Driving Miss Sally: My days with a true goddess

FILE PHOTO Sally Starr with Mayor W. Wilson Goode, in 1984: She was welcome, and honored, in every circle.
FILE PHOTO Sally Starr with Mayor W. Wilson Goode, in 1984: She was welcome, and honored, in every circle.
Posted: January 29, 2013

WHEN I HEARD that Sally Starr had died, I thought of my father, Phil, himself gone 14 years next month.

I thought of his reaction when, in the summer of 1984, I announced that I was hoping to bring "Our Gal Sal" - who hadn't been heard from for 12 years - back to Philly as a way to publicize the RV Roundup, a recreational-vehicle exhibition scheduled for the old Civic Center that September.

I was public-relations director for a Center City ad agency whose clients included the Roundup. It was my job to drum up media coverage of the event.

As she had been for so many other born-and-bred-in-the-Del-Val baby boomers, the buxom blonde TV cowgirl was an integral part of my childhood, and I was positive that her return after more than a decade off the radar would appeal to local reporters in a big way.

My father was skeptical.

"Who cares about Sally Starr?" he asked me, more out of concern for my job than disrespect for the erstwhile TV star. "Who even remembers her?"

And that was pretty much Sally's reaction when I called her after getting her Florida phone number from former Daily News columnist Don Haskin. It was a Haskin column about the debate over the name of Sally's horse on the late Ken Garland's WIP-AM (610) radio show that inspired me to ask her to serve as hostess of the RV expo.

Reminiscing Sunday afternoon, I recalled my response to my dad's question. I remembered explaining to him that during my childhood, I spent two hours a day, five days a week with Sally - time I couldn't spend with him, because he had to work. This, I reasoned, made her a significant figure in my life, and I was sure that thousands of fellow boomers felt the same way.

Seldom have I been more correct about anything. Virtually every news organization within 60 miles used the "Sally Starr Returns" story. For three days, people who couldn't tell an RV from a VCR waited - sometimes for an hour or more - just to get a hug or an autograph from, and/or take a picture with, the still-charismatic Starr, who had a new cowgirl costume made just for the appearance.

Immodest though it may be, I know that hiring Sally was one of the great local PR stunts of the past 30 years. But that was fleeting, at best, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? world of public relations. There were much more valuable dividends to be paid.

On my end, it was the opportunity to get to know a woman who played such a crucial role in my youth. When I was very young, Sally was a true goddess - someone whom I couldn't possibly dream of getting to know on a personal level. The time we spent traveling to interviews in places like Wilmington, Atlantic City and Reading are among my best memories.

I got to hear about her less-than-happy life, stuff that people like her didn't share back in the day before celebrities began to air their deepest, darkest secrets. I was impressed by how grounded, down-to-earth and warm she was. It was wonderful to know that the bespangled cowgirl on TV was as sweet and caring as she seemed in front of the camera.

Hosting the RV Roundup proved to her that, rather than forgetting her, thousands of people still passionately cared. That led her to return to the Philly region where, for more than two decades, she made a living doing personal appearances (at both public and private events) and a series of radio shows.

Rest in peace, Sal. And don't worry: You'll forever be Our Gal.


Email: darrowc@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-313-3134

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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