They float onto the stage in matching everything, from heels to lashes to the honey rinse that sparkles on their coifs. Bobbing in unison like dolls on a dashboard, they break into a medley of hits they made famous 30 years ago, innocent sweet songs like Sincerely and Muskrat Ramble, and the audience at Toronto’s Royal York hotel sighs with remembered pleasure. Call it kitsch, call it camp; this crowd is calling it back for an encore. After a split of 17 years, the McGuire Sisters are once again singing the harmonies that made them one of the top pop singing acts of the ’50s. As they reprise the theme from Picnic, their audience is suspended in a time warp of circle pins and charm bracelets, a world where cars had fins as well as personalities, a world of Sugartime.
The McGuire Sisters are an anachronism all right, and that’s what makes them delightful. As they sit in their dressing room primping for the late show, the Sisters still behave as if life were a pajama party. Wearing the same size-8 dresses on the same svelte bodies they had three decades ago, they chat nonstop, or at least Phyllis does. She has always been the motor mouth. “This dressing room is so small, there’s hardly enough room for our boas. They didn’t ask which one is the oldest tonight,” she says, staring at the one great-grandmother of the group. “Chris must be in heaven.” After 17 years out of the limelight, the trio is often asked about things like age. “People can’t believe we’re still alive,” says Phyllis. If people seem more fascinated with their looks than their music, the Sisters don’t seem to mind. “Everything is still real,” explains Phyllis, “even our hair.”
The McGuire Sisters gave their last performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. Singing together since they were kids, they decided it was time to live their own lives. Dorothy and Chris left to raise families, and Phyllis worked on a solo career. Their children are grown now, and Phyllis’ solo career is long since over, so when the three got together for a visit at Phyllis’ New York town house last year, they found themselves talking about a comeback. “We’re still in good health, we’re not on crutches and we’re not in our 80s,” says Phyllis. (To be precise, Chris is 57, Dorothy, 56, and Phyllis, 54.) Singing was their chance to be together again. “We were so close that first time,” says Dorothy. “We used to get so depressed when we left each other. It was tear time on closing night.” Besides, the Sisters came to a common realization. “Singing as a trio is our life,” says Dorothy. “It’s really all we know.”
They certainly didn’t re-form because they needed the money. Though life after the Sisters took them in different directions, all the McGuires have money. Dorothy followed the most traditional path. Married to her oilman husband since 1958, she has devoted her energies to raising her two sons in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I just became a mother,” she says, “watching my boys grow up and getting involved in church affairs.” Chris had a rockier time. Jumping into a variety of business ventures, she became something of a franchise queen, opening Chris McGuire cinemas and then Chris McGuire pubs in Florida. Though she fared well in business affairs, affairs of the heart were another story. “Chris is so adorable and vulnerable,” says Phyllis. “If a man comes along and says, ‘I love you,’ that girl is head over heels. She’d jump into a river if he asked her to.” Now separated from her fourth husband, Chris had to disengage herself from her latest Florida chain, Chris McGuire diet centers, to rejoin her sisters.
Phyllis is the one who made headlines. Though she was married to a broadcaster for two years in the early ’50s, it was the man she didn’t marry who caused the uproar. For much of her adult life Phyllis’ beau was Mafia chieftain Sam Giancana. The two met in Las Vegas in 1960 when Phyllis stood in as a guest dealer at a Desert Inn blackjack table. While she was dealing, someone bet $500 at her $1 table. It was Giancana. Phyllis was dating entertainer Dan Rowan at the time, but Sam quickly put an end to that. Trying to prove to Phyllis that all stars played around, Giancana had Rowan’s room bugged. Taking the hint, Rowan went to Phyllis to break off their relationship saying, “Phyllis, if someone that powerful is after you, I don’t stand a chance. I’ll be in the bottom of Lake Mead if I don’t cool this.”
At first, Phyllis says, she didn’t even know who Giancana was. “All of a sudden my friends told me, ‘Do you know who you are seeing? He’s murdered people.’ I was all wide-eyed. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I just knew that I liked the man. His wife had passed away and he was very nice to me. And if he had done all those things they said he did, I wondered why in God’s name he was on the street and not in jail.”
Though Sam asked her to marry him, Phyllis refused. “I was past the urge,” she says, “and I was too into this career.” The two remained close until Giancana’s death, a bloody gangland murder in his Oak Park, Ill. home in 1975. It’s a reflective Phyllis who looks back on those years with Sam. “You know, after 50, you’re living on borrowed time,” she says. “I’ve had a fabulous life. I wouldn’t change a thing. People ask me, ‘But would you still see Sam?’ Of course I would! The last thing I would do is turn my collar and say I never knew him. I never denied I cared for him. I loved him until the end.”
It’s a chilly noon in New York as Phyllis, wearing a Chanel suit and dripping in emeralds and diamonds, sits before one of the four fireplaces in her Upper East Side town house. She bought the place from an Arab prince, she says, having first turned down an apartment in the classy Trump Tower where “there just wasn’t enough closet space.” Closet space is important to someone who admits to owning 50 fur coats. Though her circular staircase is not steep, Phyllis prefers to travel from floor to floor by private elevator. “There’s some wine thing down in the cellar, and I have a bulletproof bomb shelter in here,” she says, pointing to a cul-de-sac on the main floor. She descends to the ground floor and enters an enormous kitchen, where Enice, her cook for 21 years, offers homemade rum cake. “I don’t know the first thing about cooking,” admits Phyllis. “Every time I go into the kitchen, it’s like a catastrophe. I swear I can’t even boil water.”
If this seems extravagant—and it is—it’s nothing compared with her spread in Vegas. That house is 26,000 square feet, has a hallway the size of a hotel lobby and a full-time staff of 19. Swans float outside in a moat, and inside, Phyllis has her matching monuments, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. The Sisters are into huge. Dorothy has a $4 million home in Arizona with a two-ton copper-and-glass pagoda in the living room. Chris recently sold her Arizona house, which was nestled into the red rocks of Sedona, and is looking for a suitable replacement. Dorothy and Phyllis drive convertible Rolls-Royces, while Chris is content with a Mercedes.
As the Sisters meet to talk about a planned nightclub act in Vegas, it’s musical memories, not money, that they discuss. “Our whole life used to be rehearsing and performing,” says Dorothy. “All we did was sing, sing, sing. Sometimes I wondered if I was married to my sisters or my husband.” They were born in Middletown, Ohio; their mother was a minister, their father a steelworker. They had a strict upbringing. “We weren’t allowed to wear shorts or slacks or go to dances and movies,” says Dorothy, “and we had to hide the Old Maid deck when mother came in.” Still, it was a loving family with music as the unifying bond. Everyone played an instrument, but singing is what the girls did best. The Sisters started vocalizing in their mother’s church when Phyllis was only 4. With baby Phyllis placed in the center, they sang at weddings, funerals, whatever.
Like many singers, the sweeter-than-saccharin siblings were discovered in church. An agent heard them at a revival meeting in Dayton and persuaded them to go to New York after Phyllis graduated from high school. Arriving there in 1952, their hair pulled back in buns and wearing matching pink sweaters, the Sisters sang the only pop song they knew, Mona Lisa, and promptly won an Arthur Godfrey Talent Show contest.
Stardom came quickly for the cream-fresh little sweethearts. They signed a record contract, put their hair in chignons and French twists and had one pop hit after another. Their biggest tune was Sincerely, which was No. 1 on the charts for 10 weeks in 1955. Theirs was a life of total teamwork. They’d rehearse, perform and record most of the day, and in off time Chris did the clothes buying, Dorothy the banking, and Phyllis, of course, the talking. “Chris and I just sort of stood there,” says Dorothy. “We were more shy and reserved. But it’s not as if Phyllis took over. That’s just the way it happened.” They graced the covers of LIFE and Look, and they headlined in Las Vegas and became regulars on TV variety shows. The Sisters each pulled in close to $1 million a year in their heyday. It was sugartime for the Sisterhood.
But that was then. Now, years later, the Sisters are back together in Phyllis’ kitchen, mapping out their Golden Girl future. They have club dates set for Atlantic City and Las Vegas (each paying “high five figures,” according to their agent), and they want to record another album. “If no one takes it, we’ll finance ourselves,” says Phyllis. Still, they’re not kidding themselves. They know that the world just might not care that the McGuire Sisters are back again. “Just because the public loved us 25 years ago doesn’t mean they will again,” says Chris. “We could be a turnoff instead of a turn-on.” But they’re determined anyway. “We had a clear, true harmony and a pure blend,” says Dorothy. “I’ve always been sold on our sound.”
So, apparently, has their audience. As the Sisters finish their late show in Toronto, they arrive backstage to greet well-wishers, including a star-struck middle-age autograph seeker named Barbara Pattison. “They take me back to the olden times, the beautiful times,” says Pattison. “They are not loud, and they are not distant. They bring back the beauty to music.” In a singing world where the only Sisters are Twisted, the glamorous McGuires are so out of it, they just might be in again.