Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow, and oh-so-mellow ...

Long before Robert Goulet turns up at the Palm for lunch, bringing with him an hour's worth of Las Vegas sunshine -- black leather jacket, black caterpillar mustache, zip-up boots, electric red sweater, gold chains -- he goes on the radio. It's WAVA's early show, called "The Morning Zoo." There are two loudmouths hosting it.

They ask Goulet something about Jerry Lewis. This comes out of the blue. Goulet is probably more interested in answering a question about "The Fantasticks" -- the show he opens tonight at Wolf Trap -- but he plays along, a pro.

"And do you pal around with Wayne Newton?" one of the loudmouths asks. There's a subtextual joke, it seems, lurking behind all this: Jerry Lewis, Wayne Newton, Robert Goulet. Maybe it's a black-hair joke, a Vegas joke, a joke about show biz types living in the Sunbelt. The Lewis telethon, Newton's belt, Goulet's love songs, perhaps, could merge to form a monument of kitsch. It's a Mount Rushmore of Successful Squares.

"Pal around with Wayne Newton?" responds Goulet, straight man of the century. He seems puzzled. His voice comes out of the radio and shakes the speaker. It's like that movie gimmick, Sensurround, or something breaking through from the fourth dimension. His voice is beyond baritone; it bypasses the eardrum. You hear it in your blood. "No," he says. "He lives about a block and a half away and we never see each other."

At the Palm, a few minutes before Goulet gets there, a couple of Palm guys stand at the big reservation book. One breaks into a lousy wobbling tenor rendition of "If Ever I Would Leave You," Lancelot's weepy love song from "Camelot." He holds his last off-key note interminably. He grins hugely at the other guy. It's a joke -- this old show tune, his bad voice, these big Broadway emotions. Goulet must be used to this. It happens wherever he goes.

If ever I would leave you ...

Goulet arrives. Friendly and vital, he's a kidder, a flirt, a nice guy. His smile is almost too white. His hair is almost too black. His eyes, behind the brown aviator glasses, are almost too blue. Surrounded by Zombie Life -- charcoal steaks, charcoal suits, the typical business lunch -- his walk bounces like a teenager's. He turns 57 in November and plays the aging King Arthur in "Camelot" now, but quite frankly, Crosby, Stills and Nash look older and more dissipated.

If ever I would leave you ...

Goulet laughs. He's been on the David Letterman show and survived. In "Scrooged," he wore black tie and poled down the bayou singing "Silver Bells." He was playing himself. He had a cameo -- also playing himself -- in "Atlantic City." And in "Beetlejuice" he just played a character close to himself -- a rich square. In his last scene, he's catapulted through the ceiling.

"Oh sure," he says, "if you can laugh at yourself, then you're okay."

Thirty years ago at the Persian Room, the old nightclub in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, women threw their hotel room keys on the stage when he sang, and sometimes their underwear. In 1960, he became the first Lancelot when he was 27 years old, and got Broadway celebrity at a time when Broadway celebrity was golden and big and all over. It led to Hollywood and TV -- "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Dean Martin Show," "The Perry Como Show." Goulet sang at the White House for Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He's done Vegas shows, concerts, nightclub gigs. In the '70s he did Merv and Mike Douglas and was willing to sit between the likes of Charo and Wally Cox on "Hollywood Squares."

There's symmetry to Goulet -- the longest-running Broadway star -- doing "The Fantasticks" -- the longest-running musical. He's spent years on the road -- "Camelot" and "Carousel" and "Brigadoon" and "Kiss Me Kate" and "South Pacific." You name it. There isn't anything left to do that he hasn't done already, he says, except maybe if they gave more songs to "the old guy" in "Paint Your Wagon."

He was married for 13 years to Broadway star Carol Lawrence -- the original Maria in "West Side Story." Maria and Lancelot. She went on to do coffee commercials for General Foods International Coffees, developed a revamped, watered-down kind of fame not unlike Rosemary Clooney's.

Last spring, her book "Carol Lawrence: The Backstage Story" came out. It's mostly about her marriage to Goulet, which ended in 1976. She has some rather unpleasant things to say, mostly about his drinking.

Still, he has a million fans.

There's a club of them.

And they write, asking for his picture.

Question: Is there a typical Robert Goulet fan?

Goulet: "Yes. About 78 years old. Crippled with arthritis. Blind. In a wheelchair. And saying, Help me. Help me. My husband has a flat tire."

Over lunch, his sense of humor -- among other things -- becomes clear. He starts by discussing his brilliant idea for an invention that will make sleeping on airplanes easier. It has something to do with Velcro straps circling your forehead and chin, keeping your head upright on the seat. (This doesn't sound particularly attractive, he's told. "It could come in different colors, darling," he says. "Make it out of fur, if you want. I don't care.")

He has traveled to Washington with his third wife, Vera, a Yugoslav, and one of his six cats, Vincent, an Abyssinian.

Vincent and Vera and Goulet don't travel on Delta anymore. "It used to be that only two people had permission to carry animals {on board} Delta," he says, "Zsa Zsa Gabor and me. But Zsa Zsa had a big fight with them one day. She let her dogs out of the cage -- running up and down the aisles -- and she was thrown off the plane, I think." Because of Zsa Zsa, his animal rights were rescinded.

In "The Fantasticks," he plays El Gallo, which he describes as "a great mature role." He dresses in black for it, with a red bandanna. The musical makes a grueling 40-city tour, which goes until next May, but he doesn't complain. During a break in January, he'll be making "Naked Gun II" with his good friend Leslie Nielsen. Goulet plays the heavy.

He keeps breaking into song. Hang around Goulet long enough and it's like mainlining show tunes. Mostly he's doing self-medley, bits from "Paint Your Wagon," since he's started thinking about it. I still see Elisa ... Another autumn, I've known the chill before, but every autumn I feel it more and more ... Leaves are movin' faster along the ground ...

Every morning and evening he does isometrics. He watches what he eats. He doesn't gamble. He never goes to see the Vegas showgirls perform. He never listens to his own recordings -- "I can be awful," he says.

He wants a lighthouse.

"I'm nuts about lighthouses," he says. "There are a couple for sale still, you know."

For your house in Las Vegas?

"In Monterey somewhere," he says. "I want to build a Tudor, not a mansion, say, but that feel. And in the back, I'd like my own little den but it'd be the top of a two-story lighthouse with a walkway all around. Wouldn't that be great?"

Somebody tells a Robert Goulet joke:

A hack producer is trying to raise money for his musical. He's unsuccessfully pitching his idea to a would-be investor. He says, "You know, we've got Webber doing the music."

The investor says, "Andrew Lloyd Webber?

"No," the producer says, "Joey Webber."

The producer continues: "And we've got Sondheim doing the lyrics."

"Stephen Sondheim?"

"No. Ivan Sondheim.

"And," says the producer, "we've got Goulet."

"Robert Goulet?"

"Yeah."

After lunch, Goulet's maroon limousine takes him around the corner to National Public Radio. He sits in a flaming orange and yellow soundproof room. It looks like a set from "Laugh-In" and it's competing horribly with his red sweater. Two young NPR staffers -- both women -- wait outside for autographs. One of them is also a self-described Elvis freak. (Elvis, by the way, once pulled out a pistol and shot a television that was broadcasting a Goulet performance.) The other says she's going to frame the drawing Goulet made for her.

Talking to NPR's "Weekend Edition" host Scott Simon, Goulet becomes jazzed by the medium. He's all voice. And he deserves a microphone.

"I'm not a recording artist anymore," he says to Simon. "Nobody's going to record me, Robert Goulet. I'm dead meat in that area."

"It pains me," says Simon, "to hear you refer to yourself as dead meat."

"Well," says Goulet, "I am."

Goulet hasn't done a casino show for three years now. He misses it sometimes. Nightclubs are dying. "Those days are gone," he says. "The people coming up in the ranks -- the kids with the guitars -- play in stadiums. You want to tell Boss Springsteen that they'll pay him $200,000 a week to do 14 performances in Las Vegas?

"He's going to say, 'Are you out of your mind? I get $200,000 for untying my shoelace, for God's sake, and for doing one performance, not 14.' "

Carol Lawrence, in her book, describes Goulet as a hard-working, romantic, sometimes gloomy man. She mentions his "intense sex appeal" and "that incredible smile of his." He was mobbed by women.

"His assets were obvious," she writes of first meeting him, "but he couldn't act -- at least that's what I thought after seeing his performance {in 'Camelot'}. It seemed as if he were vain and phony, as if he were trying to imitate Richard Burton, who played Arthur."

The first time she watched him sleep, she says, "there was a vulnerable sweetness about him that made me forget the bravado and boorishness."

Their relationship started to wobble, she says, when Goulet and Lawrence did "Carousel" together a couple of years after they married. (It was the second marriage for both.) She struggled for perfection. He had a casual approach to rehearsals. She got great reviews. He didn't.

Later on, his drinking interfered, she says, and her soul-searching began. She found God at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, read self-help books, went to Al-Anon and Lifespring. She couldn't get Goulet interested in any of it. Toward the end of their marriage, she says, Goulet became a gun lover who slept with a loaded, cocked rifle and a .45 magnum by the floor next to the bed.

Fifteen years ago, Goulet acknowledged he had a drinking problem, and he occasionally drinks wine now.

"You can ask me," says Goulet about the book, "but I'm not going to say anything about it."

Did you read it?

"No. I'm not going to read it," he says. "My wife told me a couple things about it."

He was very surprised Lawrence wrote it, "after all these years," he says. "We were friendly -- this is what kills me. Even our two boys -- our two sons -- were upset and really hurt by the fact that she'd written it. Why Mum? There are lots of reasons why, but I'm not going to give any."

Goulet and Vera went on "Entertainment Tonight" -- to clear the air -- last spring when the book surfaced. "I had to," he says, "because Carol was really going to town on all these shows -- twisting things. ... Obviously, there's a lot of pain involved," he says of all divorces, "especially when it comes to kids." Their sons, Christopher and Michael, are 25 and 24 now.

Goulet lived on his 75-foot motor yacht -- the ROGO -- in Marina del Ray for five years after his separation from Lawrence in 1976. He married Vera Novak, a model turned sculptor and photographer, in 1982 in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas.

Wayne Newton was their best man.