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?

Perhaps it was because I now realize that the local news and its offshoot programming—like Sunday afternoon’s hokey, perma-grinning organist -Larry Ferrari, whose show ran for 43 years on WFIL (43 years! Of a guy playing the organ!)—was something more than just information or entertainment. It was part of the soundtrack of Philadelphia, the elevator music piped in as we rode through our days. The folks who appeared on our screens weren’t merely our anchors or reporters or hosts, but our stars. “Sally [Starr] was at every parade. Captain Noah was at every ribbon-cutting,” Lew Klein says. “They were part of the city. And our philosophy at Channel 6 was that we pushed our people out. Today, they’re not connected to the community in terms of activity, and to some degree, that’s understandable: When you look at the people on the news, how many come and go and come and go? They aren’t of the city in the way they used to be.”

AS HE WALKS THROUGH the Country Squire Diner in Broomall, I recognize Al Meltzer instantly.- At 83, he still has the towering stature (he’s six-four), droopy bassett-hound face and ice cap of hair that made him such an imposing presence on local sportscasts, first on WFIL, then later at KYW. He’s had a hip replacement and two back operations, but in his Big Five golf shirt and blue slacks, he’s still every inch “Big Al.” Meltzer has written a memoir, fittingly titled Big Al, that will be published this month by Camino Books. It’s not great literature, but its meticulous anecdotes throw into sharp focus all that we’ve lost on the local airwaves.

He orders a fruit salad. I tell him I suspect he ate far better during his years on the air, and he laughs. “When Leonard Tose owned the Eagles,” Al says, “this was every reporter’s number one stop in the National Football League. I kid you not. As you know, they feed the press whatever on Sundays. Not Leonard. You want lobster? You want steak? At the Monday press conferences there would be shrimp, scallops. Leonard may have been the best and worst owner in the history of football.”

There is, of course, a danger in getting too mired in nostalgia. As a medium, television has always tried to stay ahead of the curve. But it was Philadelphia that gave TV some of its earliest and most innovative programming: American Bandstand, The Mike Douglas Show. What, I wonder, are we giving it now?

This is one of the things I ask Pat Ciarrocchi when I meet her on a sunny afternoon a week later, in the sleek headquarters of CBS 3. I adore Pat. She’s one of the last of the “old guard” left in television news here, a local girl (born and raised in Chester County) on our airwaves for almost 30 years. And she still has the same heart-shaped face, which when she smiles makes her seem almost beatific, as if she should be wearing a habit, wondering how to solve a problem like Maria.

I ask her if she understands what I’m trying to get at here, that it isn’t just that local TV has changed and evolved with the times—fair enough—but that something has evaporated in the process. Something I suspect we’ve undervalued.

“There is a difference,” she replies, almost in a whisper, as we sit in her roomy cube in the CBS 3 newsroom. “When I was young, it was hard to determine the difference. The anchors, the people there before me—there was a unique charisma to each one of them. They seemed like they had their own unique character. Today … ” She trails off. “I think there is an effort to develop that kind of uniqueness.”

I don’t know if I believe her. I do know if that’s true, it’s not working. Earlier, I sat on the set of her noon infotainment program, Talk Philly, watching her interview an entrepreneur who runs a business housing college kids in deluxe apartments. With Pat cooing over the apartment listings like they were jewelry at Tiffany, the whole thing smacked more of a promo than an interview. Afterward, she admitted- the segment was, in fact, an ad—paid content plopped into the middle of the broadcast. She didn’t look happy about it. But a tight smile soon gripped her face. “We have to keep it going!” she said, a bit too brightly.

Do we? Perhaps we simply can’t hold onto our past, no matter how much we’d like to. And is it fair to constantly reflect on how the “old ways” were better, when often we have nothing more than our collective gut telling us that’s true? Would we really be happier, would life truly be better, without the teeming buffet of choices we now have on cable and the Internet? Isn’t this the American marketplace at work—out with the old, in with the new?

And yet, when it comes to television, at least, I can’t shake the feeling that the marketplace has gotten it wrong. Because we haven’t just lost the connection to local news—we’ve lost yet another connective thread to each other. When I was growing up in Philly, watching the news was something you did as a family and discussed as a community. The people on the screen were people we all had in common, a shared part of our daily lives. Like our sports teams, cheesesteaks and burly politics, they stitched us together as a city. As we unplug from them, we disconnect from one another, just a tiny bit more. Thrown together in elevators or doctors’ offices, we no longer ask, “Did you see that story on the news?,” but rather cordon off into our own vacuum-sealed bubbles, disappearing into our Droids and BlackBerrys.

I can’t say I’d respond to a rallying cry to tune in every night at 11; a steady diet of Nydia Han product-testing and Bachelorette recaps would put me over the edge.

But I could probably still be convinced to sing a rainbow on occasion.