Remembering the Starlit Stairway
By Erik P. Smith
There’s one sure-fire way of telling a lifelong Spokanite from someone who just moved here for the weather. Just ask the person to recite the Boyle Fuel jingle.
When you need coal or oil, call Boyle
For every heating problem,
Be your furnace old or new,
Just call the Boyle Fuel Company,
And they’ll solve them all for you.
All-digit dialing hit Spokane 10 years ago, and the Boyle Fuel Co. has disappeared. But there’s something about the way the Boyle Fuel Twins recited the number – one-FIIIIIIVVVVE-two-one – that haunts Inland Empire residents even today.
From 1953 to 1973, those words opened the longest-running live-TV talent program in the country. And for those in their 20s and older, there’s just no forgetting “Starlit Stairway.”
It was Spokane’s answer to “The Ed Sullivan Show”: Every Saturday night at 6:30 you saw a procession of kids playing the trumpet, the banjo, the piano, the accordion, etc. There were baton twirlers, boys who kept eight plates spinning at once and chorus lines of tap-dancing 9-year-olds who watched each other to make sure they were in step.
First prize was $25. But no one walked away a loser because every contestant got a certificate inscribed with his or her name. At least that’s what the emcees said. Hardly any of the contestants broke down in tears.
“Starlit Stairway” came from a time when any kid with talent took music or dance lessons and dreamed of a career in show biz, when there was nothing wrong with a little hometown schmaltz, when local stations produced much of their own programming and everything was live. Little remains of the show besides musty TV Guide listings and a few reels of brittle audio tape. But the memories run strong.
Not long ago, “Starlit Stairway” producer Bob Ward flipped through a thick manila folder fitted with publicity stills from the show. “So many of these, I remember something about,” he said.
There was teen-age violinist Kelly Farris, who went on to play with the Spokane Symphony. Normalu Thue Cooper, who played Rachmaninoff and Chopin, and is now the organist at the Spokane Indians ballpark. Terry Chamberlain, who might have gone far if the country hadn’t suddenly lost interest in the accordion.
Ward stopped at a shot of a 3-year-old boy in a crew cut and blazer.
“Little Carl Larson, Davenport, Wash. I’ll never be able to forget that in my life. Little Carl gets about halfway through his song, and he looks right out at his mother and says, ‘Mother, I’ve got to go.’ We cut over to (emcee) Ted Otto, and he doesn’t know what to do. So he says, ‘Let’s try it again.'”
Luckily, Carl finished the song before disaster struck.
You never knew what would happen on live television – and over the course of 20 years, just about everything did.
There were miscues and kids who would blank out completely. Backdrops toppled over during performances. Sheet music fell off the piano in midsong. Sometimes the camera would jolt going over the light cables.
One time a girl with a flaming-baton act dropped her wand and set the curtains ablaze. Firemen arrived almost immediately. Ward thinks they were watching.
Clary Wright, who hosted the show from ’68 to ’72, remembers the night he did a commercial from a family room set to show what happens when your furnace burns a “bargain” brand heating oil. He told the audience to watch the vent for a cloud of soot. Then nothing came out.
He had to think fast.
“No, we’re not gong to waste the nice furniture this way,” he said. “With Boyle Fuel, your furniture is safe!”
No one knew the difference, he said.
Wright looks back on his days as host with such fondness that he’s organizing a “Tribute to Starlit Stairway” show at the Spokane Interstate Fair next week, with alumni and new local talent. If the idea takes off, he says, who knows? Maybe “Starlit Stairway” will return.
“Every place I’ve gone, they say ‘I hope you get that back on the air,’ so I know there’s an interest.”
He admits, though, that tastes have changed. And some argue that Spokane has outgrown the show: In this age of rock ‘n’ roll superstardom, they say, a show like “Starlit Stairway” wouldn’t stand a chance.
MTV it wasn’t. Producer Ward said, “The great success of ‘Starlit Stairway’ was that it was a clean show, a homey show. It gave the kids a chance to strive for something. I only wish it was still on.
Ward was a Boyle Fuel salesman when his boss hatched the idea. The jingle had been a fixture on local radio since the ’30s. Ward said the phone number was known as far away as Montana.
Television came to Spokane in 1952: The government lifted a freeze on new licenses, and KXLY and KHQ rushed to be first on the air. KXLY manager Ed Craney knew he’d have air time to fill – and over dinner at the Spokane House, he convinced the late Leon Boyle that TV was the advertising medium of the future.
Boyle thought he’d try a one-shot talent show, and offered a $1,000 prize to the boy and girl who could best sing the jingle. An audition was called in December. Between 400 and 500 kids showed up, their parents and teachers, too.
“Leon said that with all the kids who came, there must be an interest in that sort of thing,” Ward said. “But he didn’t think they’d keep it on for years.”
Naturally, he wanted people to call Boyle. But Ward said that wasn’t all: “He made his money in the Inland Empire and this market, and he wanted to put it back into something for the community. He felt it was the best he could do with his advertising dollar.”
There were three commercials every show, with the twins singing the praises of Boyle’s special wintertime “Keep-Filled” service, sometimes dancing around in boxes marked “Aberdeen Stoker Nuggets” and “Caterized Oil.”
But for the parents who shelled out hundreds of bucks for music lessons, as well as classmates, relatives, friends, acquaintances and people who just liked variety shows, “Starlit Stairway” was more than just an advertising vehicle. Saturday mornings, the studio would be filled with kids waiting to audition. In the evenings, the parents, teachers, Bluebirds and Cub Scouts would come to see the miracle of television. Every school kid knew the Boyle Fuel jingle. Whatever KREM and KHQ put against it, “Starlit Stairway” proved invincible.
“It was really odd that it was so important to so many people,” said Deanda Sylte Roberts. “I don’t know what it symbolized for kids in a simpler time. Not just the square, hokey kids enjoyed it. Everybody did.”
Deanda and her twin sister, Deanna Sylte Lucas, are perhaps “Starlit Stairway’s” most famous alumni. The Boyle Fuel Twins were the first in a long line of little girls to sing the jingle (later sets were known as the Starliters). They split that initial $1,000 prize with a boy named Sandy Farquart, but Ward and Boyle decided early on that two cute little girls had double the appeal. Farquart quickly disappeared.
“It was our life, let me tell you,” Deanna said. “We really thought we’d hit the big time when we were on that show.”
They were in the fifth grade when the show premiered on Feb. 28, 1953, and they stuck with it through their freshman year of high school. All Spokane watched them grow. Later, the two pursued a career in Hollywood, appearing with Pat Boone, Liberace, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, to name a few. Today both live in town: Deanna is a graphic artist; Deanda, a marriage and family counselor.
Years after “Starlit Stairway,” Deanna heard of girls who stared into the mirror wishing they to were Boyle Fuel Twins. But as teen-agers, there was something unsettling about being minor celebrities.
“A few kids wrote us notes like they idolized us,” Deanda said, “even when we were at North Central. I guess it didn’t do a good enough job with the guys. They may have over-idealized us. We didn’t get asked out a lot.”
Deanna said, “We’d wonder why nobody wanted to be our friends. They thought we were stuck-up, when actually we were just shy.”
The studio was different. They remember how the Boyles would take them out to dinner and buy them new clothes. There was something of a “Starlit Stairway” “family,” they say, with all the kids who returned season after season.
One of them was Leslie Ann Grove, who appeared two dozen times, the first when she was 6. “I still run into people – I’ll give somebody my credit card or something, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know that name – you were on “Starlit Stairway.”‘”
Grove, a municipal court clerk, started by singing and took up the trumpet at age 9. She never took first, she said. Not that it mattered much – but she earned enough prize money to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder. She remembers beating Kelly Farris. “Being a cute little girl,” she laughed, “all I had to do was smile.”
In her off hours, Grove plays in a band with her brother, who appeared at age 4 himself. Gordon Grove played the drums, but he was more interested in the workings of the studio. Now he works for a video production company.
“Times changed, attitudes changed,” he said. “By the time the show reached KHQ, attitudes toward talent shows had turned almost negative…We’d feel funny when people would knock the show. We were out there being entertainers, not just participants in a talent show.”
Ward took the show to KHQ in 1966, after a staffing dispute with KXLY management. Five years later, KXLY got back by scheduling the one program that could have competed with “Starlit Stairway” on its own terms: “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Mushy ratings were only one of the problems that plagued the show toward the end of its run. The cost of live television was on the rise, and Bob Ward and Al Lafky, who bought the company when Leon Boyle retired in 1958, sold their interests in 1972. They produced one last year of the show, with Ira Joe Fisher as host. But no one seemed interested in carrying on. The show as quietly canceled a few months after it celebrated its 20th birthday.
Now, except for news shows, telethons and an occasional parade, local stations have given up on live programming. And KHQ operations manager Homer Mason, who directed “Starlit Stairway” during its years there, says there’s no going back.
“It just hung on and hung on,” he said. “Part of it was because it was always there, from the time TV went on. I think people just watched it until their tastes changed.”
The Boyle name vanished after a merger with Banner Fuel; the variety show died and tap-dancing and accordion playing faded away. But Bob Ward says that if he was any younger, he’d try a revival himself. There’s enough raw talent in the area for another season, he says.
And there’s room for a show where 9-year-old girls spin Hula-Hoops in time with the organ, boys walk up and down stairs on their hands, and no one walks away a loser.
Clary Wright’s “Tribute to Starlit Stairway” takes place at the Spokane Interstate Fair South Lawn Stage at 4 p.m. Sept. 11 and 12.
Monday, September 2, 1985