Fans flood send-off for Sally Starr

PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Sally Starr impersonator Donna Mae Stemmer, of Pennsauken, stopped by to pay respects.
PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Sally Starr impersonator Donna Mae Stemmer, of Pennsauken, stopped by to pay respects.
Posted: February 06, 2013

THERE ARE NO TAPES or videos or faded old footage of Sally Starr's tender voice signing off, but Sue Gruber can hear it perfectly in her memories.

"Love, luck and lollipops."

On Monday afternoon, Gruber finished her shift at a local Walmart and drove down the White Horse Pike to Costantino Funeral Home, in Berlin, N.J. Gruber, of Magnolia, Camden County, was the first in line for Sally Starr's public viewing and funeral, filing past pictures of Sally's retirement party and the white cowboy boots propped up beside her closed casket, to Sally's cowboy hat, where she laid a special gift.

"I left her a peppermint lollipop," Gruber, 55, said. "She meant so much to me growing up, and I just wanted to say goodbye."

Hundreds of people, including family and strangers like Gruber who didn't know Starr beyond the screen, poured into the funeral home for hours Monday. Starr died on Jan. 27, two days after her 90th birthday.

She was born Alleen Mae Beller in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 25, 1923, the second-oldest of five sisters. She changed her name to Sally Starr in 1941 and married country entertainer Jesse Rogers, who was 15 years her senior. Later that decade, Star moved to Philadelphia, where she eventually became the cowgirl queen of local children's television.

Pictures of Starr in her signature cowgirl garb were everywhere, depicting her heydays hosting "Popeye Theater" as well as smaller gatherings during more recent birthdays. There were more laughs than tears at the viewing, even among the family members who greeted the mourners.

People took pictures, told stories and brought memorabilia faded by the decades. There were women there in knee-high red boots, in Stetsons and frilled skirts, and then there was Donna Mae Stemmer, a Sally Starr impersonator dressed in white from head to toe, with a Playboy Bunny necklace on.

"I used to show up with guns blazing when Sal would make appearances and yell, 'She's the imposter, I'm the real thing!' " said Stemmer, who posed for dozens of pictures. "She loved me."

Talking about Sally Starr and remembering those afternoons by the television made Anthony Maressa, 63, feel young again.

"I wouldn't trade a day of my life," Maressa said. "I grew up during a great time and Sally was a part of it. She was like our babysitter."

Mary Boyd, 80, said that her sister Sal would have wanted it this way.

"I just wanted to thank everyone for coming to say goodbye to Our Gal Sal," Boyd said after the viewing. "She would have loved it."

According to broadcastpioneers.com, Starr began "Popeye Theater," her iconic afterschool program, on Oct. 3, 1955, on what was then WFIL-TV, Channel 6 (now WPVI, 6ABC). For two hours a day, five days a week, for more than a decade, Starr, dressed in a spangled cowgirl outfit, showed "Popeye" cartoons and Three Stooges shorts, and welcomed celebrity guests to her live telecasts.

Jim Pauley, a Philadelphia police officer, brought a copy of his book, The Three Stooges, to show off a photo of Starr with Larry Fine on the set of "The Outlaws is Coming!" in 1965.

"I gave her all the credit in this book for introducing me and everyone else to the Three Stooges," said Pauley, 53. "She is a legend and she will be missed."

Many at the funeral said that Sally's a celebrity from a bygone era, someone who'd lead a Christmas parade, hold babies at a local carnival or make appearances at shopping malls.

"So much love just poured out of the screen," said former Philadelphia radio personality Gene Arnold. "Every person here would probably tell you they loved her. People just don't feel that way today."

Starr's funeral ended with the song "Good Night, Dear Lord," and its lyrics brought a few to tears.

"Goodnight, dear Lord, it's time for bed," the singer crooned. "Mom, turn off my TV set."


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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