June 1970
Twenty Questions for Mama Cass
By Frederick Todd

Mention her name in any kind of crowd, and everybody flips.  People young and old “dig” her, admire her, and call her a major talent of our time.

When she was barely twenty, Mama Cass Elliot became the lead singer and powerhouse behind one of the country’s top rock groups, The Mamas and the Papas.  After the group broke up, she went it alone and became a top solo vocalist with some updated renditions of Golden Oldies from the 30’s and the 40’s.  Now, in 1970, she’s making her movie debut as Witch Hazel in Universal’s “Pufnstuf”, a deliciously zany screen adaptation of the popular NBC- TV series.  Look for it this summer.

When we found out that Mama Cass was willing to call American Girl from Hollywood for a telephone chat, we started to panic.  What kind of questions, we wondered, do you ask a phenomenon like Mama?  So we tracked down a couple of dozen teen-age girls, and asked them to compile a list of questions they’d like Mama to answer.  When she finally called us, we were ready.

Here’s the conversation, almost word for word, from the moment we told her about how we got our list of questions.

Mama says, “Very interesting!  That’s great!  Like talking directly to the girls.  What do they want to know?”

When is your next TV special?

“Late May or early June--- I think.”

Will you be making another record soon?

“Yes.  I’m going to make an album.  I have a few songs picked out for it, but I’m still looking for material.”

Why did you decide to record those old numbers like “Dream A Little Dream of Me”— and why do you think they are so successful today?

“Simple.  I enjoy singing them.  They have pretty melodies, and the ones I sing say the same things that the songs of today are saying.  Things about life and love and heartbreak and having your dreams fulfilled.  The form of a song or the approach changes from generation to generation, but the basic message is the same.  At least that’s how I felt about it, and it looks as though I was right.”

When you broke with The Mamas and the Papas were you certain you could make it as a single?

“Oh.  I had apprehensions!  My reason for leaving the group was not to make it as a single.  It was to make it as a mother!  After my daughter was born, I realized my life was going to be revolutionized.  When you’re in a group it’s your whole life.  All your time, interest, energy belonged to it.  I couldn’t stay with the group and devote to my daughter all the attention she needed.  The choice was simple.  She came first.”

Would you consider joining another group in the future?

“I might.  Someday.  It would depend on who the people are and the kind of music they want to do.”

What’s your little girl’s name and how old is she?

“Owen Vanessa.  She was three the twenty-sixth of April.”

Will you tell us something about her?

“Well, she has blue eyes and blond hair.  She has just started going to nursery school, and she loves it.  She likes music a lot, and she sings along with me.  She watches me on television and tells me whether I’m good or bad.  She’s a very good critic!”

Would you want her to go into show business?

“I don’t think that question’s even worth asking anymore.  Show business is an occupation, it’s a big job, it happens to be what I do for a living.  If Owen turns out to have talent, and if that’s what she wants to do, then by all means.  Just so she’s happy.  That’s the key word.  If she wants to be a happy secretary, that’s fine, too.”

How old were you when you got really started?

“Nineteen.  Before that I had done some summer stock—between school terms.  I got my basic feel for the business that way.  But I was nineteen when I found my stride as a singer.”

When The Mamas and the Papas first joined forces, did you have any idea the group would be such a hit?

“We knew from the very beginning that we were good enough to win a Grammy.  In fact, we made a little side bet on it—that we’d win.  And we did.  I’ve never told anybody about that until now.”

Are the other three still together?

“No.  John just finished an album on his own.  Denny I expect to be recording one.  And Michelle is in Dennis Hopper’s new movie.”

What is your favorite singing group today?

“Well, I’ll always like The Beatles first.  I like Three Dog Night.  Probably my American favorite is Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.”

Do you have any tips for teens who would like to be singers?

“My advice is precisely the advice my mother gave me.  If you believe you have talent, the next thing you must have is determination.  If you keep working, keep striving, and try always to move forward a little bit with every job you do, you’ll eventually make it.  And I believe that!”

But where does a young person go—and what does she do—to break in?

“You know, there are local stock companies all over the country and there must be a million little theatres in America.  I still think they’re the best way to start.  You can go out and audition to be one of the chorus kids, you can be an apprentice, hang around people with experience, and watch and observe and absorb.  If there’s no job to be had, invent one!  Volunteer!  Sweep the isles!  Make yourself useful!  Sooner or later you’ll get noticed.

“Very few people can walk right off the street into a recording studio and become an instant star.  It doesn’t happen that way.  All parts of show business are interrelated.  If you learn it from the inside out, it’s yours forever.  Look!  If all I knew how to do was sing, when this movie came up I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  With a grounding in stock, you’re ready for any opportunity when it comes knockin’ along.  And if you absolutely refuse to give up, it’ll come.  Believe me.”

Did you have fun making “Pufnstuf?”

“An absolute ball!  Working with Martha Rae was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Where are you living now?  Where’s home?

“In Hollywood.  Beverly Hills.  In an old house.  I grew up in one, in Baltimore, Maryland, and modern houses make me uncomfortable.  Also, I like country-type living.  I come into contact with so many people in my work that I like to be able to get outside where there are trees and grass.  Alone.  Or with Owen.”

Are you going to make any personal appearances soon?

“I hope so.  Maybe this year.  Tour the country in concert.”

What’s your interpretation of the Woodstock weekend?  What did the whole scene mean?

“I think it means we have a generation of kids here who communicate more with one another on a direct, honest, uninhibited, what some people call “gut” level than any other generation before them.  And, as it happens, the new music is their major means of communication.  Now, I think this thing is going to continue and spread—to the point where there won’t be such a vast information gap between all of us.

“The kids are in a position to pull it all together, because they have it all at their finger tips.  And more and more so-called “adults” (whatever that word means) are tuning in to the fundamental message that these kids are communicating.  And what is it but love!  Understanding!  Tenderness!  Compassion!  Tolerance!  Peace!  All the things man kind has been promising itself for five thousand years, but never delivering!”

What about drugs—in connection with the new music and the new style of life this generation represents?  Do they have to go together, as some young people seem to think?

“Of course not!  I think the whole drug bit is highly over publicized.  Let’s face it.  It sells newspapers.  Oh, I’m not saying that drugs are OK, and I’m certainly not recommending them.  They’re dangerous, they’re deadly, and everybody knows they are.  In big cities, the situation is very serious.  I know.  And isn’t it ironic that the illegal drug marketers, all big businessmen, in their own way, get rich while their young victims take the rap?

“What people have to understand is that some of the kids are experimenting with stuff that is forbidden—as kids always have.  In the Twenties and Thirties it was bathtub booze.  A lot of people died from it.  I’m convinced that the majority of young people are a lot straighter and more concerned about their lives, their country, and the future of the whole world than they’re given credit for being.”

What is your personal ‘impossible dream’?

“Wow!  OK.  To tell you the absolute truth, I’d like to get married again, have six or seven children, and live all over the world.”

And on that note we said goodbye.  Mama’s last words were, “Tell it like I said it.”  Your wish, Mama, was our command.