SINK ALONG WITH MAMA CASS

By William Kloman
Esquire Magazine
June, 1969 

The road through Laurel Canyon rises from a small country store where dreamy young couples smile at one another across the apple bins. It rises, past the house where Tom Mix's wonder horse Tony is buried under the living room floor, and up past the rubble of Harry Houdini's mansion, which attracts pre-teen hippies, who picnic there on Twinkies and Fresca. Above the picnic ground, the homes of record industry company freaks cling to cliffs by spidery beams and willpower. Police helicopters chop overhead, alert for signs of psychedelic vegetation drying on the rooftops. Inside the houses, small families wait for the Earthquake. Come the Revolution, they tell you, Laurel Canyon will be the new Warsaw Ghetto.  

The road goes up until it joins Mulholland Drive, where people used to go to park and neck, before the Pill, when girls lost their virginity in borrowed cars. The Tonight Show audience always laughs appreciatively when Johnny mentions the Drive. It recalls the Arcadian joys of whisky highs and guileless contraception.  

From Mulholland Drive, the alert traveler can glimpse an overgrown Victorian rose garden nuzzling against a grand stone cottage. It is the sort of house Bo-peep might have designed for herself if she had ever struck it rich. An egg-yolk yellow Aston Martin stands idle under a carport jutting from the cottage. The front yard is littered with a child's toys.  

A horn blows in the cottage driveway and a tangle of dark blonde hair flounces from a gabled window overhead. Hair, house, and roses belong to Cass Elliot. So does the James Bond sports car and the baby who owns the toys. The toys are those of Owen Vanessa, Mama Cass Elliot's little baby girl. Mama Cass is the chubby girl who used to sing all those hefty mezzo-soprano parts with the Mamas and the Papas. She has broken with the other Mamas and Papas, and is off to become a big star of her own.  

Now between jobs, Mama Cass reigns as superstar, earth mother, and legendary queen of all the hippies in the canyon below. As we join Mama Cass, she is visited by her sister Leah  -  the cause of the blowing horn  -  who is preggers, and who has a pain. Leah stands in the garden below, looking up. "Drink a glass of milk and go to bed," Cass says from her window. "Warm it first, then get in bed and drink it." Leah goes away, content, and Cass withdraws. The interior of the cottage belies its pastoral exterior by closely resembling an East Village crash pad.  

"My sister is prenatal," Cass says, padding through a tangle of clothing and ostrich feathers. Framed gold records, mementos of Cass' glory days with the Mamas and the Papas - line the floorboards, unhung. "I wish I was prenatal again. Oh, well." Cass climbs into bed. Her aspect is glum. Her hair - soft and stringy like that of a small girl - catches the morning sunlight as Cass fluffs a pillow and gently clears her throat. The bed is massive, canopied, draped in golden velvet. Carved wooden panels supporting the canopy are crowded with arcane fertility symbols: birds of paradise, thin elephants, exotic vegetation.  

In bed with Cass is a telephone, an ashtray, cigarettes, magazines, books, a box of Kleenex. Perhaps there is a picture of Little Lulu on the Kleenex box, and perhaps not. On a shelf at the foot of the bed, inside the velvet curtains, there is definitely a television set, more magazines, and an assortment of pills (big reds, little yellows) that would cause Jacqueline Susann to weep for joy. The scene is one of convalescence. Cass has tonsillitis. For a week now, the Hollywood trade papers have been following the progress of her illness with enthusiasm. Daily Medical bulletins have appeared in all the gossip columns. Some say mononucleosis. Some say hepatitis. Some say hemorrhaging. Some do not. The columnists have begun to call her Miss Cass because she gave up her last name when she went to Las Vegas billed as plain Mama Cass, lost her voice, and bombed.  

The disaster in Las Vegas was heroic in proportion, epic in scope, and becomes even grander in the retelling. Cass opened and closed on the very same night - the first night of what was to have been a three week engagement at Caesars Palace. Billboards throughout the Westlands herald the swank resort. "There is only one Palace," the billboards say. It may look like a giant concrete nutmeg grater plunked mid-desert. It may blend Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman decor with mad abandon.  

It may even - as detractors claim - be the terminal vulgarity of the modern age. But show business-wise, Caesars Palace is the top of the heap. Mama Cass Elliot chose the Palace for her first encounter with a live audience since her split from the Mamas and Papas partly because of its grandeur, partly because her salary would be $40,000 a week, and partly because she knew four Mexican boys who worked there. Now she was resting her voice and considering her comeback. It would be the first time in entertainment history that a performer would make a comeback after only one night of stardom. Such things used to take decades.  

Several distinct varieties of comeback were available at this point. There was the Judy Garland, which was dazzlingly traumatic but somehow threadbare. There was the Kate Smith, but that involved years of waiting, and who could tell if today's audience had that kind of patience. There was the Helen Morgan comeback, which required an abandoned nightclub and hundreds of extras to cheer and cry. And there was the Shirley Temple, which meant hiding out long enough to work up a new kind of act. None of these would do.  

Some people had said that the Las Vegas opening itself was not unlike a comeback.

Cass's personal manager, Bobby Roberts, a former tap dancer who also guided Ann Margaret's career, had been the first to identify the odd atmosphere of the opening night. When it became clear that the act was falling apart - clear that Cass should never have been permitted to go on stage to begin with - Roberts had whispered to friends, amid sniffs of nervous laughter, "It's just like watching a comeback. Watching a big star's comeback, watching Cass UP there is."  

Cass is out of bed, restless. She is standing in front of her gabled window, barefoot and in a quilted dressing gown. The rosebushes at the far end of the yard have withered and gone to seed. Some months before, the man who lives across the road had come down his hill to tell Cass that the rosebushes were on his property, not hers. Cass has not tended the rosebushes since that day, devoting her attention instead to a small patch of artichokes on the opposite side of the house. Friends who have eaten Cass's artichokes claim that they are the best artichokes in California, with the possible exception of the artichokes grown by the Mafia in the Salinas Valley. 

The previous night Cass had consoled herself by walking around barefoot in her new sable coat. The coat was a gift from Cass to herself, a token of impending stardom as a single. Cass could no longer afford sable, so the coat would have to go. Cass was miserable. Friends who dropped in for the evening teased her, making reference to things like Sunset Boulevard which added considerably to Cass's misery. She had taken the fur coat off and walked on it, wiggling her toes among the pelts. She had gone upstairs and spread it on her bed and patted it smooth. Then she rolled around on it and began to cry.  

"I don't think I have to have my hand slapped that much that they'd take away my coat," she is saying, looking out at the ratty rosebushes. "All I did was get tonsillitis. The worst possible thing happened at the worst possible time." She begins to form a syllogism - a natural tendency for Virgos under stress - then wipes her eyes with a Kleenex. "The worst possible," she says. "What a good premise. It's so reassuring." Then she turns and smiles. "I consider myself now second only to Paul Krassner in tying totally unrelated facts together to form a conspiracy. I'm convinced that I'm the helpless victim of a terrible plot. For weeks somebody has been slipping something into my Chemex coffeepot to cause damage to my pipes at the worst possible time." She climbs back onto the bed. "I'm glad that's all cleared up. For a while there I thought I had bombed 'on purpose." Or perhaps it was the Mafia, trying to turn off Cass's artichokes. It was hard to tell.  

The Caesars Palace fling had indeed been costly to Cass. Estimates of the cost ran as high as $90,000. Singers, musicians, sound men, lighting men, all wanted to be paid. Cass had spent $10,000 on the script for the show alone. It was written by Mason Williams, a Smothers Brothers writer who commands high fees. Cass had read the script once and discarded most of it because she decided that she didn't want somebody else's words getting between her and her audience. Cass's intention had been to flatten the audience with sincerity and love, to turn them on to honesty and, in her own words, "blow their minds." In spite of the fact that even old troupers refuse to play Vegas without weeks of meticulous rehearsal, Cass had not managed to stage a fun run-through of her show by opening night. "When I hear my music, it will an come together," she had said repeatedly.  

Cass had prepared for Las Vegas by spending three weeks in bed with nervous flutters, punctuated by attacks of nausea and stomach cramps. While Cass was dealing with her vapors, a show had been put together. Harvey Brooks, a highly talented bass player from the defunct Electric Flag, had assembled a six-man rock band to back Cass. To back the rock band, a twenty-piece house orchestra was added in Las Vegas.

A psychedelic lighting expert was flown in from San Francisco. He found the Palace lighting system equipped for Virgin Mary apparitions but short on jazzy effects. A production supervisor was hired to coordinate the various elements, and he brought with him a female rhythm trio called the Sweet Things to add a gloss of soulful pizzazz.

Cass' own contribution was the quartet of sequined Mexicans - Los Hermanos Castro  - whom she had once seen on television, and with whom she had immediately fallen in love.

The Castro brothers had, in fact, been me determining factor in Cass's decision to play Las Vegas. When Cass had seen them on the Joey Bishop Show they were appearing in Nero's Nook, a small lounge off the Caesars Palace casino where the "Bottoms Up" revue gives the hotel's patrons a mid-afternoon respite from gambling, much as tea does for British sportsmen. Cass had gone directly to Las Vegas to meet the Castros in person. They told her they had long dreamed of playing the Big Room - the Circus Maximus - so Cass signed them to appear in a show in which she would star, In the Big Room. The yellow James Bond car would have to go. Definitely the sable coat (that was the worst of it). There was a $5000 wristwatch and a $1200 pair of earrings being held at Tiffany's in New York which would have to be canceled. Maybe the Bo-peep house would have to go too. That would come as a shock to the hangers-on - the lovable, scruffy hippie-types who hung out at Cass' pad, drying their socks in Cass' bathroom and making cheery vats of Cream of Wheat in her kitchen on rainy afternoons. Maybe they would have to go.  

In the three years Cass had spent with the Mamas and Papas,. the single most successful musical group in America at the time, she had lost whatever habits of economy she ever had. The Mamas and Papas had worked and lived as if there were no tomorrow. They zipped around the country in Lear jets, bought houses and cars with abandon, put up at the best hotels, and carried an entourage of fifteen. Cass, for her part, had loved every minute of it, down to the ennui big stars were expected to affect in the presence of luxury.

In many cities, Cass stepped wearily from limousines, smiling indulgently at hotel doormen. "It is my fate," she sometimes said, "to be constantly dependent upon the generosity of strangers." Perhaps her finest moment came in Carnegie Hall. She had just introduced John Phillips as "the man without whose help I'd still be making beer commercials." When she sat on the apron of the Carnegie Hall stage to sing I Call Your Name, the house went wild. You would have thought Judy Garland had just told them a love secret.

With Denny Doherty, John and Michelle Phillips - the other three Mamas and Papas - Cass Elliot became a celebrity, which means that fame suddenly transcended talent and existed independently of their ability to perform. They’d appeared on the covers of national magazines. They drew crowds wherever they went.  

Cass was the most visible member of the group, and her voice the most distinctive, so she became the biggest celebrity. Wherever the group appeared, little fat girls would seek Cass out, ask her advice on their careers, and sit at her feet talking about life. Cass was loved more than the others, perhaps because her people had the greatest needs. What Streisand did for Jewish girls in Brooklyn, Cass Elliot was doing for fat girls everywhere. The diet food people must have hated her the way nose surgeons are said to hate Streisand. While the Mamas and Papas were defining a lifestyle for their fans to emulate, Cass was redefining the concept of beauty among the young.  

While Warhol was trying to decide whether Cass or the boys would be more effective nude, Cass withdrew from the venture on the advice of her agents. They were -  concerned about what such exposure would do for her image.  

In the meantime, Cass posed for photographer Jerry Schatzberg, and the resulting picture was featured as the centerfold of the first edition of Cheetah, a rock magazine that died after eight issues. Cass appeared mother - naked and tattooed, sprawled on a field of daisies. Nobody blamed the Schatzberg photo for Cheetah's collapse, but there was general agreement that editorial taste had not been one of the magazine's strong points.

"I don't know why I wanted a sable to begin with," Cass is saying. "I just always have. Ever since I was eight years old there has never been a time I didn't want a sable coat. I never wanted a mink coat or anything. I just always wanted a sable coat. It was probably some popular song at the time, 'Have to buy me diamonds and pearls, champagne and sables and such.' I just always equated it with the pinnacle of. . . . It was so soft and groovy.

Now I have to give it back." Cass pads around the room, gloomy and distracted. She hums a snatch of song, and shakes her head. "That is show business, man," she says at last.

"You never know what's going to happen. It is the least pre - informative of all businesses. I just don't want to have to make a comeback now. That's so ridiculous. I should have stayed in Baltimore and gone to Goucher and become a teacher or something. You don't just give up your entire life and go into show business. It's too much of a luxury. A luxury, man."

"Why, then, did you…?" The question, scarcely begun, hangs in the still air like a smoke ring. Cass waves it aside lightly, climbs back into bed, and lights a cigarette. "The story of my life," she says. "Random House wants it too."  

Mama Cass Elliot - her name was Naomi Cohen in those early days - spent her little girlhood shuttling back and forth between Alexandria, Virginia, and Baltimore, following the flickering star of her father's business schemes. She recalls at least ten instances of bankruptcy during her formative years, but considered her lot infinitely preferable to that of her playmates, most of whose daddies were in the dreary old Army and carried their lunches in brown bags to the Pentagon every morning.

Cass likes to describe her family's situation as "groovy lower - middle - class." When she was eleven, Cass found a consoling object of identification in Carroll Baker's portrayal - in The Miracle - of the hot little novice who leaves her convent to run away with a passing tribe of Spanish gypsies. In the film, the Virgin Mary descends to take Carroll Baker's place in the nunnery, scrubbing floors for her and such, while the young postulant dances the nights away with her dark lover. Cass's first response to the movie was an overwhelming desire to convert to Catholicism, perhaps sensing that the Virgin Mary didn't go around scrubbing floors for Jewish girls.  

When Cass reached high' school, her father hit upon a business idea which worked.

He bought a retired public transit bus, equipped it with ultramodern stainless - steel kitchen fixtures, and parked it beside a busy construction site. The restaurant - on - wheels venture was so profitable that the Gohens soon had a fleet of five converted buses doing business at five different construction locations.  

Cass' task in the venture was to get up at four - thirty every morning and drive around with her father, cooking breakfast for his customers. In the winter, Cass recalls, her father would have to bang on the buses to scare away the rats and mice which had crept inside to sleep before Cass could go in to start the oatmeal cooking.

At seven - thirty, the workmen sent off to their jobs, Cass would change into her school togs and drive to class, which she found desperately dull compared to the gruff repartee of her father's breakfast trade. Cass still looks back on her restaurant days with fondness. "Meals on Wheels for Schlemiels," she says nostalgically. 

"What a life Naomi had." The Cohens' peripatetic ways cost Naomi half an academic credit toward the end of her high - school career. The family had moved to Baltimore, and Cass struggled with night courses in French to make up the missing half credit. After class - it was summertime - she would drive to the Owings Mills Playhouse, where a girl friend was a summer - stock apprentice. The Boy Friend was at the end of a successful run, which the producers wanted to extend. The girl playing the French maid, however, had other commitments, so Cass's friend suggested Cass for the part. Pointing to Cass one evening, she had said: "She can sing!" "I said absolutely not," Cass says, beating her pillow for emphasis. "I had braces on my teeth and everything. Anyway that was my theatrical debut, singing It's Nicer, Much Nicer In Nice, and I was very good. I still remember that song." She lifts her hands and makes floating motions. "They say it's lovely when - a / Young lady's in Vienna / But it's nicer, much nicer. . . .' Oh, it was so sophisticated," she says.  

After being the French maid in The Boy Friend, school was out of the question, so Cass stopped going. Instead, she took a part - time job on the society desk of the Baltimore Jewish Times. Cass's job was to layout the magazine section of the paper and to write obituaries. If she weren't actually cheek - to - cheek with the sophisticates of Baltimore Jewish society, she was close. A long shot closer than when she was slinging hash for bricklayers from the back of a bus.

A weekend visit to New York City was enough to convince Cass that she had to try for the Big Time, or regret it forever after. Back in Baltimore, the Cohens flatly refused to indulge their daughter's theatrical impulses, and insisted that she continue her education at Goucher College as soon as she made up the missing half credit.  

"They always had great aspirations for me intellectually," Cass says. Crestfallen, Cass quit her job with the Jewish Times, moped around the house for a while, then went to work for the Baltimore Sun, partly to convince her parents that she wasn't a vegetable. Cass's new position called for her to spend her day taking classified ads over the telephone. The whole idea was a bit much, but Cass managed to avoid taking too many ads by chatting all day with her friends, whom she called on the "out" line. When she was fired for clogging the switchboard with personal calls, her parents agreed that maybe New York was the place for their daughter, after all.  

Cass packed the family car with clothing and small appliances, and headed for the city. Once there, she parked the car in front of an aunt's house and went in to make a telephone call. She returned a few minutes later to find that all her belongings had been stolen.  

"You see, I was just a bumpkin. Just a country bumpkin," Cass explains. "I had just come in to New York from Virginia. Or was it Baltimore?" Cass then began acting classes at a small theatre workshop.

Downstairs, a doorbell rings. Voices are heard. A door opens. More voices. The door shuts.

"Irma," Cass calls hoarsely. "J Que 'Pasa?" She listens but there is no answer. "I think it's my divorce papers. They were due today. They're going to freeze my tonsils out, so I won't have any actual tonsils to show people, but if they were going to cut them out, I wanted to have them made into earrings - bronzed or something.

I think it would be a nice gesture on my part. I could go out on stage and say, 'Here they are, folks.' I want everything to be out front. I'm very worried about my reputation in this business - of always being on time and doing my job, and the whole thing.

Now it's all balown, man, I don't care what anybody tells me about how many people are on my side. I don't want to know how many people are on my side. I want people to understand and believe what went down in Las Vegas and be forgiving. I don't want to. have this tremendous guilt that I've let everybody down." Cass struggled along in New York, a fast montage of making rounds of agents, having pictures taken, and reporting for auditions. She used Glitter and Be Gay, from Candide, as her audition number. Cass also directed a play at the Cafe La Mama, and came close to getting the part of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, the role which launched Barbra Streisand's career.  

"I was led to believe by my agent that there were only three of us up for the part: Streisand, myself, and Zohra Lampert. She's the girl Warren marries in Splendor in the Grass, and probably one of the great undiscovered talents of our. . . so relaxed. Streisand was in another show, and David Merrick wanted her for the Miss Marmelstein part. Miraculously, Barbra's show closed just in time for me not to have signed any contracts. Talent is talent, man. Barbra Streisand is a unique talent. I just don't think we both should have come on at the same time. But it's funny. Miss Streisand and myself both have something to overcome. I don't want to always be Mama Cass, and I'm sure she doesn't always want to be the image people have of her now. I'm sure the movie of Funny Girl will change all that for her. I understand it's gorgeous." After completing a tour with The Music Man, Cass decided to go to college to get a good foundation in drama before attacking the Big Time once more.  

"So I went to American University in Washington, and I enrolled. I was twenty - one. I'd been out in the world and doing my thing, and here I was a freshman - a provisional one because I didn't have my high - school diploma - with all these seventeenyear - olds, all dewy - eyed about the theatre. Dewy - eyed I wasn't. I tried staying away from the university theatre, and after six weeks I was hanging around the theatre. I had been in Broadway houses, and I was back on the college level, and it came easy. There was this one young professor who really turned me on. Man, I dug him, and I was one of the worldly compared to the other girls in his class. I'd love to see him. I know we'd still like each other.  

"Anyway, I got interested in the theatre and started hanging around with some guys. Then we had the Cuban missile crisis. Remember the Cuban missile crisis? Well, I remember it mostly because American University is a very political school, and everybody was sitting around instead of going to classes. American University is kind of like Berkeley. It gets pretty radical there at times.  

Not many people know that. So we were all sitting around wondering what was going to happen - whether we were going to get bombed or what was going to go down. That day when nobody knew what was going to happen? And I met some people, and through them I met this guy, who said, 'Hey, you can really sing good. Why don't you come to Chicago and we can sing?' So I said okay, and I took some money and bought a Volkswagen and we went to Chicago and we formed a group. That's when I first started singing for my career. We spent a horrible, miserable, starving winter in Chicago." Cass is shouting. "Putting it together. Singing. Learning songs. Twenty - five below zero. It was one of the roughest winters they ever had in Chicago. Hmm."  

In Omaha, Nebraska, the composition of Cass's traveling group changed. One young singer - Jim Hendricks - was added, and another was dropped. Cass later married Hendricks, at a time when he would have been drafted had he remained single. The divorce is pending.  

Hendricks and his girl friend, Vanessa, were at Cass's opening in Las Vegas. Friends say that Cass is so fond of her husband and his girl friend that she named her own daughter Owen Vanessa in her honor. Cass says Hendricks is not Owen's daddy. Some people believe that Cass produced the child by sheer willpower. Others hold that the fertilizing agent remains a mystery to Cass herself. Reporters for classy magazines don't ask their subjects questions about such matters.  

In those early days of pop culture (before rock, and near the end of folk unless you want to count Dylan's latest stuff), small bands of singers with non - electric guitars crisscrossed the country, singing for college audiences in off - campus coffee houses where the biggest high you could get was from chewing on the cinnamon stick that you got with your Cappuccino. In one of these houses, Cass met Denny Doherty, who was on the road singing with Zalman Yanovsky. Cass fell immediately in love with Doherty and his glorious golden tenor voice.  

Denny can be assumed to have responded with his gruff, thrifty, Canadian Northwoodsman, tender silence.

Cass and Denny kept in touch by telephone while their respective groups were on tour. In mid - 1965, both groups broke up, so Cass and Denny formed a group with Yanovsky and Hendricks, which was billed as Cass Elliot and the Big Three. A Clrummer was added to the group, and its name was changed to the Mugwumps. The Mugwumps cut a record for Warner Brothers, and lasted until the end of the year, at which point Yanovsky and John Sebastian (who had been signed on as a sideman to play harmonica) split to form the Lovin' Spoonful.  

Doherty went off to join John Phillips on the island of St. John in the Caribbean, where John and Michelle had gone after their landlord on East Tenth Street auctioned off all their worldly goods to make up for overdue rent. On St. John, Denny, John and Michelle (with a few other Village dropouts) lived in tents, slept on the beach, experimented with LSD, and sang together a lot.  

Cass returned to Washington, D.C., where she worked for a while as a single in a small Georgetown club. Then she joined her friends (the folk people all knew one another from the Village) in the Virgin Islands. Cass waited tables in the Islands but didn't have a high enough vocal range to work into the music Phillips was writing with the aid of acid. One day, while Cass was poking about on a construction site on St. Thomas, a workman dropped a thin chunk of pipe on Cass's head. When the headache went away she discovered that her upper register had been increased by three notes. Thus, not unlike the Pallas Athena, who leaped full - blown from the head of godly Zeus, the Mamas and Papas were born, emigrated to California, became the nation's top new singing group, and grew rich and famous beyond the dreams of avarice.  

From the highway, Caesars Palace does indeed resemble a giant concrete nutmeg grater. Vast pools and fountains gurgle and play near its entrance, drenching guests on windy days. Approach to the Palace is made by way of a mammoth landscaped parking lot, the greenness of whose jutting lawn seems an obscene gesture of defiance thrust into the desert's crusty face. The sun shines fiercely on the outside.  

Within, the air is kept fresh by giant machines hidden in the ceilings. There are no clocks; there is no day or night.

The noise of gambling in the great casino - it is, in fact, the hotel's lobby  - seems like the din of a passing train.

Here gaming is pursued more as religion than as sport. Women past their prime gravitate to the machines, insert their coins from paper cups, and pray the gods of fortune will compensate the losses of a lifetime in cold, hard cash. The men are more covert in their play. They throw their dice and turn their cards with practiced nonchalance, the way Clark Gable would.

They page one another on lobby phones, and sign their bar bills with sweeping strokes. When they urinate, they do so in marble toilets marked Caesars. Their ladies repair their eyes in powder rooms labeled Cleopatras.

The place has style.

Cass and her troupe arrived on a Saturday, to allow time to "shake the bugs out of the show" before the Monday opening. The Saturday - afternoon rehearsal had not been much, but Mama Cass - no one in Las Vegas ever called her anything else - had made a good impression in the Noshorium, the hotel coffee shop, joshing with the help and signing autographs. Waitresses, particularly, wanted her signature, usually for their daughters.

"My little girl just loves you, Mama Cass," they would say in their tight Lady Bird twangs. "She even has your record. Plays it all the time. I think it's near wore out," "Buy her a new one," Cass would say.

Sunday evening, Cass appeared briefly at a makeshift rehearsal hall to skim through a medley she planned to sing with the Castro. brothers, then disappeared down a long corridor with two Castros on either arm. The Harvey Brooks ensemble played late into the night, until their sound was tight and hard. The musicians were happy with their sound, but their misgivings about the star of the show gave an early warning of trouble.

"One thing I don't want to do, man," one of them said on Sunday, "is to carry Mama Cass. It's her show, if you know what I mean."  

A full rehearsal was called for Monday afternoon, in the Circus Maximus.

As the house staff prepared the Big Room for the dinner show, the twentypiece house orchestra arrived, as did a battered honky - tonk piano which had been shipped at great expense from Los Angeles to add sixteen bars of old -

time funk to the middle of one song. Cass appeared in cable - stitch white wool knee socks (no shoes), Polaroid shades, and her custom - made sable coat. She worked out a few numbers, squeezed a Castro or two, discarded what little was left of her $10,000 script, and noticed that her voice was going scratchy.  

"Honesty is all you need," she said.

"This show will blow their minds." Celebrities arrived for the opening throughout the afternoon. Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. were rumored to be on the premises. "Peter said he was coming for the opening," Cass observed, "and I guess he brought Sammy with him." While Cass was putting it together in the Big Room, John and Michelle Phillips were working their way through the lobby, dropping money into various games of chance on their way to their suite. The day before, they had decided to fly to Vegas from Los Angeles to watch Cass strike out on her own. Denny Doherty had planned to come, but cancelled his reservation at the last minute.

Having negotiated the lobby, John and Michelle came upon a large bank of floral tributes waiting to be delivered to Mama Cass's dressing room.  

There was a basket from Joan Baez, who was in Nashville making an album, a bunch from Mia Farrow, who was in New Orleans, and a used sledgehammer sent by Tommy Smothers.

Michelle found a spray of American Beauty roses which bore no name. A card attached to the roses read simply, "Sock it to 'em." Michelle rummaged in her purse, found a pen, and added "Love, John and Michelle" to the greeting.  

As Cass left the rehearsal stage, her secretary, Carol Samuels, handed her a cup of hot tea with lemon.

"John and Michelle just checked in," Carol said. Cass took the tea. "Screw 'em," she replied.

The show that evening went badly from the start. As the orchestra was playing her overture, Cass mistook the music for a cue and started singing California Earthquake over a backstage microphone. The mike was quickly shut off, and the overture continued.

"Naomi!" a ragged voice screamed over the music. Heads turned to the center aisle, where Steve Brandt, a gossip columnist for Photoplay, was making an entrance two beats ahead of the evening's star. Brandt, a sort of bush - league Savonarola, makes his living skewering celebrities with their own peccadilloes. He got his start in the gossip dodge by sneaking onto the set of the original American Bandstand in Philadelphia and taking candid shots of the Regulars for teen magazines. He had been observing John and Michelle Phillips ever since they moved into Jeanette MacDonald's Bel Air mansion three years ago. It was partly on their account, and partly to help Cass remember her roots, that he was in Las Vegas. Peter Sellers calls Steve Brandt "the Prince of Darkness," but Peter Sellers always exaggerates.  

Cass opened with the old Mamas and Papas favorite, Dancing in the Streets, which some of the audience seemed to recognize. There was a smattering of applause down front as the oleo curtain swept up to reveal Harvey Brooks' six - piece rock combo.

When the song was done, Cass made passing reference to the Mamas and Papas, indicating that while running around with a kinky rock - and - roll act was fine for kids, she was now in the Big Time, and was pleased that you all could come tonight. She did an album plug, then attempted to turn on the fish - cold audience by singing Rubber Band, in which she lyrically invited the roomful of wall - eyed whiskeyswillers to "roll enough to pave the way/To a brighter day." By the time Cass got to California Earthquake, a broken line of patrons could be noticed moving up the center aisle toward the door. Mama Cass wasn't a hippie; she wasn't sexy; and, having nearly killed herself losing one hundred pounds for her solo debut, she wasn't even very fat. At least fat would have been something, so what was there to see? Cass had never become a legend with this crowd. They weren't prepared to sympathize with her raspy, tortured delivery because they carried no memories of her earnest mezzo - soprano tones the way they sounded when she didn't have tonsillitis.  

In fact, they were having none of it. No smart - assed songs about pot. No crap about earthquakes. No longhaired bastards with electrified guitars. None of it. Las Vegas, they knew, was the town where Streisand played second banana to Liberace.  

The town that regularly scares the pants off Sinatra so bad he works his butt off rehearsing his act. The biggest names in the business crawl into Vegas on their bellies, and this lady can't even sing!  

The advance guard of the exodus was back at the slot machines by the time the back lighting revealed the twenty - piece house orchestra in tasteful black - tie outfits. They had been back there behind the scrim all along. The appearance of the orchestra held up the traffic flow in the center aisle momentarily, but a double - edged joke from Cass about the Soviet secret police set whole families to jiggling their silverware as they hurried out of their booths and to the exit.  

Down front, at long tables perpendicular to the stage, were two hundred friends, press people, and hangers - on whose tabs were being picked up by the lady in the psychedelic chiffon who was at that moment struggling on stage to make her vocal chords respond to music. The group included a contingent of about twenty from the deeper recesses of the Hollywood Hills who were said to be personal emissaries of Papa Denny Doherty, whose whereabouts were unknown. It was said that Denny rarely left his mountaintop, except to bailout friends, and had decided to make no exception for Cass's opening.  

Denny's friends weren't happy when Cass brought out the Castro brothers - all sequins and brilliantine  - to sing licorice - sweet counterpoint to Words of Love, which had been translated into Spanish for the occasion. "They've always wanted to work the Big Room," Cass announced proudly, as the quartet broke into an energetic, toothy grin that shot hot Latin love and laughter to the far corners of the auditorium. Quick, poignant glances were exchanged, then shaded, at the front tables. The show was coming apart at the seams and Cass knew it. She battled on, trying to coax mellow sounds from her aching larynx, but they wouldn't be coaxed. High notes were out of the question, and low ones turned into a scratchy hiss. The Los Angeles Times would excuse her illness, but not her lack of preparation.

Reviewer Pete Johnson counted every fluffed line and forgotten lyric. He called the performance "painful," and reminded his readers that once, under different circumstances, Mama Cass Elliot had been "glittering, stunning, and magnificent." In the middle of Sweet Believer, Cass's normally lithe voice was reduced to a crusty whisper as she sang:  

On your knees but unconquered

Taxed beyond your strength

Now you know the Prince of Darkness Will go to any length

To keep you from flying, Flying too high."

At the end, the applause was perfunctory, not even polite. On her curtain call, Cass came too far out onto the stage, and the applause stopped dead before she could get off again. The room was now silent, except for the shuffle of patrons who had stayed for the finale.

John and Michelle Phillips sat in a crescent - shaped booth, watching the room empty. During the show, Michelle had mouthed lyrics as Cass sang, and winced when she fluffed her lines. "When we were all together," she said, "one of us could always jab Cass in the ribs so she'd make her high notes." Mama and Papa looked at each other blankly. "Should we go backstage?" Michelle asked, then answered her own question. "Yes," she said. "We have to." John shrugged and followed his wife across the Forum toward the stage. Bobby Roberts and Hal Landers - Cass's managers, who had worked for the Mamas and Papas in the old days last year - were huddled in the side aisle. Roberts managed a smile as Michelle and John approached.  

"John," Bobby said. "Did you…like the show?" John stared at Bobby, then broke into a grin. "Gee, Bobby," he said.

Michelle kept walking. "I know. I know," Bobby said. "Do you think she can last a week?" Hal Landers regarded John closely.

"I'd pull her out tonight," John said.

"What's Vegas?" Landers demanded. "Who gives a damn what happens in Las Vegas? It's not like this was some big - time room." John smiled and patted Landers on the arm. "That's right, Hal," he said.  

Bobby winced. "Hal had an idea," he said. "It'd never work, of course.

But he thought maybe if you and Michelle and Denny went on with her. I mean the Mamas and Papas. . .." .

"It'd never work," John said.

"Wouldn't last out the week," Bobby said, nodding at Landers.

"That's right, Bobby," John said, and walked fast to catch up with Michelle, who had disappeared behind the great stage curtain.  

Backstage, an argument was in progress in the doorway of the star's dressing room. A dark, curly - haired young man in a white double breasted suit was hustling a freelance photographer out of the room.

"Man, that's show biz," the photographer protested.

"I don't know anything about show business," the young man said. "I'm just a stockbroker from Toronto who happens to be in love with her. She's tired and she needs rest and you're bothering her." Through the dressing - room door Cass could be seen slumped on a couch, looking tired and bothered and in need of rest. She was bracketed by two men who were shouting at each other above her head. A second photographer snapped away at the scene. A vase of long - stemmed red roses - the only flowers on display sat on a table near the couch. A card attached to the roses said, "Sock it to 'em. Love, John and Michelle." The men parted as Michelle Phillips swept through the doorway and past the stockbroker, followed by John. Cass opened her arms, and Michelle entered the embrace. Michelle looked solicitously into Cass's eyes, then sat on the sofa beside her. Cass fell sideways into Michelle's lap, and Michelle patted Cass's head. Order broke down at the door, and both photographers snapped vigorously at the pop Pieta scene which was being played out before them.  

Ten or twelve people now had crowded into the dressing room, and they stood looking like stationary sleepwalkers. Lynn Roberts, Bobby's attractive blonde wife, moved gently among them, distributing drinks from a bar provided by the Palace man age men t. Lynn introduced strangers to one another, and talked lightly about anything but the show. She seemed to be the only person in the room who was surviving opening night with sanity and poise unimpaired.

"I know a doctor here who will give her a B - 12 to get her through the second show," someone offered.

"What's she want with a speed quack shooting her up?" a girl with sleepy eyes replied. "Get one of those head doctors Denny sent down. He'll fix her UD in a minute."  

"Cass," a thin young man in a Nehru shirt said, "get yourself some boiling water and half a lemon, and. . . ." John Phillips and the Toronto stockbroker were sputtering at each other. John's cool had obviously unstrung Toronto, so the stockbroker offered to smash the composer in the face. Phillips had offered to do worse than that, and the stockbroker had told him to pick on someone his own size. John went outside to wait for Michelle, passing Steve Brandt of Photoplay on the way.

"Is this where they're reading the will?" Brandt asked, then hurled himself through the door. "Where is she?" he shouted. "Where's my girl?" The door closed behind Brandt, and several reporters who were clustered nearby looked at one another quizzically. The door swung open, and Steve Brandt swept out in a rage.

"The bitch!" he said. "I just got through announcing in Photoplay that she was flying to Geneva to marry Pic Dawson when she finished here. Now she's introducing this number in the confirmation suit as her fiancé."  

The reporters watched Brandt storm by. A lady from Look moved to where Denny's friends were huddled and asked softly, "Who was. . . that?" One of the group shook his head. "Dunno," he said. "I think he's an actor or something." John Phillips had stationed himself about fifteen yards from the dressing - room door. In the space between, a small knot of agents, managers, and secretaries - Cass's business people - stood trying to make conversation. One by one, they noticed Phillips and shot him painful little smiles and nods. John smiled back, and lit a cigarette.

The group, which included Roberts and Landers as well as Mason Williams, Cass's script writer, began to sway perceptibly, as if they were testing the direction of the wind. Her advisers didn't know which way to fall. If they moved too soon, they might lose their heads in the morning. Rather than do anything rash, like speak to Phillips or ignore him, they stood and swayed and nodded and grinned.  

Inside a single room, Dave Victorson, who is responsible for booking acts into Caesars Palace, was making a last - ditch effort to spruce up his star for the second show. Like everybody else in Las Vegas, Victorson is an instinctive gambler. A couple of months before he had gambled on Tiny Tim and won. The audience had laughed themselves silly. Win some; lose some. Victors on had rushed into the room like a used - car salesman whose merchandise was falling apart on the floor.  

"They loved you!" he reported, undeterred by expressions of horror from the onlookers. Victorson had been standing at the main door of the Big Room during the show, and had counted a hundred fifty walkouts before he stopped counting. On the way backstage he had had to contend with a crew of angry waiters who claimed that people had not only walked out in unprecedented volume and haste, but that many of them had refused to pay their tabs as well.

"Loved you!" he repeated for emphasis. "Look, Newsweek, the L.A. papers - they were all out there tonight. You should have heard them after the show. One of them said you were the greatest entertainer of the decade. Another one said something else." Cass looked up from the couch and clucked softly. "Is that what they said?" she asked. "I wonder what they would have said if I had been good?"

"Good?" Victors on replied.

"I'm sorry, Dave," Cass said. "I really have a pretty voice when I'm not sick." A phone rang, and Carol Samuels picked it up. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, "It's the Scientology people. They want to come and do a reading or something on Cass between shows.”

"Don't let them do it," someone said. "They'll freak her out completely." "Mama Cass is resting now," Carol said, into the phone. "Thank you very much, but maybe some other time.

She's awfully tired now." Carol listened for a minute, making faces, then she said firmly, "I am sure it would be of great benefit, but some other time not now she needs rest thank you so much goodbye," and hung up.

"How'd they get this number?" someone asked.

"Dunno," Carol said.

"Didn't say." The room had filled with smoke, and Cass began to cough. Someone suggested that fresh air might be the answer, so Carol Samuels and Toronto helped Cass to her feet and trotted her down a backstage corridor to look for an outside exit door.

As the three turned a corner, six men approached from the opposite end of a long hallway. One of them carried a small dark box. Another had books tucked in the crook of his arm.

"Oh my God!" Carol said.

"The Scientology nuts.

They've got their tin cans and everything. You take Cass and I'll head them off,"  

Toronto jerked Cass through a handy doorway as Carol tried to outmaneuver the six Scientologists. She finally succeeded in leading them into a side room, where she explained the delicate nature of her employer's condition, and pleaded with them to go away. By the time the argument was over, Cass was nowhere to be found. Carol returned to the dressing room, overwrought. "You should have seen their eyes," she said. "It was just like in Village of the Damned except these were grown men." The second show of the evening was much like the first, except that Cass had even less voice. Her backstage encounter with Michelle Phillips seemed to have softened her attitude toward the Mamas and Papas, and she told the audience that she looked forward to making records with her old friends. The Vegas venture she passed off as an "ego trip." Cass told her audience that, in years to come, she would be happy if people would just stop whatever they were doing now and then to ask one another what had become of Mama Cass that girl with the pretty voice.  

The audience response this time was, if anything, more decisive. Walkouts began earlier, and made more noise as they went. A convention of two hundred fifty miners who had reserved an entire tier of the Circus Maximus left in a

group right in the middle of Walk On By. As the miners passed the baccarat tables in the casino, one of them told his wife about the time his great - grandaddy had seen and heard Miss Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, on her triumphal tour of the American West. "There was a singer," he said. "Never been one like her since."  

After Cass was packed off to bed at the conclusion of the second show, a conference began in Bobby Roberts' room which lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was finally decided to bring in a doctor from Los Angeles to certify the fact that Cass was sick. She would be released from her contract by mutual consent - hers and the hotel's - with the understanding that a future engagement could be talked about later.

Word of these decisions was held up until the hotel could find a suitable replacement for Cass. After a few phone calls, a small plane was dispatched to Los Angeles to retrieve Jose Feliciano, who had completed an exceptionally well - received engagement in the Circus Maximus the night before Cass opened.

Members of Cass's company were informed of the abrupt closing of their show by the removal of Cass's name from the giant marquee at the entrance to the Caesars Palace parking lot.

Before sunrise Tuesday, however, the story of the ill - starred opening spread all over Las Vegas. Stars. in other shows along the strip gossiped in their dressing rooms about Cass's problems. "What should happen," one of the town's top performers said, "is that Bobby Roberts should go on in her place, do his tap dance routine, and then explain to the audience what Cass was doing here in the first place." Tuesday afternoon, while Cass was receiving friends in room 301 of Caesars Palace, the Las Vegas radio stations were reporting that Cass had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Waitresses at the Noshorium told their customers that Mama Cass had awakened in the middle of the night to find her pillowcase all streaming with blood.

From Las Vegas, an unidentified source wired several Hollywood gossip columnists that Cass had been unable to perform because she was strung out on hard drugs. The washroom attendant behind the door marked Caesars on the casino floor heard none of these alarming stories.

"What I heard from the gentlemen who came in here last night," he said, "was that it was just a plain bad show."  

But Cass is comfy now, home in bed. Las Vegas blurs in and out of focus like an unwanted dream. She talks about other things. How she wants to move to the Canadian Northland and build a house for herself and throw up an electric fence around it. How she wants to move back to New York and take rooms at the Dakota. How she wants Oscar De La Renta to build a wardrobe for her, which would include a little plastic anonymity suit Cass could put on when she wanted to travel incognito among the people. How she wants to get into movies and help make Hollywood once again the film capital of the world.

Cass searches for an image that will help pull the saga back into focus. "There was a line I used on stage about how since I'd left the group and become a single there'd be just me and Julie Andrews fighting it out for those parts. Mason said it was the only line in the whole show anybody laughed at -  - he wrote that line - and I said yeah, it was a funny premise, but it wasn't me and Julie Andrews, only I couldn't figure out who it was, but now I know who it is. It's me and Vanessa Redgrave. That's because I really identify with Isadora Duncan, not with Gertrude Lawrence or Sarah Bernhardt. Definitely Isadora. I know that woman. Isadora Rules. That's California humor. I don't understand it. It's just not sophisticated enough for me. I'm sorry. Definitely Isadora." Isadora's gay scarf flaps breathtakingly near the flashing silver spokes of an egg - yolk yellow Aston Martin streaking through Laurel Canyon. Music is issuing from the spokes, which blur into guitar strings clogged with fur. There is blood.  

Flashing steel thrashes the fur, which flies in many directions as Baby Cass is lowered to the stage riding a cardboard moon - crescent.

Cass falls to the stage, grasping her throat as small tattered sables scamper underfoot. The sables are naked, and have been crying.  

"I've done some spectacular things in my life," Cass is saying. "Things that have nothing to do with the Mamas and Papas. I mean I'm equipped for all kinds of careers, folks, but we're not talking about that. We're talking about my professional career on the stage. We haven't even mentioned my daughter. Why is that? What about my career as a mother? I think that career is a word that I don't like. Is career what you decide to do with your life, or is career something that you must have. I mean there are some people who can't live their lives without a career, and there are a lot of people who live very well without careers. I don't have any ambition, folks. I've never had any ambition.

I've just thought if I was in the right place at the right time and I was working. . . and whatever goes down goes down, right? I could have been a pharmacist. I'd make a good one. I'm jolly."