Before the Jonas Brothers, before the Jackson Five, before the Osmonds, there were The Lennon Sisters.
Every Saturday night, as bubbles filled the air behind the bandstand and Ah-wun-an’-ah-two, was uttered by the famous bandleader, the quartet of fresh-scrubbed, school-age sisters could be counted on for at least one number – maybe Scarlet Ribbons or Pennies from Heaven – delivered in impeccable harmony.
In homes across America, girls in PJs and bathrobes would yearn for the perfect ponytails and tight-waisted, full-skirted dresses they saw on the famous – and talented – girls their own age on TV.
Whatever happened to The Lennon Sisters, anyway?
Well, 56 years after they debuted on The Lawrence Welk Show, two of the original singers and a younger sister are still harmonizing – and on a rare tour that will bring them to Van Wert’s Niswonger Performing Arts Center on Saturday.
And Kathy Lennon – on behalf of younger sisters Janet, who appeared on the Welk show, and Mimi, who joined the group permanently in the 1990s as the older sisters retired – is on the telephone, laughing at the memories.
When we look at our hairdos, oh my! We couldn’t get them any higher! she says. What we love when we do our shows now is we go out and meet with people. And they come up with tears in their eyes and their throats because it brings back memories of watching our show with their parents and grandparents.
Of course, TV was so new then, and that’s what people did. And wasn’t it wonderful to be a part of that?
To hear Kathy tell it, becoming America’s Sweethearts, as the wholesome sisters were billed by Welk, was a happy accident.
Growing up in Venice, Calif., the eldest Lennon sister, Dianne – known as Dee Dee – went to school with Welk’s son, Larry Jr.
Both 15 at the time, Larry asked Dee Dee to a party, but she had to decline because she and her sisters had a singing engagement, Kathy recalls.
I didn’t know you sang with your sisters, Kathy says he said. I’m going to tell my dad.
A while later, Mr. Welk, as Kathy still calls him, was home sick, and Larry telephoned the girls to quick, come over and sing for him.
That was our audition, Kathy says. He said, Will you be on my Christmas show?’ And we were on that show, and for 13 years we were on every show after that. It was something that just came to us, and we’re now in our 56th year.
The girls made records that would sell millions and Christmas albums that would become part of the holiday soundtrack in many an American home.
But life for the Lennons hasn’t been all lollipops and roses.
In 1969, that tumultuous year of Woodstock and the moon landing, their father was brutally murdered in the parking lot of a country club by a stalker who believed he was married to Peggy. The man later committed suicide with the same gun.
William Lennon, a father of 11 who had sung tenor professionally with the Lennon Brothers, had managed the sisters, who, then all grown up, had recently left the Welk show to strike out on their own.
But they found their lives and career shattered. Tabloids had a field day, and audiences and bookers couldn’t forget the sad and sordid story. After a one-season show with Jimmy Durante, another with the late Andy Williams and sporadic guest appearances, the Lennons faded from public consciousness in the 1970s.
But, in the early 1990s, calls started coming in from show-biz friends – including Williams, Tony Orlando and the Osmonds – about this new place, Branson, Mo., Kathy says.
They said the variety shows that are all missing on television are now in Branson, she says. They all told us, You belong here.’
When Larry Welk Jr. opened a Branson resort, they yielded to requests to perform. They’re now about to start their 19th year of shows there.
At first, we said, We’re California beach girls. What are we going to do in Branson, Mo.?’ says Kathy, 69.
But they grew to love the place so much that she and her husband, Jim Daris, now live there full time, as does sister Dee Dee.
This is only the second time in recent years that the sisters have gone on tour, Kathy says.
As for the other sisters, who range in age from 66 to 71, they are happy and well, Kathy says. Peggy is an artist known for her ceramic tea sets. Dee Dee became an elementary schoolteacher and raised three children, and Janet has three granddaughters who sometimes sing with the group onstage when they’re not in school, Kathy says.
Kathy manages schedules and merchandise, including CD versions of the sisters’ music.
New arrival Mimi, who filled in during pregnancies and other hiatuses over the years, has fit in seamlessly.
She’s a natural, Kathy says, adding all of the sisters are self-taught singers. None of us reads music, she says.
It’s a God-given talent, like the Osmonds, or the Gatlin Brothers, or the Gaithers. It’s a family blend, and you can’t get that sound and be unrelated. It’s the same timbre. So when Mimi joined us, it wasn’t different. It sounds just the same.
Kathy says the tour show includes a multimedia presentation that tells the sisters’ story in photos and videos. The sisters do some storytelling, take questions from the audience, dance a little and, of course, sing – a medley of songs from the Welk show, some show tunes, vintage and contemporary favorites and solos.
It’s not little girls standing up there with an accordion singing, Kathy says with a laugh. It’s exciting and young.
But, she confesses, she sometimes longs for the days when Janet, in pigtails, danced the polka with Mr. Welk and families watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday, and Milton Berle on Tuesday and Lawrence Welk on Saturday.
Back then, you could watch the show with your family together and not be embarrassed by what they were going to say or do, she says. Frankly I’m embarrassed by some of the comments and things on television now.