The idea of honey-voiced '70s pop icon Richard Carpenter owning a spiked truncheon seems unfathomable. Yet such an object is on display at the Carpenters Exhibit in the lobby of the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach.
This puzzling item was actually a gag gift offered by the manager of the brother-and-sister band on the assumption that Richard would attract so many crazed female admirers he'd need to "beat them off with a stick." (Curatorial signage dryly states, "It was never used.") The memorabilia collection was installed at fan request six years after the 1994 opening of the center, which was built with an endowment from the Carpenter family to the school where the siblings sang in choir.
Peter Lesnik, executive director of the center, notes that the Carpenters' following remains strong in England, Australia and Japan, and that visitors come from overseas to admire these pop relics. Pilgrims can pay homage to gold records, trophies, Richard's Wurlitzer 140-B electric piano and Karen's 1965 Ludwig Super Classic drum set. On the piano is the original lead sheet for "(They Long to Be) Close to You." A video includes clips from a visit to Nixon's White House and shots of the Carpenters' "Brady Bunch"-era home in Downey. Evident are the pair's sartorial evolution, from hippified granny-wear to '70s coordinates, and troubling frailty in Karen, who died at 32 in 1983 from heart failure caused by anorexia.
Lesnik admits there's a melancholy aspect to the band's story, but adds, "There was that quality to Karen's voice--a haunting quality. Their songs weren't all cheery bright lovey-love songs," he says. "There was a lot of depth." A Carpenters expert by default, Lesnik works near the endlessly looping video with its wall-to-wall sound, a saturation-level presence that could make even an ardent fan reach for Richard's spiked club. But, then again, these are the gentle sounds of the Carpenters. "I never get tired of it," Lesnik insists. "I never do."
The Carpenters Exhibit, Carpenter Center (6200 Atherton St., Long Beach), is open to the public the first Saturday of each month, 10 a.m. to noon. Free. Visitors are encouraged to call in advance, (562) 985-4274.