A wise person once told me, "The past is a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there." I understood what that meant, but frequent visits sure do go great with a quad espresso and a snowy Sunday morning.
For many of us growing up in the 1970's, long before ADHD was the 'diagnosis du jour,' it wasn't uncommon for youngsters to belong to fan clubs. There were fan clubs for just about everything; your favorite recording artist, movie or television star, or even that chiseled athlete or voluptuous model. I seem to recall Mr. Peanut from the Planters Peanut brand even having a fan club! Fan clubs were often sanctioned by the objects of our affection (or their representatives) allowing us the unique ability to receive first hand information from those icons that we faithfully and unequivocally worshipped and supported. For me, it was The Carpenters fan club, more specifically, Karen Carpenter.
It's difficult to imagine that on February 4, 2013, it will be thirty years since the world lost Karen Carpenter. At just 32 years of age, it was heart failure (brought on by the eating disorder anorexia nervosa) that silenced (arguably) one of the most gifted female vocalists of all time. Along with her brother Richard, Karen Carpenter dominated 1970's radio with a sound that is still coveted by many of today's top music makers, not to mention millions of lifelong, diehard fans like myself.
I was no more than 9 or 10 years old when I first heard 'the voice' of Karen Carpenter. Sitting in a barbershop chair in Worcester, Mass., I desperately fought back tears that were beginning to fill my eyes. Sadly, those tears were not triggered by Karen's extraordinary vocals, nor were they for Richard's masterful arrangements; they were in fact, the direct result of having my hair chopped off against my pre-pubescent will.
In those days, it was the opinion of a lot of young boys that the longer your hair grew, the cooler you became. I must have been pretty cool up until that day (or so I thought), as my hair was now resting upon my shoulders, parted perfectly in the middle of my forehead. All of that, however, was about to change. Before my eyes, I watched that "hipster halo" land below my feet, now just a pile of dirty blonde locks. With every attempt to block out the sound of those vicious scissors racing around my ears, I suddenly began focusing my attention on what was coming out of that little transistor radio in front of me, wedged between an assortment of clippers and combs.
There was a calming in the singer's voice; a rich and velvety timbre that soothed my breaking heart. I had never heard anything like it before. Similar to the first time I heard the sound of a piano, the experience felt life-altering. I believed her when she sang those lyrics to me, "on the day that you were born the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true." Okay, I was a gullible kid and (now that I think about it) probably not fit to carry a superlative of any kind, let alone one with the word "cool" in it. Nonetheless, with every note she sang, I longed for more until the song began to fade out ... as did the sound of those annoying clippers. My haircut was finished. Riddled with a look of shock on my face from the buzz in my cut, no doubt my Dad had felt my pain so he agreed to take me across the street to Zayre's Department Store where I would purchase the record I heard on that radio. That was the day my life took an unexpected turn ... I fell in love with Karen Carpenter.
I couldn't wait to get home to spin that record. I played it so many times that the vinyl started to wear and the record began to skip. That's when I found out there were more Karen Carpenter records! Two albums and a few singles. I spent every penny I had buying all of them.
I joined the Official Carpenters Fan Club after finding the address in one of those teen magazines. I can actually recall the excitement that raced through my body when my mom handed me that large manila envelope. I had just gotten home from school and all I wanted to do at that point, was to get ready for my favorite television show, Dark Shadows. Barnabas Collins had just been double crossed by Angelique the day before, and I was afraid that he would be trapped inside his coffin forever! I glanced at the envelope which was stamped, "DO NOT BEND" in bright red. Then I saw the return address which was stamped in bold blue ink -- "CARPENTERS FAN CLUB." Suddenly, Barnabas could wait. I opened the package and inside of it was a black and white 8x10 photograph of Karen Carpenter and one of Richard Carpenter. There was also a membership card with my name on it and a bright colored flyer featuring illustrations of fan club memorabilia available for purchase. They offered cool things like a Daisy keychain for 25 cents and a large white pennant with a bright orange logo for $1.25. There were also giant-sized posters, pencils and even a gold Florentine pen. All of the memorabilia had their cool Carpenters logo on it! The real prize, though, was the one that was neatly folded and tucked inside the envelope; a hand-written welcome note from someone who would end up leaving an indelible mark on my life forever, perhaps even more so than Karen Carpenter.
Her name was Evelyn, "Ev" as she often signed at the end of her monthly 'Carpenter newsletters.' Ev was not just a dutiful, middle aged personal assistant to Karen and Richard Carpenter; she was also the Fan Club concierge. Administering the daily activities of an increasingly popular fan club, as well as handling the daily schedule of her employers, surely must have been daunting tasks for Evelyn Wallace, yet somehow she made it her mission to make sure that I would never feel a disconnect with my idols. Her personal note to me was one of many more that I would receive over the next several years.
It wasn't uncommon for me to come home from school and find an unsolicited package waiting from Ev; be it an autographed photo or record, or sometimes a box of chocolates for a particular holiday or oftentimes, a greeting card just to let me know that I was being thought of. It didn't stop there either. Each time the Carpenters returned to the New England area to perform (they were born and raised in New Haven, Conn.) Evelyn would arrange for me to go backstage so that I could say hello and have my photograph taken with them. I'm not going to lie, I felt so very special. Those pre-teen and teenage years can be excruciating for kids, myself included, so when someone you've never met has validated your existence with VIP treatment, you can't help but feel extra special.
To my surprise, many years later (with the advent of Facebook) I began to find out that I was not alone. My VIP treatment wasn't an isolated situation; Evelyn had left her benevolent handprint on the lives of countless other Carpenters fans as well. I found myself reading stories about exact scenarios that I had experienced, often resulting with the same debt of gratitude. Evelyn clearly understood that we were young people first; not just "fans" who worshipped her employers, but that we were human beings with energized feelings (often hazed and misunderstood) and that our quest for an autographed 8x10 was likely more of a cry to be accepted, to be understood and ultimately, to be loved. Evelyn recognized her unique position and with it, she empowered so many of us with confidence, with affirmation and yes, even with love.
Thankfully for me, I hit the jackpot when I joined the Carpenters Fan Club because I got a lot more than posters and pens, I got "Ev."
On February 2nd, Evelyn Wallace will celebrate her 91st birthday. I am happy to report that she is still inspiring me and the countless other lives that she has touched along her long and glorious way. Happy Birthday Ev!
I hope that anyone who reads this has an "Evelyn Wallace" in their life because she sure has made all the difference in mine.
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