It’s easy to feel smug and superior about older pop culture when we pass judgment from the safety of current day. But the Mama Cass Television Program, new on DVD from Classic World, defies such sneers. If anything, it’s a well-rounded and richly entertaining show, full of sweetness, gentle humor and remarkable music.
Cass Elliot starred in the ABC pilot in 1969, not long after quitting the Mamas and the Papas. The network didn’t pick it up, so this is it. But the one-hour variety show — shown here with all its original commercials! — had much to recommend it, starting with Cass herself.
Sure, she wasn’t the most photogenic of stars, but could she sing? Oh yes. And she sings often here, along with such guests as Joni Mitchell (doing a spot-on Both Sides Now solo on acoustic guitar), Mary Travers (doing a rousing And When I Die) and old NY pal John Sebastian (doing a lovely She’s a Lady and then a cute duet with Cass for Darlin’ Companion; Cass, Mary and Joni also perform a stirring I Shall Be Released.)
In short, the show is in keeping with the folk and folk-rock music from which Cass emerged as a star — and is light years better than what passes for music on TV today: tuneless “singers” lip-synching to banal “songs” while a dozen irrelevant dancers try distracting the audience from the “music’s” shallowness and utter lack of creativity or meaning. (There, had to get that out of my system, especially after suffering through the “music” acts on the Miss Universe Pageant.)
There’s also some so-so comedy from Buddy Hackett, but a nice, tender sketch involving him and Cass as hospital patients. Martin Landau and then-wife Barbara Bain also are tossed in for marquee appeal and fleeting entertainment (they do a number from Carbaret’s stage show), but don’t really fit this bill.
Cass steers fairly clear of her Mamas and Papas roots, except for a California Dreaming/Monday Monday medley at the end, and a lively — and I do mean lively — reworking of the group’s cover of Dancing in the Streets. This show’s theme song, Dream a Little Dream of Me, also arises and is arguably a Mamas and Papas release, even though it was a Cass solo.
Extras include a wobbly TV appearance by Cass with Sammy Davis Jr. and a recent-years John Sebastian interview about their deep friendship. You also can watch those TV ads (including Bernadette Peters for Playtex bras) separately.
Overall, this is a solid show, not only well worth preserving in this way, but well worth watching again and again (perhaps not every moment, but many). Cass would live for only another five years, which makes it even more precious.