Where Have You Gone, Sally Starr?: A Requiem for the Philly TV Star

For me and an entire generation of Philadelphians, local broadcasters of yore like Gene London, Jim O’Brien and Hank Sperka were certified celebrities. Why can’t today’s bland batch of talking heads match up?

Local TV news has always held a place for the silly—it’s part of its charm. Bill Kuster, the KYW weatherman, used to give the forecast using cartoon characters he labeled “The Kuster Kids.” Jim O’Brien, whose death in a skydiving accident in 1983 became Philly’s JFK assassination moment, didn’t deliver a forecast as much as he performed one, with high-pressure systems the “good guys” and low-pressure ones “bad guys”—weather as cabaret act. Sperka, his eyeglasses like two small windshields, became Action News’s “Sidewalk Gourmet,” typically surrounded- by a harem of girls in feathered Farrah Fawcett hairdos as he ate baklava in some Greek restaurant and generally acted like your lecherous uncle.

But maybe that’s the point: The people who delivered our news looked like us; they talked like us; they seemed to care about the same things we did. It wasn’t the content that made those newscasts resonate as much as it was the people on them. I always thought Action News’s Cathy Gandolfo seemed like she’d grown up in South Philly and graduated from St. Maria Goretti. I recently discovered she grew up in South Philly … and graduated from Maria Goretti.

“There was an absolute different philosophy in the building of personality,” says Lew Klein, the program and production manager of WFIL (which is now WPVI 6ABC) from 1957 to 1968. “There was a difference in the early days of continuity, of establishing and building local personalities, and the investment that you made to keep them. Now, for many people it’s just a stepping-stone to other positions. There’s not the continuity, the connection.”

The people talking to us through the screen during the golden age of television did so in a dinner-table manner telegraphing that we weren’t merely their audience, but also their neighbors. It was personal– for us, and they got that. They were, for the most part, unpolished and unremarkable and even, in some cases, unattractive. Which is why, perhaps, they were able to project such authenticity, even when they were jumping up and down on the roof of the Spectrum.

The whole thing worked, in a way that seems antique and yet more charming and genuine than the slick rat-a-tat-tat and general inanity of today’s local broadcasts. “I can’t emphasize enough that the early days of television were like a three-ring circus,” says Al Meltzer. “Sets fell down, cameras dollied into each other, things fell apart in the control room.” For more than two decades, deadpan and droll “Big Al” was one of the deans of Philly television sports—the anti-John Clark, who appears to have just downed a can of Red Bull. “Now, with 400 channels, there are lots of jobs. But what you don’t have is lots of experience.”

WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED? Somewhere along the way, we lost not just those people, but our bond to both them and the newscasts they hosted. Today’s local TV landscape seems like nothing but a window display of interchangeable mannequins; I wouldn’t know Susan Barnett if she ran me over with her car. Think about it: Would John Facenda, the founding father of Philly broadcasting, stand a chance at an on-air job today? His gravelly delivery might have catapulted him into the city’s public consciousness, but his Bela Lugosi looks and somber persona would leave him DOA before the first screen test now.

To be fair, much of this isn’t the local affiliates’ fault. As the networks grew in stature and influence, they gobbled up more and more local airtime, even as affiliates were figuring out that it was cheaper to buy syndicated programming than to produce their own. Combined, this had the effect of de-localizing local TV, killing broadcasts of events like the Devon Horse Show and Penn and Temple football, which used to be part of WFIL’s programming. As sex began to sell, its effects trickled down, sweeping out the Cathy Gandolfo types and ushering in Alycia Lane and all the Breck girls 2.0. Local news devolved from kitchen-table discourse to beacon of local glamour, its telecasts slathered in Pepsodent and carnival barkerism. At the same time, the American nuclear family began to fracture, elbowing dents into rituals like communal viewings of the news. Finally, cable exploded onto the scene, allowing viewers to curate their own information and plunging a dagger into local TV that has it still bleeding today.

Nowhere was this Darwinism more evident than with the kiddie shows. Sesame Street delivered the first shot across the bow in 1969, followed by FCC attempts in the ’70s to crack down on advertising targeted to kids. Eventually, kid-show hosts were barred from peddling products, meaning no more of Channel 6’s Chief Halftown (an actual true-blood Seneca) guzzling Bosco. Without those ad dollars, the local shows died quick deaths.

WHYY did a terrific documentary about the kiddie hosts a few years ago. Watching it, you see that Sally Starr may have been a cowgirl from Kansas City, but her sass and sparkle (and pillowy hips, for that matter) were pure Philly. Dr. Shock, the Frankenstein-lite who hosted a late-night raft of horror movies on WPHL, was actually a two-bit Manayunk magician named Joe Zawislak. East Oak Lane’s Jane Norman, our own Mary Martin, flew through the air as Pixanne. And of course there was Captain Noah’s Magical Ark, which ran on WPVI from 1967 to 1994, always ending with the “Red and yellow and pink and green/Purple and orange and blue/I can sing a rainbow” theme. Captain and Mrs. Noah (she died in June) sang the tune to close the WHYY documentary. As I watched it, the sentimentality walloped me unexpectedly in the face, and I cried.