In Paul Cowsill's rental house, a framed milk ad hangs on the wall, coated in a film of dust.
The photo shows five grinning teen-age brothers, their pug-nosed little sis and adorable mom -- the singing family known as the Cowsills, who from 1967 to 1970 had 3 million-selling singles and became the real-life inspiration for TV's "Partridge Family."
"Star status means a round robin of filming movies and commercials, taping new hits, giving interviews and making jet jaunts all over the world," says the magazine ad copy.
Then, faster than you can sing "I love the flower girl," the Cowsills vanished form the public eye. Behind the feel-good veneer was a demanding and abusive father who managed the family like a mini-military.
When the band split up, so did the family. Hurting from memories of a painful childhood and bankrupt, many didn't speak to each other for 15 years.
"We weren't the Osmonds," said Paul Cowsill, now 48 and living in University Heights. "We were white trash. Everybody knows about the goodie-goodie, peaches-and-cream thing. But what people were perceiving was not what was happening."
But time has softened their bitterness, and now the Cowsills are trying to regain the spotlight they once shared. Four siblings have a new CD and are performing together again. There's talk of getting everyone together onstage for the first time in 30 yrs.
"If you watch some of the old footage and you see those young kids, I get the feeling it should have ended differently," said Bob Cowsill, once a teen heartthrob who now works for a computer software company in the San Fernando Valley. "If it would have been tended to a little differently, it could have made life easier for some of us. There were seven kids and seven reactions. Each one of us has a story."
Drugs and sex
Flashback to 1967: Race riots and anti-war protests flare, Jimi Hendrix's guitar screeches and Janis Joplin belts out her raw, vulgar blues.
Against the angry backdrop emerges the soothing harmonies of hte Cowsills. Their effervescent pop floated up the Billboard chars, a featherweight counterbalance to heavy times.
"Back then it was drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll and the Vietname War," said Bob Cowsill, 50. "And here we come, saying families are OK. Teen-age boys are OK. The message was 'Just be happy,' and it took off."
The fairy tale began in Newport, R.I. their mother was 15 when she had Bill, the first of seven children. Their father, Bud Cowsill, was a Navy man who worked nights as a McDonald's manager to support the brood.
Bud brought home a couple of guitars form one of his trips to sea. Bill, 8, and Bob, 7, taught themselves to play and started performing at ladies' luncheons. Then Beatlemania hit. The duo decided they should add a drummer and a bass player -- younger brothers Barry and John.
Dad drove them to gigs at fraternity parties in a beat-up station wagon. When Bud retired from the Navy in 1965, he took over managing the band. The boys started playing in local bars three nights a week. That's where a "Today Show" producer spotted them and invited them to New York.
The fame came quicky. A talent agent thought having the boys' mother sing along would add more novelty. Bud like the idea. So did MGM, which promptly signed them.
To the four bothers who considered themselves budding Beatles, it sounded terrible. "It was kind of a shock," Bob said. "We were rock 'n' roller."
But they didn't argue. They didn't dare. "My father ruled the roost," Bob said. "He would lay the law down, and that was that."
In 1967, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts, becoming the band's first million-seller. Bud soon enlisted the youngest Cowsill, Susan, 7, and Paul, 15, who really wanted to play baseball but had to quit because of a bad math grade.
That left one child, Richard, Bob's twin. He was never permitted to perform with the rest of his siblings. Instead, he was relegated to toting luggage and equipment on the road.
Richard, now 50, remembered his father letting him try out on drums when he was about 13. The audition lasted less than a minute.
"You can't sing. You can't perform. You have no talent," Richard recalled his father saying.
Richard enlisted in the Army in 1968. That year, the Cowsills hosted their own TV special, which closed with Susan dedicating "What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love" to brother Richard, fighting in Vietnam. "It's one of the sad legacies that follows us," Bob said. "As an adult, I sit and think 'How could you do that? How did you keep one out?' I don't get it and I'll never get it."
Richard came home from the war addicted to heroin. Now living in Newport, he says he's been off drugs for eight years and has a successful career in multilevel marketing.
"My father was a sick, sadistic man," Richard said. "We weren't a family. We were a stage production."
But to the legions of teeny-boppers fans, the Cowsills were a picture-perfect family. Vicky Sedgwick, 43, of Los Angeles, was a fan as a pre-teen. She fell head over heels for John Cowsill's freckles and smile. "I wanted to be a part of the family or marry one of the brothers," Sedgwick said.
The family had moved into a Santa Monica beach mansion. Television writers stayed with them to gather material for the TV series that would become "The Partridge Family."
The children were going t play themselves, but Bud refused the deal when producers wanted to cast Shirley Jones, rather than his wife, as the mother.
"At the time we were more famous than this TV show being pitched to us, so it didn't seem like a bid deal," Paul said. "Besides, we were getting older and moving on."
By 1970, the happy family facade was showing chinks. Bill, then 20, resented the bubble-gum image. When Bud suspected him of smoking pot, he kicked him out of the band. "That," says Bob, who by this time was 19 and whose marriage to a model was covered in fan magazines, "was the beginning of the end." Bob tried to take over his older brother's leadership role, but he felt like, "McCartney without Lennon."
The next two records fizzled. MGM dropped them, London Records picked them up, but they were never able to match their earlier success, and that label eventually dropped them, too.
Soon, it became apparent that poor management and bad investments had drained the family fortune. The bank foreclosed on their house. Auditoriums were near empty.
And then one day, it was simply over.
Bob went and got his first job - sweeping garage floors. "We had to find a way to survive on our own," he said.
With some struggling to find a way to support themselves and others battling drug and alcohol addictions, family members did not speak to each other until the 1985 funeral of Barbara Cowsill, their mother, who died of emphysema at age 52.
As the reminisced, four of the Cowsills - Paul, Bob, John and Susan - started thinking it might be nice to play together again.
They've been working on a comeback ever since. Last year they produced a pop-rock CD, "Global." They've sold 800 copies on their Internet Web site, and believe when word gets out, they'll sell many more.
These days, Paul, Bob and even Richard say they have come to terms with their difficult past and have found happiness.
But a tinge of bitterness remains. Every so often, Paul Cowsill hears an oldies station play one of the old hits. "What ever happened to the Cowsills?" the DJ muses.
"I give the finger to the radio," Paul said. "I respect and love everyone who remembers me, but at the same time I don't need to hear about all that stuff. It won't pay the bills."
About 17 years ago, Bob Cowsill began performing in Pickwick's Pub in the San Fernando Valley. He still plays there one night a week and draws a crowd of regulars for his acoustic set of Beatles tunes and music.
On a recent Saturday night, Bob, Susan, Paul and John played for a capacity crowd of about 200.
Several dozen fans from as far away as Texas squealed at the infectious rhythm of "Indian Lake" and delighted in the foursome's flawless harmonies.
"We've come full circle," Bob Cowsill said. "We are still viable. This music is a resolution to the Cowsills' story. It's what we would have become had we stayed together."