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?

Quigley Mansion held endless fascination.

This happens when you’re a child living in a twin house with a black-and-white television—and only three networks to choose from, one of them with a weekly program called Cartoon Corners that featured a spooky manor accessed by a secret tunnel.

Quigley Mansion was, of course, fiction, nothing more than plywood and paint and flashing strobes providing the occasional ominous bolt of lightning. But for kids who grew up in Philadelphia during a certain set of wonder years—mine being the late 1960s and early ’70s—Quigley, the tunnel, and most of all the Cartoon Corners host, a skinny, flamboyant dream weaver named Gene London, left us positively agog. Through Gene’s riveting storytelling, all bulging eyes and witchy cackles, we were catapulted into other worlds not by Pixar animation, but by the sheer power of a great, well-told tale.

Gene, 80, is still built like the skinny scarecrow he was in my youth, but his jet-black matinee-idol hair is now a tangled haystack of gray, which lends him a slightly mad-scientist look. For years he lived a rather Norma Desmond-y existence in his Manhattan- apartment, surrounded by memorabilia from his time as a Philly kids’-show host and his impressive collection of dead movie queens’ gowns. (He now has homes in both Florida and rural Pennsylvania, where the costumes are warehoused.) There is a certain pathos about him, his conversation a running dialogue of his many accomplishments (“My ratings were staggeringly high”), his fans (“Kevin Bacon loves me, too”), his standing among the other local television stars of his day (“I was from New York and sophisticated; she was very fun, like a barmaid,” he says of legendary cowgirl Sally Starr). He’s still big; it’s television that got small.

Though born and raised in Cleveland, Gene London was handsome in an 8th and Tasker way, a perfect fit as local Philadelphia television found its footing in the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve tracked him down because of a mystery I’ve been mulling of late: why those folks of my wonder years, the ones who were the faces of television in Philadelphia, seemed so different then—and why our relationship with them, as a city, seemed different as well. Gene sighs. “Of course we’ve lost something,” he tells me. “We’ve lost so much. You have to remember that back in those days, kids would watch anything. The world was different. There weren’t outside forces then, the outside world. There weren’t a thousand channels.”

If you look at old reels of these newscasts and kiddie shows, you see that the people who talked to us through our TV screens weren’t polished. A few looked as though they’d just wandered in from some taproom in Germantown to find themselves staring into a camera. But they were the closest things we had to celebrities in Philadelphia, their sightings in the odd supermarket enough to set off small riots.

More than that, they had something. Something very basic, very necessary, and something we wildly underrated.

They were us.

TELEVISION DEFINED MY GENERATION in a way it never did that of my parents. To know anyone who had been on television was akin to knowing someone who had been in a movie, even if that TV appearance was a fleeting audience scan on Dialing for Dollars, the cheesy Channel 6 version of The Price Is Right. In the YouTube Age of Overexposure, that type of magic has long since dissipated. I personally haven’t watched a local newscast in years.

So one recent night when I was watching something else—the finale of So You Think You Can Dance (don’t judge me)—I kept the TV on to catch the beginning of the Fox 29 news. The lead story was about a South Philly woman who had received a big water bill. I’m not making that up. A few weeks earlier, I had watched the venerable Action News at 11 o’clock, momentarily cheered by that familiar timpani-heavy opening anthem. But my spirits soon flagged. The “big story on Action News” was area thunderstorms, replete with time-lapsed footage of a wet street outside the station window. While it was nice to see Jim Gardner still working the Abner Doubleday ’stache, the newscast itself was a numbing recitation of a Logan fire, a burglary spree in East Falls, an accidental drowning. More than two minutes were devoted to a test of anti-wrinkle creams and feminine razors. There was a YouTube video of a snake slithering across the hood of a moving car—in Tennessee. And a meaty recap of the finale of The Bachelorette. Remember the old TV news adage “If it bleeds, it leads”? While I’ve been away from the news, such wisdom seems to have been replaced with “If you don’t care, it’s on the air.”

It’s a little head-shaking. When I was growing up, local news was appointment television in Philadelphia. With only three TV stations, we were a captive audience, so tuning in served a practical purpose; back in those days, there was some substantive, if not truly investigative, journalism going on. There were actually editorials on the news, with KYW general manager Alan J. Bell coming on to bellyache about the building of the Center City commuter tunnel, constantly bleating, “But you don’t want that tunnel.” And me, at the age of 10, thinking, Oh, I don’t know, Alan, I do want a tunnel. I had no idea what it was all about. But I knew who Alan J. Bell was, and that he was making a serious point. He had me thinking about civics, about the city I lived in, and about why everyone was so charged up about a public-works project, even if I was too young to comprehend it.

Look, I’m not trying to argue that local news in the ’60s and ’70s was 60 Minutes. It wasn’t. In 1978, Action News’s Hank Sperka once reported on the safety of the Spectrum’s roof by jumping up and down on it. On another occasion, in Rome to cover the canonization of St. John Neumann, he asked a bunch of Philly pilgrims standing outside the Colosseum, “How does this compare to Connie Mack Stadium?” Edward R. Murrow he was not.