These days, it seems that most of the “stars” that grace our screens live in California. Hollywood, to be exact, home of all that flash, that glitter, that talent.
If reading People or US magazines teaches you anything (don’t hold your breath), you know that the streets of Hollywood are paved with red carpets, and starlets dripping with diamonds parade on the arms of their dashing male counterparts as flashbulbs flash and paparazzi shove.
But I remember a day, not so very long ago, when we had our local stars as well. We’d watch them on our small screen, beamed in (usually live) over our three (count 'em!) broadcast networks and, if we were lucky and reception was right, on the local UHF bands. Then, after the show was over, we could bump into them in the A&P, where they’d be weighing their bananas in the produce aisle and comparing prices with the other shoppers.
My kids, who have been brought up in a jungle of cable networks, 24/7 broadcasting and 557 channels with nothing on, don’t even know what I mean. To them, a star is a star … and everyone knows it. How can I explain that I grew up with local celebrities, names that might not have meant much outside of the Greater Delaware Valley, but whose very presence blessed my childhood in a way that their Disney Channel produced pop stars never could?
I mean, sure, they had the national sensations, the Ninja Turtles, the Teletubbies and the iCarlys. But how could the overly produced mind candy compare to the creativity of a Gene London, the smiling encouragement of an Al Alberts, the spunky outlook of a Sally Starr?
These celebs were our own, belonging to a generation growing up together not only in time but in place. They were homegrown and sometimes low-budget and even borderline cheesy, but they were real to us in the same way the man next door or the lady down the street were. They were the grown-ups who guided us through our growing up, not the same as mom and dad, but like favorite aunts and uncles who liked our cartoons and told us stories and were in on the joke.
So when I heard of Sally Starr’s passing last week, days after her 90th birthday, it was almost like a death in the family.
When I was a mere toddler, 4 at the most, my mother took my little sister and me to a grocery store in South Philly (the Penn Fruit, I want to say, though it could be the old A&P) to see our gal Sal. There was a line outside the grocer, where others kids stood hand in hand with other moms, patiently waiting for their turn with our own rhinestone cowgirl, who was seated in a folding chair right in front of the red and white signs advertising bacon for 70¢ a pound or carrots for 19¢ a bunch.
I can’t remember what transpired between us by the time Gina and I reached the front of the line and stood before Sally Starr’s folding table. I just remember the biggest smile, the blondest hair, and the flashiest faux diamond bedazzling job I’d seen in all my four years. She cooed at us and signed her name to black and white hand-out photographs, adding her trademark saying, “Love, luck and lollipops.”
The one thing I do remember clearly, just like it was yesterday, happened as we turned and walked to the parking lot. I looked up and saw what seemed like hundreds of helium balloons rising upward towards the sun. That image burned into my brain, and sometimes still, when I can’t sleep, I stare hard into the darkness until the night parts and I can see those balloons heading heaven-ward.
That wasn’t my only brush with hometown celebrity. In fact, I appeared as one of the children in the peanut gallery on a couple of Happy the Clown episodes. It turned out that the old guy in white face didn’t live up to his name, but I did meet Wee Willie Webber in the green room once, and I thought he was pretty terrific. Although I can’t find any documentation of it, it’s stuck in my head that Rowlf the Dog made his early TV appearances on The Wee Willie Webber Colorful Cartoon Club, long before he later found fame as one of the Muppets.
Of course, the Cartoon Club was where we all got our first taste of Japanese animation, with dubbed episodes of Astro Boy and Speed Racer filling our afternoons. I guess they were the forerunners of one of my sons’ favorite shows, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Sure, they were a national phenomenon, with the White Ranger a “must have” on the level of the Cabbage Patch Dolls one Christmas. In fact, the year my son Steven was in preschool, every child in his class dressed as a Power Ranger for Halloween. Now that’s saying something for a show where the words never quite matched the mouths.
But my kids will argue that none of their flashy, over-produced Disney or Nickelodeon favorites were as campy or hokey as the shows I loved as a child, and I guess they may be right. But I wish they knew the joy of rubbing shoulders with our local celebrities, of watching Gene London draw our imagination, of singing a rainbow on a magical ark, or of watching balloons float over a parking lot after the world’s sweetest cowgirl wished you a life of love, luck and lollipops.
Get Mary Lebeau's Vignettes column in your inbox every week. Sign up for our newsletter.