Starr, who has learned in the hardest way the incalculable value of 10 such minutes, "it was."

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