Sally Starr, cowgirl queen of the TV screen, has died

Posted: January 28, 2013

Sally Starr, the gun-totin' cowgirl who rode a palomino with a silver saddle and introduced millions of children in the Philadelphia area to Popeye, Clutch Cargo, and the Three Stooges, died Sunday.

One of the most beloved celebrities in Philadelphia TV history, Miss Starr was an icon of the black-and-white era.

She died two days after her 90th birthday at the Berlin, Camden County, convalescent home where she lived, her former station, 6ABC, said in an online obituary.

Miss Starr most recently hosted a country music show on Vineland's Cruisin' WVLT-FM (92.1) but quit in April 2011 due to ill health.

Miss Starr married twice and had no children. After her stardom in the 1950s and '60s, she had her share of personal setbacks. She was the victim of a house fire in 1987 and a car accident in 2005 on her way to WVLT, but she always rebounded. The Official Sally Starr Fan Page on Facebook has more than 13,000 "likes."

In her 80s, Miss Starr was still being asked for her autograph, Gerry Wilkinson, board chairman of the Broadcast Pioneers, said Sunday.

She was "an icon to people like me growing up. She was on TV when my mother was making dinner, so she was kind of like a second mother," Wilkinson, 66, said.

Between 1954 and 1971, Miss Starr was the cowgirl queen of the living-room screen. With white hat topping her long platinum locks, a fringed and starred cowgirl outfit and boots, Miss Starr corralled youngsters every afternoon for Popeye Theater.

At the peak of her popularity, as many as 1.5 million children tuned in daily. During personal appearances or even on trips to the market, she was mobbed by youngsters wanting an autograph, a word, or a peck on the cheek. Her mail averaged 3,000 letters and postcards a week.

Long after Miss Starr retired, her fans recognized her and sometimes asked her to repeat for them her familiar sign-on: "I hope you feel as good as you look, 'cause you sure look good to your gal Sal."

When she returned to the Philadelphia area after a long absence, she was still in demand for appearances in parades and at trade shows, fairs, and even Harrah's Casino in Chester.

During her years at Channel 6, Miss Starr was on top of the world. She once owned a farm in New Jersey, and three horses (Silver King, Rustic Rhythm, and Pal) that she rode with a silver saddle worth $5,900. On land, she got around in one of three cars (a limo, a Cadillac convertible, and a Corvette). At sea, she traveled aboard a 42-foot yacht, Frivolous Sal.

She made a movie with the Three Stooges - The Outlaws Is Coming - their last film, met John Wayne ("my all-time hero"), and made an album with Bill Haley and the Comets.

But those high times didn't last forever. Miss Starr got flattened by fate about as often as the coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon.

Her sister, Mildred, her singing partner, was killed on Mildred's wedding day. Her husband died of a heart attack when he was still in his 40s. Miss Starr was seriously injured three times, in an auto crash, a fall from a horse, and in a workplace accident. Her house was wrecked in a fire that destroyed 20 years' worth of memorabilia and a 500-page autobiography she had been writing for 14 years.

Fired from WFIL, she moved to Florida and took part in several unsuccessful business ventures. For a time, she worked on an assembly line and once she lived on workers compensation payments.

"I've had some pretty rough knockdowns," she told a reporter in 1988. "But I'm just like Sugar Ray Leonard - get up, shake my head, and go back in for more."

Even then, she had big plans. She was going to start a string of shelters for abused children. One was already in the works in Burlington County - Sally Starr's Bar-None Ranch.

The next big story about Miss Starr was about five years later, in January 1993, when she got knocked out by a heart attack that nearly killed her.

Miss Starr was born Arline Mae Beller in Kansas City, Mo., one of five daughters of a city policeman.

When she was young, she sang and played banjo, and she and her sister performed as the Little Missouri Maids. When she was 13, she entered a Pepsi-Cola jingle-singing contest and won.

The story of her marriage to Jesse Rogers, a country Western singer and bandleader, was right out of teenage fantasy.

On her birthday, she and her sister went to the local radio station to try to get an autograph from Rogers, Miss Starr's idol. But the girls ran into Rogers himself. He not only gave her an autograph, he invited her into the studio, dedicated a song to her, and looked at her while he sang it on the air.

She met him again a short time later when the sisters won a singing contest and he was chosen to present the award. The third time they met at a dance where his band was performing.

They married a year later. She was 15. That was, she admitted to a Philadelphia Magazine reporter, a trifle young.

After the war, she and Rogers settled on a New Jersey farm and he did Western and hillbilly shows on the radio and appeared on Hayloft Hoedown, the first network TV show to originate from Philadelphia.

Rogers had so many ventures he was unable to keep up, so Miss Starr took over the Country and Western Jamboree on WJMJ.

"She was very, very good. Aways cooperative, kind, nothing was too much trouble for her," Pat Stanton, who hired her at WJMJ, said in the early '90s. "It was nothing for her to hear about a kid who was sick and she'd send him a card or show up at the hospital."

At WFIL, now WPVI, the children were the ones who were charmed. She outdrew Chief Halftown and Captain Kangeroo and just about everyone else on the tube.

"I didn't have any children of my own, so I adopted all of Philadelphia," she said in a 1984 interview. "I loved the kids. I used to look into the camera and start telling them whatever was on my mind - no scripts, no cue cards."

She was fired 17 years later when the station was sold by Triangle Publications to Capital Cities Communications. The new owners said they wanted no more children's shows.

At the time, her show was light-years ahead of the competition on Channels 3 and 10 in the ratings. But that marked the end of the easy times for Miss Starr.

Her marriage to Rogers hadn't worked out ("he was a womanizer and a wife-beater," she said) so she divorced him and, in 1961, married Mark Gray, a cameraman at Channel 6. He died of a heart attack seven years later.

She returned to Missouri for a time, then headed to Florida. "Mark and I had bought a dream house on the waterway the year before he died," she told a reporter later. "So I figured I'd go down there and live out the fantasy for both of us. But it was too depressing. I sold the house."

She tried her hand at running a talent agency and then a string of pizza parlors. She worked in an electronics factory and as an airport security inspector. That's where she was injured in 1981.

"I was riding in a jitney at the airport and got broadsided," she said in an interview.

Beginning in 1984, Miss Starr tried to resume her career in Philadelphia, landing gigs as a hostess at business shows and fairs and parades. She also signed on at Channel 65 as host of a Western movie show and had a country music show on WTTM in Trenton.

She had not lost that movie-star aura.

"There is something vaguely movie star-ish about her," Marilyn Lois Polak wrote in an Inquirer magazine interview, "how her white-blond hair falls to her shoulders, softly framing the leathery tan of her face; how her lips, lashes, nails are perfectly applied; how she sips ice water, reaches into her purse for a tissue, and daintily blots a corner of her mouth; how she reminds me of Mae West, even in a green-and-white polyester pantsuit; how she speaks with the quiet dignity of a faded queen."

In that interview, Miss Starr told Polak, "I have my eyes hitched onto a star. Always did. And I knew I was gonna make it, and I did. And I made it not in a great big way, you know, like a movie star. Not like that. I made it with the people, I was surrounded by people that loved me and helped me and guided me."


Inquirer staff writer Bob Fernandez contributed to this article.

 

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