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March 23, 1991|BY JOHN JOHNSON | John Johnson is a Times staff writer.

A Lennon Sister's Voice Harmonizes With Victory in the Gulf

Los Angeles sparkled like stars on a uniform below the Sheraton Universal Hotel, where a crowd of society stalwarts rolled up in low-slung sedans. The ballroom orchestra struck up a tearful number and a breathy chanteuse stepped to the microphone.

"Now that our boys are coming home we'll do a song called, 'You'll Never Know.' "

If you closed your eyes, clicked your loafers together and whispered, "ranch-style house in the suburbs" three times, you would swear it was another decade and another war.

The annual fund-raiser for Crespi Carmelite High School, a Catholic school in Encino, was off to a red, white and blue start.

In some ways, it was to be little different from any of hundreds of dinner-dances-cum-charity events around Los Angeles every year. There was a big, brassy band, an auction at which paintings of clowns water-skiing and vacations in Las Vegas would be sold, and platefuls of mostly edible prime rib and vegetables.

But there was something in the air: excitement at the stunning victory over the kind of old-fashioned evil dictator we don't see much these days. Not unrestrained, of course. It wasn't that sort of crowd. The giddiness showed itself only in the ambitious dance step, or the inclination among some to speak more frankly than would be their habit.

Long-buried feelings of old-fashioned pride were stirring. So when the star attraction was introduced, Peggy Lennon Cathcart, the crowd burst into prolonged applause, not only for her but for everything she represented: home, hearth, apple pie, Lawrence Welk and endless, effervescent bubbles.

Peggy Lennon, one of the Lennon Sisters who were TV stars on Welk's show when Eisenhower was president, was surfacing for one night from her present life as Peggy Cathcart, a nice lady from Woodland Hills who now works in the office at Crespi. It's light-years from being a star, but to some, she'll always be one of the princesses of a golden age.

"When my father was playing Big Band music I had three idols," bandleader Horace Heidt Jr. told the crowd. "Hayley Mills, Annette Funicello and Peggy Lennon."

In these more ambivalent and less ethnocentric times, many hip men are embarrassed to admit their adolescent lust was directed toward such a narrow, if voluptuously cheerful, band of American femininity. But this was a night for celebrating all that is pert, cute, darling, not to say pinafored, in America.

Tonight the bandleader could admit being smitten by a member of a quartet that Lawrence Welk introduced as "da four luffly young ladies."

For those too young to recall, the Lennon Sisters were probably the most famous American singing group that never had a hit record, bar the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Dancing Raisins. The story of their success began with, yes, a church talent show in now-funky Venice. After singing at a variety of local functions, they were introduced to Welk and stardom followed, like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland script.

Peggy insisted it was all true. She recalled the old ABC lot when it was unpaved. The girls flew their kites out back. They even had a pet kitten under Stage E.

OK, Peg, but what about the behind-the-scenes dirt? How about the tabloid headlines like "What Kathy Lennon Can Teach Jackie and Liz About Men"?

Peggy sighs wearily. Life was not always a bowl of champagne bubbles. She admits the Lennon Sisters--the others were Kathy, Janet and Diane--did not live in ringlets backstage waiting for the next polka.

"You get kind of a phony image of people" on television. "People used to think of us as one person. We've all had a lot of pain in our lives in a lot of areas."

Many housewives may dream of becoming stars, taking bows and sparring with gossip columnists, but few stars fantasize themselves chauffeuring squabbling children from soccer practice to dance lessons.

One of those exceptions was Peggy Lennon. A few years ago, she and her sisters stopped touring. Today, she is Peggy Cathcart, the Crespi campus ministry coordinator.

Having realized her dream, escaping into anonymity as a wife and mother of four sons, all of whom graduated from Crespi, she can poke gentle fun at Welk's unabashedly corny style.

"I see so many people who say, 'I remember you because my grandmother made me watch you,' " she told the Sheraton audience when she got up to perform.

As she sang, she kept her eyes fastened on her husband, trumpeter Dick Cathcart, virtually ignoring the video camera that recorded the evening for the school archives. It underscored her commitment to family above celebrity, just the way things are supposed to work.

The sourpusses and cynics could believe the troops were fighting for oil. But this crowd, on this night, had made up its mind to believe that they had fought for something more important than a tankful at the mini-mart. And somehow, whatever it was, it was all mixed up with Peggy Lennon and the kind of America she seemed to represent.

She sat down to extended applause. The auctioneer stepped forward and said he was a Vietnam veteran. "I feel we gained a lot of respect" as a result of the Persian Gulf War, he said proudly. Then he added, "I was in love with Janet, the bubbles, everything."

Feelings of patriotism mingled with half-remembered teen-age lust--a giddy, delicious blend.

The audience spent $75,000 that night, which topped the school's goal.

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