Robert Windeler
April 17, 1978 12:00 PM

Millions of Americans may be struttin’ and jivin’ out of theaters after watching Saturday Night Fever, but at least one California family didn’t even stick around to see if John Travolta won the disco duel. Barely 15 minutes into the movie, Pat Boone and his family marched out. “Too much cussing and sex,” explained Dad.

That old-fashioned father-knows-best attitude has kept the Boones the nation’s most relentlessly wholesome family west of the Osmonds. But these days his Patriarchy of two decades is being subtly undermined. “I’m beginning to feel like Norman in A Starts Born,” admits Pat at 43. “But I’m not ready to take a walk into the ocean.” The star he’s referring to, of course, is his daughter Debby, 21, whose career was dazzlingly born last year with “You Light Up My Life”. It shouldered Saturday Night Fever‘s hits out of the running while winning last week’s best song Oscar, and even if Kacey Cisyk dubbed the movie version, it was Debby who knocked out the Academy Awards audience with her version of the Joe Brooks ballad. The Boone-recorded rendition, a four-million seller, was the biggest hit not only of 1977 but of the past 20 years, thereby topping any single by the Big Three of that period: the Beatles, Elvis and Pat himself.

“Daddy says if I were a son, we’d be competitive,” notes Debby, thereby letting his chauvinism out of the bag. In truth she’s just as driven as her musical dad and granddaddy, the late Grand Ole Opry legend Red Foley. Debby first toddled onstage at 3 during Pat’s TV series and toured with the family at 13. During a South African swing earlier this year, Pat and Debby competed jokingly over who could hold a note the longest each night. It was even. “She is as good as Newton-John or Streisand,” brags Father. Then, perhaps identifying again with A Star Is Born, he adds: “Debby is challenging me. I can’t get sloppy when she’s around, and I’m singing better than I have in a long time.”

The old man is indeed getting a reciprocal boost from his daughter. After nine years off TV, the entire Boone family—Pat, his wife, Shirley, Debby and her three sisters—returned with an ABC special last Saturday. Also Pat, who wasn’t booked in Vegas for five years (he drew well, but it was the sort of straight-arrow crowd that didn’t leave enough behind at the bars or tables), has been welcomed back to the Sahara this month, sharing the “Pat and Debby Boone” billing. Their combined fee, Pat points out, will be “higher than the total of our separate fees, so there must be something about the combination they want.” Another indication of the family’s new fame is that the Boone estate in Beverly Hills that’s been on the find-the-stars’-homes map for 17 years has only now required the installation of electronic gates.

The crush of popularity has required Debby to hire a full-time secretary. In addition she and Daddy share two sets of agents and managers—one taking care of secular business, the other of their spiritual music—but there’s no doubt about who is the decision maker. After Debby’s best new artist Grammy Award—the first ever won by a Boone—was engraved last month, it was routinely sent to Pat’s office—and he took it home to her. Pat was even more of a paternal presence when his second eldest, Lindy, had a baby girl, Jessica, on March 29. Along with Lindy’s husband, Doug Corbin, Pat crowded into the delivery room.

All dates in Debby’s life must first pass her possessive pop’s scrutiny. He boasts that Debby is a virgin and claims that if she ever asked to move in with a fellow, “I’d take her into a quiet part of the house and turn her over my knee.” Small wonder Debby’s beginning to chafe at living at home. “I can’t imagine more than another year here,” she says. “I definitely want to be out on my own before I get married.” Her older sisters, Cherry and Lindy, live in Hawaii and Van Nuys with their families, and even kid sis Laury, a student at nearby Pepperdine U., is home only on weekends. Pat, who is still a little perplexed by Debby’s wish to break away (“I don’t want her to do it, but she is 21”), argues: “I lived at home until I got married and didn’t miss a thing.”

Pat himself was 19 when he eloped with Shirley, also 19, from Nashville, and then nested in Teaneck, N.J., producing their four daughters in five years. Simultaneously, he was working his way through rigorous Columbia University (he graduated cum laude) and battling with Elvis for the hearts of America’s teenagers. (Last year, when The King Is Gone was competing on the charts with Debby’s hit, Pat noted sadly, “Even posthumously, Elvis is giving the Boones a scrap.”)

In the early ’60s Pat moved to Hollywood and found that good guys had gone out with white bucks. He began smoking, drinking and gambling, and confessed afterward, “I had broken just about every one of my wedding vows.” “We had real battles,” recalls his wife. “Pat began to believe his own publicity, and it took us a long time to mature and get our priorities straight.” When the dust cleared, Shirley and Pat were reborn Christian fundamentalists—speaking in tongues and baptising some 300 people (including Wilt Chamberlain) in their pool. “Then we started traveling as a family act,” says Shirley. “Show business, instead of a distraction, became the tool that kept us together. None of what happened to Pat,” assures Mom, “will ever happen to Debby.”

Of course, it did briefly, sort of. Debby rebelled against her father in her 14th and 15th years. “I couldn’t even bear to be in the same room with him,” she says. “If he tried to show me any affection, it made me crazy. Also being very much alike, we knew how to make each other angry.” “She was always the one most likely to get on a motorcycle and head for San Francisco,” agrees Pat, who blames her behavior on “natural teenage friction.” When he once sneaked into her room and tacked Bible quotations over her student protest posters, Debby angrily ripped everything down. Their reconciliation came after an epochal battle when she filched some cigarette butts to smoke later. “Luckily,” Debby sighs, “we stuck it out.”

She was educated at L.A.’s exclusive Westlake School—until Pat discovered her with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. He taped some offending pages together so they could not be read and switched her into a conservative Catholic school. As for college, Debby says, “I don’t see any reason to go.” Regarding her romantic life, Debby admits to a couple of “serious, long-term” male friendships in the past. Currently she reports, “I have friends that are guys, but I hate the dating kind of thing.” Adds her mother, “Debby is not a romantic.” Instead, she goes bowling with pals like Donna Freberg, humorist Stan’s daughter, her “best friend,” or Shaun Cassidy (whose mother, Shirley Jones, Pat refused to kiss on the lips in the 1957 movie April Love). “The possibility that I might not get married doesn’t frighten me,” says Debby. She suspects, though, that “it’ll happen naturally, and I just don’t want to be too old to have kids.” Her father asserts, “I feel that any of my daughters would be more likely to be completely fulfilled as a wife and let singing be secondary, if that.”

Debby harbors no doubts about her career though. “I knew from the minute I started working I’d be doing it for a living.” Now in places like Santa Barbara she’s warming up a solo act unannounced and safely out of range of big-city music critics. She tried voice lessons to amplify her already rich contalto—but quit after four sessions lest she lose her “spontaneity.” A new single, God Knows, is out, and an LP is on its way in May. She’s also composed songs for Pat’s religious label, which is called Lamb and Lion. Amid her other possibilities, like the sound track for the forthcoming The Magic of Lassie, Pat is talking up a prospective “last hurrah”: a Boone Family TV variety series for next season. His daughter, the star, isn’t sure. “I’m learning,” she says, “how to say no.”

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