Wednesday, July 25, 2007

'Mama' Cass Elliot (1941-1974)

While assisting a library patron today, who was looking for a football article from our microfilm of the Scranton Times on November 1, 1970, suddenly appearing on the screen was an article titled "Mama of Momma Cass Ex-Scranton Resident." Who knew that this larger-than- life vocalist of the legendary 60s group The Mamas and the Papas (and a gifted solo artist in her own right) had a connection to the Scranton area?

According to the Sunday Scranton Times article "Mama of Momma Cass Ex-Scranton Resident," written by Sid Benjamin (11/1/1970, pages B10 and B11), Cass Elliot's (AKA Mama Cass's) mother Bess Owen and grandmother Ida Benewitz were both originally from the Scranton area.

When the article was written nearly 37 years ago, Bess Owen was residing in Wilkes-Barre and beaming with pride at her daughter's triumphant October 24th appearance on the Andy Williams Show. Bess was then in Wilkes-Barre on temporary assignment by the U.S. Social Security Administration to help in the processing of the overwhelming number of "black lung" applications.

Also in the article, Cass's mother Bess Owen recalled her childhood living in Scranton with her father, Joseph Levine, who operated a tailor shop on Adams Avenue, and her mother Ida Benewitz .

In addition, the family also lived in Edwardsville, PA for a time, where Bess was a classmate of Scranton business and civic leader Vivian Edwards at Wyoming Seminary.

'Mama' Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland (where the Cohen family moved from Edwardsville, PA) and, as far as I know, has never lived in the Scranton area. Her singing career began as a member of the folk music group The Big 3, then exploded as a member of The Mamas and The Papas (California Dreamin'; Monday, Monday; I Saw Her Again Last Night; Creeque Alley; and Dream A Little Dream of Me--which served as a springboard for Elliot's solo career). As a member of the Mamas and the Papas, Cass also was instrumental in organizing 1967's legendary Monteray Pop Festival in San Francisco, CA.

After the group disbanded in 1968, Cass Elliot (she hated being called Mama Cass) embarked on a successful solo career with such hits as It's Getting Better, California Earthquake, and Make Your Own Kind of Music. She also hosted two of her own prime time television specials (1969's The Mama Cass Television Program and 1973's Don't Call Me Mama Anymore--which featured an appearance by her mother Bess); Cass also made numerous guest appearances on talk shows (she even guest hosted The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson) and variety shows in the early 1970s. Additionally, Cass had a featured role as Witch Hazel in the 1970 film Pufnstuf and played an "animated" version of herself (as a candy factory owner) in a memorable episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies (October 20, 1973).

Cass Elliot tragically died of a heart attack in London on July 29, 1974, following a two week engagement of sold out concerts at the London Palladium. She was only 33 years old. Unfortunately, to this day, there is a persistant (and false) story that Cass Elliot died choking on a ham sandwich, which her autopsy proved was an incorrect assumption.

An excellent biography of Cass Elliot titled Dream A Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot, written by Eddi Fiegel, was published in 2005.

Several CDs by the Mamas and the Papas, Cass's solo anthology Dream A Little Dream: The Cass Elliot Collection (which was produced by her daughter Owen) as well as DVDs of The Complete Monteray Pop Festival and the documentary California Dreamin': The Songs of the Mamas and the Papas, are available to borrow from several libraries throughout the Lackawanna County Library System. In addition, our library also has the soundtrack to the film Beautiful Thing, which is comprised completely of Cass Elliot's solo hits and songs from the Mamas and the Papas (her solo songs play an intregal part to the film).

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