Monday, February 18, 2008

Yesterday once more

The following is a column by Register columnist Randall Beach

A SMALL GROUP of New Haveners tossed a valentine Thursday to two local heroes, Karen and Richard Carpenter.

The idea of a Valentine’s Day hometown remembrance for the Carpenters came from Bill Hosley, executive director of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society.
But Hosley, now 52, was a “Deadhead” when he was a teenager, favoring the Grateful Dead over the soft-pop tunes of the Carpenters.
“I was at Woodstock,” Hosley told me in the lobby of his museum a few minutes before the Carpenters tribute. “And I loved The Who.”
“But,” he added with an ironic, mischievous smile, “when nobody was watching, I’d put on the Carpenters because I thought they were brilliant.”
Now Hosley is out of the closet about being a big fan of theirs. He happily pointed out a displayed document from Mayor John DeStefano Jr. proclaiming Feb. 14 “The Carpenters’ Day” in New Haven.
Hosley put a great deal of work into researching the duo for his historical presentation Thursday night. He used YouTube to enable a sold-out audience of about 50 people to see fascinating Carpenters music videos, performances and interviews from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He also pulled up photos from the siblings’ childhood in the Annex section of New Haven.
“Their ideas, ideals, talent and passions were shaped by the conservative, substantially Italian, outer-rim suburban neighborhood,” Hosley said.
Richard was born in 1946 and Karen in 1950. They lived with their parents, Agnes and Harold Carpenter, at 55 Hall St. until 1963, when the family moved to California because Agnes wanted her son to pursue a career in show business.
During their New Haven period, the Carpenter kids attended Nathan Hale School, then Richard went on to Wilbur Cross High School. At Cross, Hosley noted, Richard started his first band. Among other venues, they performed at Patty’s Pizzeria on Boston Post Road in 1962.
While Richard studiously concentrated on his music and usually kept to himself, Hosley said Karen was “a gregarious tomboy who loved baseball, delivered the New Haven Register and played ‘army’ with a neighborhood gang at Fort Nathan Hale Park.”
In California in 1964, Karen took up the drums. Within a year she had joined her big brother in a jazz trio.
Hosley showed us the earliest clipping of the Carpenters performing: playing “Dancing in the Street” on a TV show in 1967. Karen sang and played drums; her drum solo was so impressive that the museum audience burst into applause.
The Carpenters hit it big in 1970 with “Close to You,” then followed it with another smash, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” They sold more than 100 million records.
But Hosley said the demands of doing 550 shows in three years “guaranteed burnout.” Besides, neither of them relished being pop stars.
Hosley added, “The public gaze apparently terrified this attractive but self-conscious young woman who, like Britney Spears, was unequipped to deal with the pressure.”
For nine years she battled anorexia. Hosley showed a photo of her in 1977. She weighed 83 pounds.
“She died at her parents’ home 25 years ago last week,” Hosley noted. The cause of death was heart failure induced by the effects of anorexia.
Hosley called it “a disgrace” that the Carpenters are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said rock music critics have long derided the duo for being “squares,” overlooking their musical inventiveness.
“Richard Carpenter keeps a low profile and is protective of their legacy,” Hosley told us. He said they have communicated but Richard is clearly tired of the “bittersweet” questions.
Hosley still hopes Carpenter will visit his old home. “New Haven will welcome him with warmth, enthusiasm and respect.”
We were then treated to a performance of Carpenters hits by New Haven cabaret singer Anne Tofflemire and pianist Andrew Rubenoff. The mood was warm, wistful and evocative as the duo played “Yesterday Once More,” the very sad “Rainy Days and Mondays” and of course “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Sitting in the back of the room and smiling was Richard Cavallaro, who taught both Carpenters at Nathan Hale School.
“You knew even then he was going to be somebody,” Cavallaro recalled. “He was a different boy, happy with his music. She was out there with everybody.”
Cavallaro said he kept in contact with them after they moved. “She was in New Haven the month before she died. She didn’t want to see me; she was sick.”
Speaking of Richard Carpenter, Cavallaro said, “I wish he would come back.”
Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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