There is nothing that the modern media machine loves to do more then to burn it’s pop princesses. Although they may debut as America’s sweethearts, eventually the tide will turn and the young girls that make the world’s sweetest music suffer a media backlash. The reason? Because scandal sells papers and the gossip rags just love the stories of good girls gone bad. In a society where Britney’s kids can’t fall down without her being called a bad mother and Miley can’t make a funny face at the camera without it becoming an international incident, today’s pop princesses don’t have a chance from the vicious jaws of the entertainment press. However, today’s pop princesses are only victims of modern entertainment journalism which, over the years, have become more corrupt and unethical in it’s attempts to sell papers and magazines. In fact, the popularity of the messed up pop princess is a truly modern phenomena. The truth is, nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes and have a skeleton or two in their closet. Yet fifty years ago, America’s love affair with it’s pop princesses was a whole different story. Instead of destroying their reputations, the media would far rather protect it. Even at times sugar coat it. Fifty years ago stories of girls gone wild were only found in trashy pulp magazines. If a movie magazine wanted to sell a pop princess they knew they had to exalt their subjects, not tear their down. Was it realistic journalism? Probably not, but it was far better then the viciousness of today’s press.
No other pop group was probably protected nor loved more then America’s first bonafide pop princesses, the Lennon Sisters. Making their debut in 1955 on the Christmas Eve episode of The Lawrence Welk Show, the Lennon Sisters were the first female teenage singing sensations that captured the imaginations of the mass public. Comprised of sisters Dee Dee, Peggy, Kathy and Janet, the four girls quickly became superstars, and found themselves on the covers of national magazines and newspapers, not to mention finding their images on everything that could be marketed. Although a throwback to the Andrew Sisters and the McGuire Sisters, and despite the fact that they were far removed from the budding rock industry that was emerging at the time (Elvis Presley cut his first single the same year that the Lennon Sisters made their TV debut), the sisters stayed in the hearts and minds of the public for over a decade without compromising their musical style nor their wholesome reputation.
However, as the girls grew older, potential scandals arose which would have given today’s corrupt media journalists tons of fodder to execute these girls. Yet, instead of burning the Lennon Sisters at the stake underneath a pyre of tabloid rags, the media was very careful to gloss over the Lennon Sisters stories, and protect them from potential harm. As media sweethearts, the Lennon Sisters became a publishing commodity, and had to be protected at any cost. As rumors of jealousy, feuding and questionable relationships abounded, not to mention the bizarre murder of their beloved father at the hands of a deranged fan made headlines, the press strove to keep the Lennon Sisters as pure and wholesome to the public as possible.
Researching and writing a realistic article on the Lennon Sisters is truly difficult. The outpouring of love from the public that watched them grow up on television and the press that covered them continues to this day. Combined with the fact that the Lennon Sisters probably were, just as reported, nice normal girls, I was faced with prominently biased primary and secondary sources. Furthermore, facts and dates are often distorted and change from source to source in the attempts to create romantic myths surrounding the group. However, even the most biased material can’t hide the everyday normal things that today’s media would have had a field day with. Furthermore, looking back at the Lennon Sister’s career with a more cynical eye reveals traces of an existence that may not have been as rosy as one might have perceived at the time. Since barely any unbiased material on the Lennon Sisters exist, one can only speculate upon the true events of such potential scandals that the media made sure was never reported.
This journey through the history of the Lennon Sisters is not to tear the legacy of America’s original pop princesses apart. Instead, it is to show how the media manipulates the stars of today, as well as yesterday, in order to tell the story that they want to tell, be it bad or good. Just as the media may have sugar coated the Lennon Sisters yesterday, they could have torn them down like they do to Britney and Miley today. You will not find any traces of smut nor hard core scandal in this article. However, you will find events and facts that, if twisted and manipulated in a devious manner, could have been used as career blasting bullets by today’s tabloid journalists. Come as we take a look at the life and career of the pop culture journey’s original pop princesses as
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PROFILES
THE LENNON SISTERS:
UNTAINTED POP PRINCESSES
Dee Dee, Peggy, Kathy and Janet were the oldest children of Bill and Isabelle Lennon. Bill, who had immigrated to Los Angeles from Ireland, had formed his own music group with his three brothers. Known as The Lennon Brothers, Bill and his siblings sang traditional Irish ballads and religious hymns. However, as his family grew to an astonishing eleven children, and when his mother moved into the family’s small two bedroom home, money became scarce and Bill could barely afford to support the family on the slim wages that he made as a milkman. Recognizing the incredible singing talents of his four pretty daughters, Bill rallied the girls together to create a second family musical group in order that extra money could be earned by hiring the girls out to local civic organization parties. Helping the girls with vocal arrangements and harmonies, Bill fashioned the girls to be a far more popular draw. Copying their father’s group gave the girls a unique Barbershop quartet style that was uncommon in other sister acts and the Lennon Sisters quickly became a popular act around the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles.
However, if it wasn’t for the roving eye of teenager Larry Welk, the son of TV entertainer and bandleader Lawrence Welk, the Lennon Sisters would never have gained their big break. The story of how Larry and the Lennon Sisters become initially involved has been changed many times in order to give it various degrees of romantic condemnations. What we do know is that Larry Welk and Dee Dee Lennon were classmates at Saint Monica High School. According to some sources, Larry asked Dee Dee out one Saturday night and she agreed but informed him that she had to perform at the Elks Club with her sisters later that night. Larry claimed not to know that Dee Dee was part of a musical group and after dropping her off at the club Larry went in to watch the act. Watching the four girls perform it was obvious that the Lennon Sisters had talent But, is there not a better way to get in with a chick then to get her an appearance on his famous Dad’s TV show?
Lawrence Welk started his family friendly musical program in 1951 on a local LA television station and by 1955 the show was picked up by ABC and was broadcast nationwide. Rushing home to tell his Dad about the act he had just seen, Lawrence Welk dismissed Larry’s ravings about the Lennon Sisters. However, when Welk suffered a head cold weeks later, Larry called Dee Dee and had her and her sisters come over to the house and audition for his father. As a captive audience due to his condition, Welk was forced to sit through the sisters act and realized that they probably had more talent then any of the singers currently on his program. They had that special quality to seal the popularity of The Lawrence Welk Show in the minds of the viewing public. Welk signed them for the Christmas Eve program. With over thirty million viewers watching, the Lennon Sisters sang an acapella version of the hymn He. The grace and purity of the girls captured the imagination of the TV audience and overnight the girls became national sensations and the first breakout stars of The Lawrence Welk Show. For the next thirteen years the girls would appear on the program every Saturday night.
Just like any other successful pop act, the girls immediately developed public personas so that they each would be unique to the audience. Dee Dee, being the oldest, was the leader, Peggy was the smart one, Kathy was the athletic one and Janet, being the youngest, was the charismatic favorite to the audience. Just like the Spice Girls decades later, fans could identify and have their own favorite Lennon Sister. With The Lawrence Welk Show being popular entertainment for the whole family to enjoy during an age where audiences were still captive to only a handful of channels, the Lennon Sisters had a mass appeal that crossed all age groups. Sweet and unpretentious, the Lennon Sisters seemed to be perfect little women. Young girls idolized them as imaginary best friends while little boys developed early school boy crushes on them. Meanwhile parents found the girls to be perfect angels and felt that they were good role models for their children. Everybody seemed to love the Lennon Sisters, and as their popularity grew, they began a huge commodity. In fact, not since Shirley Temple or the Dionne Quints had real life girls become as marketed as the Lennon Sisters. Businesses latched on to their popularity by creating dozens of products including serving trays, comic books, both fiction and non-fiction novels and, what became the most popular product, paper doll sets. The girls were even offered their own sit-com which was to costar Fred McMurray as their single father. However, when they turned the offer down, feeling that their schedule would be far to intense, the program was retooled as My Three Sons. But the biggest push to their popularity was the fact that the Lennon Sisters became staples of movie and entertainment magazines. However, unlike the scandalous tabloids of today, the Lennon Sister articles were fluff pieces. The most that they exploited the girls was to mention the death of their baby sister a year before the debut. Stories about the girls faith, family and home life were about all that was ever published. Never…and I mean NEVER….was an article ever published about the girls love lives. The Lennon Sisters had a certain image to keep, and magazines felt that in order to continue selling magazines with the Lennon Sisters, who had become one of the hottest commodities in North America, they had to keep the reputations of the Lennon Sisters clean. They had to remain pure, untouched and, most importantly, virgins.
A big part of the importance of keeping a clean image had a lot to do with Lawrence Welk’s strict code of ethics on his program. Welk dictated a certain moral and ethical set of rules, and if they were not followed Welk would fire the performer at the drop of the hat, as displayed when he fired popular singer Alice Lon live and on air for crossing her legs on a table, snapping at her that he didn’t approve of “cheescake” on his show. Not even the popularity of the Lennon Sisters would alter his decisions. But, by all accounts the Lennon Sisters were nice girls from a stable and religious household anyways. It was a different time in Los Angeles and, during the fifties and early sixties, long before the shock of the sixties counterculture and the popularity of sexual and drug exploration, the Lennon Sisters weren’t about to face the same pressures that girls like Lindsey Lohan or Britney Spears do today. Yet, although the press, as well as both Welk’s and the Lennon Sister’s people tried to hide it, rumors emerged that Welk disapproved of Dee Dee Lennon’s much publicized marriage to Dick Gass in 1961. As a result, Dee Dee left the show, as well as the Lennon Sisters singing group. The official reason for her leaving was stated that it was so that she could concentrate on starting a family, but many speculated that the real reason was that Welk did not want a married and potentially pregnant Lennon Sister on his program. Instead of fighting Welk, thus jeopardizing her sisters’ musical career, it was rumored that Dee Dee just quietly walked away. Instead of reporting the speculations of feuding in the Welk camp, the press just simply wished Dee Dee farewell and good luck. Besides, this gave the media excuses to do updated fluff piece of Dee Dee as a wife and mother.
Yet, the situation would change three years later when Peggy Lennon married Welk trumpeter Dick Cathcart in 1964. Despite the fact that she was fourteen and Dick was thirty when they met, Peggy, now in her early twenties married the forty year old musician. Even by today’s standards the age difference between the two was shocking. I mean, imagine what the press would do today if Miley Cyrus was carrying on with a man sixteen years her senior! However, instead of creating a flood of rumors and innuendos, the press decided to just gloss over the age difference, and the media at large paid little attention. The age difference between the pair was just never mentioned. Yet, Welk seemed to have a change of heart when Peggy and Dick got married. With the girls growing older, Welk was not about to lose another Lennon Sister, not to mention a trumpet player. Instead Peggy was allowed to stay on the show and in a bizarre coincidence, Dee Dee, now calling herself by the more adult name Dianne, rejoined the group after a four year absence. The Welk family welcomed her back, and the press reported that she just felt it was time to come back. However, the coincidence of the dates and events are quite curious. Speculations arose that Welk couldn’t justify not allowing Dee Dee to stay separated from the group while he allowed Peggy to stay with a older husband.
But Peggy wasn’t the only one of the sister’s involved with members of the Welk family. Despite his original interest in Dee Dee, Larry Welk started a long relationship with Kathy Lennon. However, the media never printed any material on their relationship. Thus, when she eventually ended up married to Welk saxophonist Mahlon Clark the tabloids didn’t speculate about love triangles, broken hearts or affairs. As far as the press was concerned it was just a nice relationship story. As a result, there is no record of what happened between the three, saving them from rumors of drama, betrayal, jealousy and heartache..
As the sixties wore on, despite the fact that The Lawrence Welk Show became a staple of scorn by music lovers and the counter culture movement, the Lennon Sisters still held a certain amount of appeal to the public. Although they were no longer little girls and the children who adored them in the fifties were now doing acid, protesting Viet Nam and listening to The Doors instead, the Lennon Sisters still managed to stay active on the musical pop culture journey. The group attempted to make themselves more “hip” by covering top forty pop singles. A beautiful recording of Petula Clark’s This is My Song became one of the groups standards, and their version of Georgy Girl showed that the Lennon Sisters did have the ability to still make it in the pop industry. Yet, female singers such as the Shangris-Las, Jackie DeShannon, Janis Joplin and Nancy Sinatra were changing the social and sexual attitudes of the sixties modern woman, and although the Lennon Sisters were no older then their contemporaries, their connection to The Lawrence Welk Show stunted their growth in the eye of the public. Although they were just as old as the kids who were grooving at the Monterey Pop Festival, their albums were being listened to by those kids’ parents. It is speculated that this would be one of the major factors of the Lennon Sisters parting ways with Lawrence Welk in 1968. However, rumors emerged of further infighting between the Lennon Sisters and Welk’s people, mainly around the subject of money. It is commonly said by members of the Welk family that Welk could be notoriously cheap. We may never know why the Lennon Sisters really left the Lawrence Welk family, but after they left the program Lawrence Welk’s ratings took a huge dip. Three years later ABC cancelled the program. Welk restarted the program on public television, but without the Lennon Sisters on his show a part of the magic was gone. Yet, as the Lennon Sisters attempted to continue their career, it became evident that they needed Lawrence Welk just as much as he needed them.
Although Lawrence Welk had lost the Lennon Sisters, ABC TV wasn’t ready to lose them quite yet. ABC offered the girls their own variety show featuring Jimmy Durante as their unlikely co-star. Durante and the Lennon Sisters had appeared together on The Hollywood Palace the year before and, being fresh in the producers minds, it seemed like a logical match. Yet, while the program was in development the Lennon Sisters faced the worst tragedy of their lives. On August 12th, 1969 Bill Lennon was executed by a deranged Lennon Sister fan named Chet Young. A former mental patient, Chet Young had an obsession with Peggy Lennon and had been stalking Peggy for years. Young was waiting for Lennon in the parking lot of the Marina Del Ray golf range where he worked as a golf pro. After a verbal confrontation, eyewitnesses said that Young pulled a gun, a brief struggle between the two men ensued, and then Lennon retreated. As Lennon ran Young shot him twice in the back, and then once in the back of the head at close range before making his escape. Despite a extensive manhunt, Young was nowhere to be found. The family was forced to live in fear for weeks on end, not knowing when Young would appear again, and who might be his next target. However, two months later, Young’s body was found in the back of a car with a self inflicted gun wound to his head. Scattered all about him were magazines featuring the Lennon Sisters on the covers.
While the murder of Bill Lennon obviously made headlines, the press downplayed the tragedy. There were no coverage of the funeral, photos of teary eyed Lennon Sisters in mourning nor extensive write ups on Chet Young. Partially this was, once again, the press trying to protect the Lennon Sisters from harm. Also, entertainment journalists had not lost their integrity and decided to allow the family to mourn in peace. However, possibly the biggest reason for the downplay of Bill Lennon’s murder was that the world press had a far bigger Los Angeles based crime story that was captivating the public’s imagination. Three days before the execution of Bill Lennon, Charles Manson’s followers had murdered Sharon Tate and her friends. As the LAPD were looking for Bill Lennon’s killer, they were also investigating the Manson murders. As a result, the Lennon Sisters were allowed their privacy as the public watched the unraveling of another nearby tragedy. Still today the murder of Bill Lennon seems to be nothing more then a blip on the Lennon Sister story, with the girls choosing not to discuss it, and fans choosing not to dwell on it. Even odder is the fact that little information is available on who Chet Young was, and what his history with the Lennon Sisters was. The details of this Hollywood tragedy seems to have been lost forever, and those who know aren’t talking. Yet, the death of Bill Lennon truly marked the beginning of the end of the Lennon Sisters time in the public eye.
While the LAPD still searched for their father’s killer, the Lennon Sisters continued on and began their variety show with Jimmy Durante. Yet, as a result of their grief and fear, and despite the great guest stars brought to the show via Durante’s popularity, the show was cancelled after one season. In a strange career move, the Lennon Sisters joined The Andy Williams Show. Williams, who had just lost the Osmond Brothers over many of the same reasons that the Lennon Sisters left Lawrence Welk , welcomed what he would hope to be a big draw to his show. Andy and the Lennon Sisters toured extensively together, before the Lennon Sisters started their own show in Las Vegas. In Vegas the girls tried to actually vamp it up just a little bit, but by this point their day in the spotlight was truly over. By the middle of the seventies the musical tide had changed far to much. The kids who bought their dolls and albums as youths were now parents and professionals. The target music audience didn’t even know who the Lennon Sisters were. The girls weren’t even appearing on the covers of magazines anymore. However, it should be noted that while the Lennon Sisters’ popularity wasn’t eternal, they did manage to stay in the public eye from 1955 to the middle of the 1970s. Despite the advent of rock n’ roll, Beatlemania, the folk explosion, the psychedelic experience, Woodstock and the coming of heavy metal, the Lennon Sisters never faltered nor sold out to their unique image or sound, and had a career which spanned far longer then the average pop star today.
When PBS began to make old Lawrence Welk reruns a staple for Sunday morning viewing, the Lennon Sisters gained a resurgence of popularity amongst people who remembered watching them all those years ago. With many of the Welk performers gathering in Branson Missouri to perform at The Welk Champagne Theatre, the Lennon Sisters made their way there as well and, naturally, quickly became the headlining attraction. A version of the Lennon Sisters still perform there today. Dianne and Peggy have retired from the group, but Kathy, Janet and younger sister Mimi, who was a popular subject in movie magazines during the Lennon Sister’s heyday, continue to keep the musical legacy of the Lennon Sisters alive. Although the girls are all grandmothers now, they will always be remembered fondly as the little girls that sang like angels every Saturday night on The Lawrence Welk Show. Yet, as pointed out, the girls story wasn’t without potential gossip, rumors and tragedy. However, because of the ethics of the press the girls were well taken care of. Were the Lennon Sisters really good, or did the press keep them good? In the same manner, is Britney really crazy, or did the press make her crazy? Is Miley really a bad kid, or is the press making her one? Is Lindsey Lohan really…..well…..yes. Lindsey Lohan is really. Some people you just can’t fix. The Lennon Sisters probably didn’t need fixing, but even today the Lennon Sisters remain untainted.