by Linda Burlingame
Christmas comes early in Branson, and with it thoughts of the Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza … and the Lennon Sisters! America started celebrating Christmas with Andy in 1963, with his first television Christmas show. 2017 marks the 25th year for the show in Branson; it’s reminiscent of those televised shows. Andy loved the Lennon Sisters, and they have a long performing history with him. He would be proud and happy they’re helping to continue his Christmas legacy. The Lennon Sisters are on stage in the Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza, with some of your favorite Osmonds and other entertainers, November 20 thru December 16.
I wanted to catch up with the girls and called Kathy Lennon to ask if they had a few minutes to spare. She, Janet, and Mimi graciously agreed to meet. My morning with them can’t really be called an interview. It was a warm, laugh-filled time with friends. Their lives are remarkable in many ways. They are world famous. They are part of a close, big, loving family. They are extraordinarily talented. And they are extraordinarily normal! The night before I saw the girls, the LA Dodgers had won an exciting extra-innings World Series game. Kathy laughed when she talked about their phones exploding with text after text during the game, with family here and family in California all watching together. “Oh, Vin Scully!” “Wow, did you see that?!” The Lennons are a synonym for enthusiasm and fun.
The lovely, lively ladies you see singing, smiling, and dancing on stage are every bit as fun and lovable off stage. That’s certainly one reason they’ve remained “America’s Sweethearts of Song” for 62 years. It was Christmas Eve 1955 when their neighbor, Lawrence Welk, introduced them on The Lawrence Welk Show. They were young — Janet remembers she was just a “shy fourth grader.” Since then they have sung for seven American presidents, and they have a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They had their own television show and appeared on every major television variety show, performing with everybody who was anybody (my words) in the entertainment world. They are in the National Vocal Group Hall of Fame. And they’re still charming audiences all across the country, in venues with thousands in the audience, as well as small private events, where An Evening with the Lennon Sisters is becoming popular.
The Lennon Sisters basically retired after their father was killed. They’d had 13 years with Lawrence Welk, their own popular show with Jimmy Durante, their “Star” in Hollywood. And they admit, “We were scared.” But Andy told them, “I’ll take care of you. I’ll protect you. You need to get on the road.” So they did, touring with him and opening his show in venues like Tahoe and Vegas. “We had so much fun with Andy!” Kathy remembers, “Sitting in rehearsal listening to him sing was like a private concert by the greatest singer in the world.” He had music arranged for them, and they loved singing five-part harmony with Andy. It was the original four sisters, Peggy, Dianne, Kathy, and Janet. But Mimi remembers those times, too. She filled in when someone was sick … or pregnant! And he did take good care of them. They all remember that first Christmas in Lake Tahoe.
Andy asked them to be in his Christmas show at the Tahoe Sahara. But they said, we spend Christmas with the family. “Bring the family,” Andy said. And they did — eleven Lennons and their families! Andy had Christmas trees in every suite, even a house for their mother — next door to Perry Como. Cherished memories!
My morning with the Lennon Sisters was jam-packed with stories like that. One story led to another just as funny, or just as poignant. Janet: “I remember the time when….” Mimi: “Tell her the one about….” Mimi and her family moved here in 1997. Her first appearance as a “Lennon Sister” was in Las Vegas when she was 17. She became an “official” Lennon Sister in 1999 when Peggy retired. When Dee Dee (Dianne) retired in 2001, the group became a trio. The original four Lennon Sisters and their families, three Lennon brothers — Dan, Bill, and Joe — and their families had all moved to Branson in 1994 with the opening of the Welk Resort Theatre. After more than 20 years in Branson, the Lennon Sisters are still “one hot ticket!”
The Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza is a classic variety show. The Osmonds, as they say, became “The Osmonds” when Andy introduced them on his television show. “The rest is history!” They do some numbers together with the Lennon Sisters and reminisce with stories about Andy. Janet Lennon’s three beautiful granddaughters are talented dancers and part of the show. (The Lennon Legacy continues!) Pasha and Aliona, magical dancers and amazing quick-change artists, are with the show again — great fun! Ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, illusionist Rick Thomas, Britain’s Got Talent’s Charlie Green, along with the Andy Williams Singers and Dancers and the Moon River Band, round out this well-produced, well-staged show on that incredible “Moon River” stage. (The only theater ever featured in Architectural Digest!)
It was so enjoyable sitting with the Lennon Sisters in Kathy’s beautiful living room, listening to their stories. They are still amazed and humbled by all the people they have met and worked with. (The Dixie Chicks, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack are just a few of the entertainers who are also huge fans of the Sisters. Ella Fitzgerald called them, “My little babies!”) In 2011 PBS honored them with a career retrospective, Same Song, Separate Voices, the title of their autobiography — which took them ten years to write! “Because it’s always like this,” they told me, telling stories, laughing, getting off the subject. At one point they even rented a hotel room, thinking it would help them concentrate. Then, “Come write at my house,” their mom said. “We did, but we’d get there and pretty soon we were wondering what Mom was making for lunch!” Their book is a “great read,” candid and funny, tender stories of a remarkable family.
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Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza … put this show on the “must see” list for your Christmas trip to Branson. Andy Williams became part of America’s Christmas tradition more than 50 years ago. And The Lennon Sisters have been wishing you a “Merry Christmas” since Christmas Eve, 1955. It’s still a heartwarming experience.