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.

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  • Paul

    Well, thank you for that walk down memory lane. I grew up with Jim O’Brien, Larry Kane, Joe Pellegrino, Jim Gardner, Wee Willie Weber and all the rest. You’re right, we don’t have those kinds of personalities anymore. But then I used to hear my uncle say the same thing about the 50s, in the 70s. I wander what my kids will be remembering about their childhoods.

  • Mike

    Progress cannot be stopped.

    Once Jim Gardner and his WPVI colleagues decide to retire, the last of the old guard will fade into Youtube memories.

  • Martin

    Thank you for a terrific article. I left Philly many years ago; because of my career, I’ve worked with numerous celebrities over the years. But it was an incredible thrill to be introduced to Sally Starr in 1985. In fact, getting hugged by our “Gal Sal” brought me to tears because we watched her show every afternoon. I told her how much she meant to me when my family was going through tough times. The Three Stooges made us laugh and Sally made us smile and feel as if everything was going to be okay. I was awestruck and could only say: “Thank you, thank you.”

  • Cooper

    It was always better in the past. I’m sure someone in 1985 wouldn’t know Deborah Knapp if they ran her over. It’s easy to make those blanket statements. It’s also easy to find the old guard, bitter about the new kids and the way they do it today. I’m sure Gunner Back was not thrilled with Jessica Savitch and all of those man on the street stories from the 70s. And of course, there was no radio reporter from the 40s and 50s who approved of television at all.

    Everyone misses the past, but would anyone really watch Larry Ferrari now? No. But in 1977, with only 3 television stations, it was background music. That didn’t mean it was good.

  • Bev

    It was a delight to stumble upon this article. I can identify. I grew up in a Philly row house neighborhood when there was only 3 channels too. I can still sing the Cartoon Corners General Store song. I watched a lot of Sally Starr and Chief Haftown. Bringing up those names of the old Philly TV news guard brought back memories. I can remember certain things about those folks, such as the late Bill Kuster explaining the “January Thaw” and the personal lost I felt when Bill O’Brien died. Thank you for this great piece of nostalgia.

  • Timothy

    Well done and to the point! In short, where we’ve failed is we: 1.No longer nurture talent. 2.Rely on graphics instead of the spoken word for finite description. 3. Have become homogeneous, you can’t tell Channel 3 from 6 from 10 from 29…

  • http://google Kim Weibley

    Sally is doing okay at a long term care facility in New Jersey. I saw her a few months ago and although frail, she still has that Sally Starr punch in her! I have known and loved her for years and pray she celebrates her 90th birthday in January of 2013!

  • Becky

    I Loved the show . We would go to a neighbors house Monday through Friday , and there were about 12 of us. We didnt have a tv but this precious woman would let us watch Sally Starr for and hour and a half. If we were bad, we had to go home. Thank God I was never bad there.

  • Dick

    I’m sure the author of this article is about ten years younger than I–I remember the early days of Gene London and Sally Starr. Remember when Gene London was on seven days a week? Wally Kinnan the Weatherman on WRCV, before it became KYW…Jim Leaming doing the sports, Vince Edwards doing the news…

    Recently I got hold of Moe Howard’s (The Three Stooges) autobiography and I got into a “where are they now?” mood, googled some names and found this article. Great writing! And I’ve got to agree with your conclusion, that local TV (and radio, for that matter, since I had a 30-year career behind a microphone, just not in a market the size of Philadelphia) is missing something. What with Sirius/XM, cable and satellite TV, the internet…as the author said, things are much more fractured today.

    I left the area in 1971 and have only been back sporadically to visit relatives, so I’ve not been able to keep up with things–a big surprise was to come for a visit to find that channels 3 and 10 had switched network affiliations!

    I guess I’d better stop musing at the computer…but I want to reiterate: Great article! Thanks for writing it and bringing back memories.