A Conversation with Kathy Lennon of the Lennon Sisters
From 1955 to 1968, the Lennon Sisters (Dianne, Peggy, Kathy, and Janet) were star attractions on the family-oriented variety program, The Lawrence Welk Show, which aired Saturday evenings. The girls were talented harmony singers and performers, and they famously grew up in weekly increments in front of, and along with, their legions of devoted fans. Born in Los Angles and raised in Venice, California, they came from a large and close-knit family (six girls and five boys), presided over by loving parents, William and Isabelle or “Sis.” The family suffered the tragic loss of William, 53, in 1969, when he was shot and killed by a stalker.
Until COVID-19 hit, three of the sisters—Kathy, Janet, and Mimi, now in their 60s and 70s—were still singing together, still doing shows. With live concerts now on hold, they have focused on recording and on other projects with their treasured families. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kathy Lennon.
Please tell us what you have been working on?
Oh, wow, we have some wonderful CDs. We have three new ones coming out in November. One CD is called Feeling Good, the Broadway album. They’re all songs from Broadway, and we have duets with people. It’s such a fun, wonderful album.
Then we have one called Dream a Little Dream, and they’re all songs that are dreamy and romantic. The last one we’ve put together is a new Christmas CD called The Ultimate Christmas Collection. This one is songs from all our different Christmas albums on one disc—we picked our favorites from all the albums.
Janet and I also started a company called Best Pals within the Lennon Sisters, and we have rag dolls and CDs for children. We sing on these CDs with Janet’s granddaughters.
We have a wonderful official Lennon Sisters fan club page on Facebook and a website. We’re still keeping up, after all these years!
How are you weathering the pandemic?
It’s been a tough year for everyone. We had a lot of our concerts canceled. Things have been very difficult for most people, and I know these times have brought up a lot of anxiety for many people. So, with our music, we hope to give people something that will warm their hearts and give them a little bit of that old, wonderful, traditional, good feeling. Something positive for today.
Because of the COVID, the Andy Williams Christmas show was canceled, and it’s the first time in 25 years, we haven’t done a Christmas show. That is a heartbreak for us because this year is our 65th anniversary since we began performing, and we were looking forward to celebrating it. I hope that we can do a Christmas show next year, or do some kind of a show in the summer. Luckily, public television will be showing again, through November, our PBS special, a film named, Same Song, Separate Voices.
Looking back, how did being on The Lawrence Welk Show change your life as children?
Not that much because Mom and Dad insisted that we didn’t go to “Hollywood Professional” school. We went to Saint Mark’s grammar school and Saint Monica’s high school. We went 12 years of Catholic school with all the kids that we started kindergarten with.
We were really treated normally. We’d go to the show, we’d do our schoolwork, they’d pick us up after school at three, drive us to the studio. We’d have rehearsal on Saturday. We went on live television for 10 years, live to New York, and then we’d do school on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. We had rehearsal on Thursday after school, Friday after school, Saturday taping. Then we’d fly out, sometimes Saturday night or Sunday and go do the Perry Como show or the Ed Sullivan show, or other variety shows—George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and others. Then we’d come back and go to regular school.
We still would come home after working, that is. We would help change our little brothers and sisters diapers. We would help do the dishes. Mom and Dad kept everything as normal as they possibly could. We didn’t hang out with the Hollywood crowd. Even when we were dating, we didn’t do all the big fancy parties and all. Annette and Shelley Fabares, Paul Peterson, Johnny Crawford, and Cubby O’Brian—we knew all of them, and we would see them at different parties. We would socialize at celebrity get-togethers, let’s say, to honor Disneyland opening. But we didn’t hang out with the celebrity crowd. We had a lot more fun with our brothers and sisters,
There are 11 children in your family?
Yes, there are 11 of us. We in the group were the four oldest. And our dad was one of 8 children, so we had 59 first cousins. All of us went to school together, and we all lived around within three or four blocks of each other.
So we had our own parties, our own football teams, and our own baseball teams. We were fortunate to grow up on the Lawrence Welk Show because it was protected. It was still a family show. The musicians and everybody treated us with kid gloves. If somebody started to swear, they’d say, “Careful, there are Lennons around here.” They really raised us beautifully, as Mom and Dad did. It was a time of an innocence of television. Whole families would sit around and watch the Lawrence Welk Show, or sit with Grandma, or with the baby, and people would dance. Today, there aren’t any shows for the whole family like that.
Even the commercials weren’t offensive. You could just enjoy things. We were very fortunate that we grew up in that era and that we had a wonderful show. We loved all the musicians and the crew members, and they cared for us. Then we would come home, and at home, we were very innocent and blessed. Even though we’d fly and do Perry Como or fly and do Ed Sullivan, we would still have our base. It was our home, with our parents and brothers and sisters.
I know you had a horrible experience with your father passing. How did the family ever deal with that? He was so young.
He was young, 53. We were very young. Mom had just turned 50, and Mom still had seven children at home under 19.
It was a tragedy. When I look back, it’s like a horrible nightmare that I lived or a movie I saw. Truthfully, Mary, if it weren’t for our Catholic faith, and watching Mom . . . Mom walked the walk. She didn’t just talk the talk. She walked with peace in her heart knowing God had a plan, and she’s the one who stood strong for all of us.
Many people go through tragedies, and this was ours. And it was a deranged fan of the Lennon Sisters who thought he was married to our sister, Peggy, and thought Daddy was keeping her from him. Peggy was married and had five children. This man had been in a mental hospital, and he had escaped, and he came and shot and killed our dad. He knew Dad had worked at the golf course, and he found him. We were doing our television show at the time with Jimmy Durante, and we had to have police escorts everywhere because the investigators didn’t find the killer for two months.
It was a nightmare. And then they did find him. He took his own life, and he was wrapped in all these movie magazines about the Lennon sisters. Because he took his own life, he didn’t have to go to court, and we didn’t have to worry about this man being in our lives. But he changed our lives drastically and tragically forever.
After that, we didn’t want to go on the road anymore. We didn’t want to travel. We didn’t want to see anybody. We were all so frightened and so scared and so sad. Then after a while, it was Andy Williams who said, “Don’t let this sad, sick person take you away from what you were meant to do. Your talent is that the audience loves you and people love you. You need to go out and sing. Don’t let him take more from you just because he took your father away from you.” It was Andy who said to us, “I’ll protect you.” He took us to Caesar’s Palace, and it was the first time we had performed anywhere outside of just doing television shows. Andy got us started again, and here we are, all these many years later.
Did you ever do movies or non-variety TV shows?
No. We were asked to do a couple of movies, and our schedule just wouldn’t allow it.
In fact, the executive producer for the Lawrence Welk show was a man named Don Fedderson. He wanted to do a show called My Four Daughters with Fred MacMurray. We were doing The Lawrence Welk Show, and our priority and loyalty was to Lawrence Welk. We couldn’t really leave the show to do that, so we didn’t take it. And he ended up calling it My Three Sons. But originally it was going to be My Four Daughters!
And they wanted to do a musical of Little Women and use the four of us. That was trying to be worked out. But our schedule made it too hard to have it go any farther.
They wanted us to do a movie with Elvis Presley. It was the one that Shelley Fabares was in—Girl Happy (1965). Between Lawrence Welk and our dad, they didn’t think it was the right image for the Lennon sisters to be with Elvis Presley. Now we look back and think it would have been a fun thing to do.
I know your Mom has passed now. What was she like?
She was beautiful. She was talented. She was funny. She had a great sense of humor. She was a strict and fair, as Daddy was. And her house was always busy. We’d always have people coming and spending the night. My girlfriend only had one sister, and she couldn’t wait to come and stay at our house, with the 11 of us. It was more fun. Mom always had a cake made. Chocolate fudge cake was her favorite. We all make Mom’s chocolate fudge cake in honor of her. She always had fresh cookies. She’d always have something baking, and everyone was welcome.
Years later, she ended up selling her big house and moving to Branson, Missouri, when we were all here. So in that time, she ended up with her high school sweetheart, before Daddy. He had lost his wife, and he had a big family. Mom had sent him a condolence card. He called Mom and came to Branson to see her. And they re-fell in love and got married. They married at 80 and 81.
She had six years of a beautiful marriage with him. His joining into her life was, as she put it, like, “it was Christmas Eve, and I don’t have to sit by the fire alone and cry.” To me, that was just such a beautiful thing she said, after 30 years without Daddy.
Thank you, Kathy. And God bless. Your mom and dad sure gave you all such good hearts.
You know what? We were so blessed to have them as parents. You’re right.
Please tell all your readers, we thank them for their loyalty. They are the reason we’re still up on that stage. They have kept us going all these years, and we thank them.