WHEN WE MET, PART 4 ("There Must Be a Beginning")
Finally the day had arrived. I was to go on-stage for the first time. My first thought was, “Thank heaven I don't have to iron my hair to straighten it. I'm in Vegas!” My long black naturally-curly-wavy hair hung just short of my waist, so it was Trouble in humidity. The arid climate accomplished that chore for me. “Now... Please let me get room service this afternoon?”
I went down to my dressing room at 7:00, dressed and got my makeup on, then went down the hall to Elvis' dressing room's “greeting- living room” to get my hot tea with lemon and honey which was a must for me before any performance or recording session. The bar had just what I had been told it would... Cheeses, nuts and fruit, raw veggie snacks, coffee and tea, bottled water, and of course hard liquor for guests, those who dared or those who didn't have to sing or perform. The room was clattering with chatter, two or three guys behind the bar mixing drinks for themselves. Everybody friendly, helpful, laughing loudly. Elvis was in his private dressing area preparing for the show. I grabbed my hot tea with lemon and honey in the “now-so-memorable”Hilton white with yellow - striped cup/saucer and carried it to my dressing room. Now, just a few “hmmms” higher than usual (I wasn't going to be singing in a “normal” range nor as low as my speaking voice so I needed to do a voice/sound check).
“Delivery for Miss Westmoreland?” I heard down the hall near the elevator. A beautiful array of flowers was handed to me, signed “Happy and Successful Opening Night! There Must Be A Beginning”, Love, Stu. (Mr. George Stuart, owner of the Birdcage Theater at Knott's Berry Farm, who kept track of each one of us who had gone on... those of us he called “Birds who have Flown”, the man who gave Steve (Martin) and I our first “Home Base” job in 1963 doing what we loved to do best, allowing us to experiment, develop our comedy acts, musical numbers, and giving us more experience with “live audiences” (this can not be bought—anywhere) while we performed four melodramas a day for years, followed by our olio specialty acts. (Five shows on Sundays) “George, thank you”, I said to him as I remembered this rule in show business:
“You Are Only As Good As Your Last Performance!” I placed the flowers in my dressing room and waited endlessly, checking notes I had made,words/lyrics to possible songs, praying that I'd be able to create something when needed, blend with the other voices when necessary and not make a total fool of myself and get caught singing alone (“Never Get Caught Singing Alone” was another rule for a backup singer unless one was supposed to do as I was and ad-lib alone when called for) and at the same time I pondered “no-one knows what Elvis is going to do from second to second”. The adrenaline was beginning to kick in as it should have (if one has no adrenaline burst, he or she had better get out of show business and do something else.)
I listened to the“Sweets” and Sammy Shore over the intercom, then knew it was time to take my place stage left for Elvis' time on-stage was about to begin just after the upcoming intermission. As I exited my dressing room I ran smack-dab into a white streak sprinter... Elvis...
His smile was brilliant,eyes sparkling with laughter as he said, “ I just wanted to tell you to have Fun! Don't Worry About Making Mistakes!” followed by a wagging index finger as he said, “But when I point at you, you'd better sing something, Kiddo!”
My face must have had a bewildered look, because he followed that with “I'm just kidding you! Just have Fun! We are only here to make people happy... and have Fun!” He then raced back to his dressing room so fast I wondered, “Does this man ever just walk anywhere? But it was very nice and unusual for anyone I was working with to say anything before a show... trying to put me at ease.”
I waited in the wings for Sammy to finish, the curtains closed, stage-hands frantically re-arranging everything for Elvis' set, musicians setting up and tuning their instruments. I placed myself and music stand to the right of the Imperials. (Ha! No music... just a black folder clamped with page after page of lyrics, and marks as to where I was to do a solo... IF Elvis “went into” without warning any one of 600 songs.
John Wilkinson was the first to offer a welcome
as he was setting up and tuning. “If you have any questions or
need anything, anything at all, just let me know, okay?” He was
very handsome and very sweet to offer help, and this allowed me
to take a deep breath, try to calm down and concentrate.
One dinner show down! Midnight show right after dinner break. Whew! I quickly changed into street clothes and muddled over “Now what was THAT number he did? If I only knew he planned to do that again!” I locked my dressing room door, made a right turn to rush to the coffee shop before a huge crowd gathered, but there again was “Mr. Flash”streaking to me in a blaze. “No, he must not know how to just walk anywhere”. By the time I glimpsed his head peeking around the corner way down the hall, he was right “at me”. “We heard you, Honey!We could hear you!” His smile made me believe he wasn't unhappy with my feeble attempts. “You did Great! See you in a bit, okay?” And I had no time to answer... he was gone streaking to his dressing room to greet a host of guests and John asked me if I had plans for dinner. No, I did not, and I was so happy not to have to attempt to fight the crowds to find any one of several dining rooms to eat dinner in. I believe we had to go to another hotel on The Strip to have our dinner in time for the second show, but John had his car, a cute light blue Thunderbird which had belonged to Charlie Hodge... for a minute, but Elvis insisted Charlie sell John his car for $1.00, and he bought Charlie another new one. This was to become such a challenge for Charlie, forever being told to give his new car to someone else, then getting another one the next day. “I just learned early on never to leave anything I own in my new cars,” he laughed when I asked him about it one day.
The Hilton in 1970 was out in the middle of this vast desert all alone, and quite a good distance from the Main Boulevard, “The Las Vegas Strip” so off John and I went to eat a nice dinner and make it back in time for the Midnight Show.
The next show was a blur also due to the crowd's even more hysterical behaviour. Drinks only being served didn't help. I really don't recall anything much but trying to hear myself, Elvis, the girls, the men right next tome... to no avail. Remember, sound systems in 1970 were primitive compared to this millenium. A maze of electrical cords to twist one's ankles in high heels, or just trip over, and mike-stands and monitors offered quite a challenge to a performer. “Don't trip! Feedback! My monitor only has the bass in it! I can't hear myself or? Oh, Wow! Is that woman hurt? An entire group of rabid people just fought over the scarf Elvis gave her and twisted her neck, two guys are in a fight over there and oh, LORD! Underwear and hotel room keys are being thrown on the stage? A couple of Elvis' guys caught that woman just as she grabbed Elvis' neck! Another caught two men headed right for him and... Haaaaaaaaaaalp!... And don't forget to “concentrate, focus, and SING SOMETHING!... anything that fits into what you can't hear, Kathy!” is all I remember telling myself, hoping My Self could hear me. Even my forever steady-as-she-goes “Inner Self”was begging to “Exit! Stage-right, left, up, down or? If I could fly! Only need to make it to the sandy desert outside and become oneof those snakes that slither just beneath the sands... Oh, please! Let this be over! Get me and all of us out of here alive and in one piece, please? THIS IS DANGEROUS! My fear of only being as good as my last performance disappeared and there was now an unfamiliar and unimaginable new fear. Losing one's life at an early age. We were all in danger of dying on that stage.