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Monday, February 25, 2013

Saying Good-bye to Sally Starr

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Feb 13, 2013

By Thom Nickels

I’m with my friend Stephen, the Ice Skating Cowboy, and we’re headed across the Betsy Ross Bridge for Berlin, New Jersey, to attend the public portion of the funeral for Sally Starr. The viewing is slated to begin at 5PM at Costantino’s Funeral Home ("elegant but affordable") on the White Horse Pike, but we’re on the road plenty early, expecting huge crowds.

We arrive before the crowds, help ourselves to a giveaway photo of Sally, and then proceed into one of the Costantino reception rooms where every tabletop has a Sally photo spread under glass. The entire funeral home, in fact, has been transformed into a Sally museum. The staff, all serious-looking older men in suits, seem a little tense, expecting quite a night and God-knows-what. After checking out the photos, we head into the receiving room where Sally’s mortal remains (in a closed casket) form a kind of altar shrine with a large image of Sally on the casket top alongside sprays of flowers, candles, Sally’s cowgirl hat and a small end table holding her boots.

It is still too early for Sally’s family to gather in the receiving line, so we sign the guest registry and take a seat on one of the many folding chairs lined up for the actual service, slated to begin at 8PM.

My thoughts drift to Sally: born Alleen Mae Beller in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1923; adopted the name Sally Starr in 1941; the second eldest of five girls but one of seven children; considered the first highly rated DJ in the country; a talented announcer, writer and producer; started the Philadelphia-based ‘Popeye Theater’ in 1955, a 30-minute channel 6 variety show that included cartoons, live acts, western shorts, The Three Stooges, and guests like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Chuck Connors, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Nick Adams ("Johnny Yuma was a Rebel"), and Chief Halftown.

Events begin to move fast at Costantino’s. A line near the guest registry is already out the door as former fans and mourners approach the casket and greet family members. Most of the people seem to be about the same age: 50s, 60s, and above. In many ways they resemble salt-of-the-earth types, like characters in a Nelson Algren novel: men in baseball caps, polyester suits, work uniforms, Elvis jackets, and women with long bleached-blond hair who look like Sally Xeroxes.

They keep joining the line although overall it is not a sad affair. There’s lots of talking and moving around—yes, the spirit of Love, Luck and Lollipops has made this a happy place. Occasionally somebody will kneel or bow before the casket, but almost everyone has a word or two to say to Sally’s only surviving sister, a small woman in a 1950s-style "DA" hairdo who somehow reminds me (dare I say it?) of Popeye. While extending my hand to Sally’s sister I can’t help but notice how she laughs like Sally; a very sweet woman, really. Beside Sally’s sister is a young girl about 10 or 11 years old. I ask a woman standing next to the girl who the girl is and I’m told, "Sally’s granddaughter."

Did I hear that right? I didn’t know that Sally had any children. After all, wasn’t there a 1984 Daily News column by Stu Bykofsky in which Sally was quoted as saying, "Unfortunately, I had polio and it affected me in ways that prevented me from having children." Well, let’s chalk this one up to mystery.

Returning to the folding chairs, I notice Ron Joseph, or RJ, former friend of Dick Clark and host of ABC-TV’s WFIL channel 6 RJ’s Dance Studio, a big thing in the 1970s (think "You’re My Honey Bee" by Gloria Gaynor). I also spot Chief Halftown’s son.

Chief Halftown (1917-2003), aka Traynor Ora Halftown, was a Seneca Indian from upstate New York. He hosted the longest-running children’s show in the history of television, also on channel 6. The Chief preferred to use the word "Indian" when describing himself, rather than "Native American." According to the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia website, the Chief began each show with "Ees da sa sussaway," Seneca for "Let us begin."

I notice the presiding minister and his wife standing by an open doorway. Culturally, these folks look very different than your average Philadelphian. It may sound like a cliché but they look like a younger version of Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic. I get a feeling of weirdness when the minister’s wife levels a steady gaze in my direction and then scans the room as if taking a psychological Polaroid. When Philadelphia jeweler Henri David walks in the room with his partner Paul Struck, Henri wearing a lavish mink coat, I notice that the coat is making an impression, but not in a Love, Luck and Lollipops way. It pays to observe people closely sometimes: as Henri exits the room a Constantino staff member whispers to the minister’s wife. I watch as the latter breaks into a smile rich in satirical intrigue.

From my folding chair I watch RJ work the crowd, at one point prepping for another photo-op in front of Sally’s cowgirl boots. I’m thinking, "Hey, appear on TV long enough and life and picture-taking become inseparable, but it’s all good." In a scene to end all scenes, a man dressed up as Sally Starr makes an appearance, a site for sore evangelical eyes and a visual sure to get the preacher’s attention. We decide not to stick around for the reaction but head into the other reception room where there’s a full-fledged Sally party raging: in one corner a news team interviews a guy in blue jeans while elsewhere people look through a Three Stooges book. There’s a lot of commotion and eye straining because almost everybody is trying to determine who’s who underneath the facial ravages of time.

"Is that—?" I hear on more than occasion. "Is that him—really?"

The Ice Skating Cowboy and I end the night in a Jersey diner, the perfect after-Sally event, and then head home where I tell people about the "viewing."

One friend, who used to work at channel 6 and who knew Sally well, tells me that the reason Sally left TV was because the station fired her for chronic lateness. "They had to put Chief Halftown in there or show cartoons until she showed up." Not long after this, he adds, Sally walked into his office selling Florsheim shoes.

But everybody, it seems, has a story about Sally. Somebody even informs me that she used to frequent the bars in Kensington.

Celebrity is no insulator when it comes to experiencing life’s ups and downs. Nobody escapes down times. Sally was every bit as much a salt-of-the-earth type as the people who came to Berlin to pay her homage, so if she frequented the bars in Kensington for a while, more power to her. It’s no fun being a lonely porcelain diva idol stuck on a home mantel in a celebrity deep freeze.

That’s why Philadelphia loves you, Sally.