By Delores Hanney
I read about it in the National Enquirer: main Mad Man, Jon Hamm, has gone goofy for the Lennon Sisters. He’s acquired all their records and packs an urge to evangelize. Soon, perhaps, one of their era-appropriate songs will find itself in that singular position of honor wherein such period icons as Bob Dylan and the Beatles have already been celebrated, playing behind the credits for one of Mad Men’s episodic chronicles of the deliciously tortuous lifeways of a gaggle of 1960s ad makers.
The Lennon Sisters, you might recall, came to fame as a mid-twentieth century quartet of juvenile songbirds made legendary by their presence on a weekly TV musical-variety program, an entertainment type of considerable popularity during that age. The girls were homegrown products of Venice, California, a fact that astonishes many who consider them too oxymoronically wholesome to have sprung from such notoriously quirked-out soil. But there you have it: Venice has range!
For a generation, The Lawrence Welk Show – inaugural habitat of the sisters’ renown – was a Saturday evening staple epitomized by faux champagne bubbles drifting around like a luminous swarm of migrating butterflies, a heavily German-accented, accordion-playing big band leader-cum-host and a particular predilection for sprightly polka music.
A production of KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, it was broadcast locally from the Aragon Ballroom on the Lick pier in Venice, during its 1951 to 1955 incarnation. Later in ‘55 it went national on ABC, broadcast live from the Hollywood Palladium. In 1971 ABC canceled it; afterwards, till 1982, Welk produced the program himself for viewing on independent stations. With the persistence of gum on one’s shoe, the show is still seen in re-runs.
But back when Dianne Lennon was sixteen, Peggy fourteen, Kathy twelve and Janet nine, Lawrence Welk’s son, Larry, happened to catch them singing at an Elks Club soiree and with a quickness trundled them home to sing for his father. With equal swiftation they became fixtures on The Lawrence Welk Show, debuting on Christmas Eve 1955. “We’ve acted out our lives in stages, with 10,000 people watching,” they testify tunefully on their website regarding growing up so publicly.
Warmly welcomed into the home of massive multitudes each week via television, they also arrived as merchandizing tie-in items, such as storybooks and coloring books, paper dolls and TV trays. In 1956, they would also be carried home in the form of their first hit record, “Tonight You Belong to Me.”
But as in all fairytales there was a dark side – in this case a very dark side.
Chet Young was a certified “dangerously insane” psychopath within whose scrambled brain Peggy Lennon was his “true” wife and mother of his kids; the sisters’ dad was the bad guy who was keeping them apart. For months Young harassed the Lennon family: turning up on their doorstep, stalking, calling, sending letters. The last, unopened before his murder, pictured William Lennon with a gun to his head, beneath which the words “High Noon.”
And at noon on August 12, 1969, Young waylaid Bill Lennon as he left his job at the Venice Golf Club. After arguing briefly, Lennon turned away. Pulling a rifle from a sack, Young shot him in the back then put the gun to his temple and fired again. He escaped in an Oldsmobile Cutlass. Two months later he was found inside the trunk of said Oldsmobile, suicided using the same weapon. As a ghastly final touch he left a note for Peggy asking her to explain to the nonexistent children that he took his life because they couldn’t be together.
The Lennon Sisters quit the Lawrence Welk Show in 1968 and were set to begin their new program, Jimmy Durante Presents: The Lennon Sisters Hour in the fall of 1969, just weeks following the horror of their father’s murder. Undaunted as polar bears on an ice floe, they set aside their personal trauma to gutsily go forth with their commitment but were cancelled after a single season. During the next couple decades they were guests on all manner of TV variety shows, game shows and late night talk shows.
In 1994 they whiffled off to Branson, Missouri, where they assumed their position in the spotlight at The Welk Champagne Theatre for ten years or so. Younger sis Mimi picked up the slack with the retirement of Dianne and Peggy.
Now that Jon Hamm has come out as an avid admirer of the Venice-born sister act, the floodgates could open to whole new gajillions ripe for a hankering after their harmonic convergence.
Everything old is new again.
By Delores Hanney