August 12, 2022

Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter

The passing of Olivia Newton-John has led to many wonderful tributes and stories. Some of the most touching are ones on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum, the stories where fans got to meet her face to face. It led me to think of my own time of meeting Olivia's dear friend, Karen Carpenter. 

For those of you who aren't aware, Olivia and Karen were very good friends.  She wrote about Karen in her book, Don't Stop Believin', and they were there for each other in good and bad times as good friends are... in Karen's case, Olivia was there from Karen's mid career years to her disastrous marriage and then at her funeral. Her in concert tribute performance of Close to You is even more precious now.
The friends together with Robin Gibb.
In the spirit of telling how human we all are, famous or not, I retell the following story with much gratefulness for being given the opportunity to meet both Karen and Richard Carpenter - and with a fair amount of sadness over the loss of one more musical icon of my youth. 

Beyond my vast collection of Carpenters, I probably own more Olivia music than any other artist.  Back then, I discovered the first album I bought, Come On Over. In typical teenage boy fashion, I hadn't heard much of her music aside from the country types songs on the radio, but I bought the album for the cover. Little did I know I'd like what I heard in the grooves. A lot.

Thanks to my wife, I'd see Olivia live twice. Once during the Physical tour and once in the 90s. Our seats were so good that I could see the lines on her face. She was older- like the rest of her fans- but every bit as beautiful as in her younger years if not more so. Something time gives us as we age gracefully.

One day I will post all the photos I have of Olivia and Karen together, but above are a few of my favorites. For now, please enjoy my own tale of meeting a musical idol face to face and enjoying a bit of conversation with her. 
The Night I Met Karen Carpenter
Long time readers of this blog or those who share on the A&M Corner discussion boards have never really read the story of me meeting my favorite vocalist: Karen Carpenter. Until recently, I never even thought that I hadn't told the story, but in researching for this post, I discovered I shared a bit of it as part of my review of one of their live albums.

The year was 1976, just shortly after the release of the Carpenters'  "A Kind of Hush", a soft and sweet pop confection that wasn't the highlight of their career (perhaps even, sadly, marking the beginning of their less than stellar chart performance in the latter half of the 70s), but it quickly became a sentimental disc for more than a few reasons.  

I was finally of the age to go to Las Vegas, and I knew the duo would be performing at the Riviera Hotel in July. Living only a 5 hour drive away, it wasn't a tough job to convince my sister to go with me. It's a good thing I did as she is the one that got us backstage. But that part of the story comes later.

Reservations booked to stay at the hotel and for two shows. The dinner and late night show the first evening, and the return home on the second. Besides the expected clothing choices I packed, there were two very important pieces I just had to bring: my trusty camera to document it all and a "Cooking for Two" cookbook I had planned to give Miss Carpenter. Just in case.

The opening act.

Looking back now, perhaps the duo and their management in particular had learned a bit from the unfortunate debacle with singer Neil Sedaka the previous year, Karen and Richard's opening act was comedian David Brenner. I do not remember much about him except the fact that his monologue was filthy. Funny, yes, but filthy- and I'm no prude. I grew up on late night television and watched Johnny Carson regularly with my grandmother. Probably I can't recall much as I wasn't there to see him. I could hardly wait for Karen to grace the stage.

Rather than recount the song list, which was remarkably similar to what appeared on Live at The Palladium (reviewed by me here), I'll focus on the evening itself. 

We weren't seated in the best seats, but I bravely tipped for a better one- and much to my surprise, it worked. We had a fairly good view of all the action to come. I could hardly stand it. I have to thank my sister for being so patient with me while I had total geek out moments all night.

Starting with the voiceover announcing Richard and the swell of the opening music, it was time for the real show to begin. He walked out confidently to a good amount of applause, and then he took a modest bow and his place at the piano. As "Flat Baroque" gave way to "Only Yesterday", my heart pounded as I heard Karen's voice while she was offstage. When she walked out on stage, the crowd erupted with applause and even a few hoots and hollers. This lasted who quite awhile, making it pretty clear that in the public's mind, Karen was the star. How hard that must have been for Richard night after night! 

The opening words of "There's a Kind of Hush" came playfully from Karen once we had all quieted down. Her extended phrasing on the words "all over the world" proved she could milk that line for all its worth. It was sensual and enticing, creating an intimacy with the audience and making it feel as if only two people were in the room. This is something Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits would never have been able to pull off. (Love their stuff and their version of "Hush", but c'mon.) What a great way to begin the song! After hearing her sing this song live, I wished she and Richard would have done the same treatment of it on the album version of "Hush". Imagine having two versions- the 45 as it was and the differing "Vegas" arrangement. Had it been 1978 and not 1976, to do this this type of slow start would have been all the range a la Donna Summer's version of Last Dance

Anyway... if any of my close friends or family had ever doubted I was a Carpenters fan before, my sister was there to tell them as of that night, there would never be a doubt. Not only was Karen lovely, she was quite the performer. Regardless of all the great music and showmanship that came after this, I could never really take my eyes off her the rest of the night. Every time I listen to "Palladium", I get that same rush. It's instantly yesterday once more. 

One listen, and I'm back in Vegas...

Following it with a delicate and heartfelt version of "I Need to Be in Love" proved Karen was every bit as gifted in person as she was in the studio. Since this is really isn't an album review, I'll stop here. (But let me say the infamous Grease medley was a lot of fun to watch in person!) 

Between performances, we walked out of the showroom. Then came concert number two- as precisely perfect and an exact copy of the first one. I walked out dazed, so impressed with the talent of my favorite duo. Then the unexpected happened. 

A bit of Grease pre-Olivia and Travolta- and a lot of falsies.

God bless her- my sister had the guts to ask the security guard if we could meet Karen and Richard backstage. He left, and we waited. As thrilled as I was to see Karen and Richard in concert, I would never expect I would get to meet them. Returning with an affirmative answer, we followed him backstage. I just panicked inside. What if my favorite singer was rude or uninterested? I'd be heartbroken.

As it turned out, thankfully, my fears were unfounded. Karen was down to earth and friendly. I noticed how small and thin she was, but she did not look unhealthy. I remember thinking she was much prettier in person, beautiful really, more than any photograph could capture. 

We spoke briefly with her, Karen asking if we enjoyed the show and me thanking her for the music. I was surprisingly untongue-tied. I remember sharing my favorite songs with her, mentioning "I Need to Be in Love" and "Solitaire".  She smiled politely, and said she was glad I enjoyed it. I handed her the gift, and she thanked me. It seemed as if she was genuinely touched by my generosity and thoughtfulness. But in comparison, what could I give the woman who gave me so many hours of listening pleasure?  

Bummer of the night? I had no film left in my camera as I has used all my shots for the evening's performances! After a few more words with Karen, we walked by Richard, who was sitting in a room. He briefly waved and then returned to business matters- and the many women who were waiting around him. My sister and I were then escorted out to the hallway from which we entered. 

I was dazed, surprised, and oddly affected. Perhaps at peace knowing my favorite vocalist was a lovely and kind, real live woman. The most important piece of the night would come a year later when Karen would be used to introduce me to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

(Top photo copyright Andre Csillag / Rex Features)


There are also numerous stand alone posts about Karen and Richard Carpenter highlighting different aspects of their career, recordings, and life. I've also written extensively about their music, album by album, and how each affected their career and my life. Since there are parts about my life, you'll also get a glimpse of what it meant to grow up in Southern California during the 70s.

Below is the list of my initial reviews and then my "Revisited /Fresh Look" reviews a decade later. 

My Initial Reviews of the albums:

August 11, 2022

Epcot: Encanto, Spain, or Transforming Morocco?

D23 is around the corner. If Lin-Manual Miranda has his way with Bob Chapek, Imagineering's next addition to World Showcase at Epcot will be a Columbia pavilion to play home to the animated hit Encanto. Will it get further along in concept than the once planned Spain addition?

As seen in the last pages of the Open Day Booklet for EPCOT Center in 1982, Spain was announced and clearly on the horizon. A few of the future expansions came to be (Horizons, The Living Seas, Morocco). You could say that an Equatorial Africa of sorts was realized in Disney's Animal Kingdom, but a full blown Israel was never realized.

The grand opening of Morocco at Epcot.

On that note- Will Disney defile the Morocco pavilion and transform it into something else, thereby dishonoring our friends and neighbors in North Africa? Good Lord, I hope not!

There was even an on site billboard promoting the Spain addition.

Take a look at this terrific piece of concept art. How rich in detail, how ambitious! Could Chapek's Epcot ever offer something that feels so authentic when the recent France addition is cute but more themed to an imaginary animated Paris rather than something that feels more like the original buildings around it? No, I don't think so either.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 10, 2022

Notable and Quotable: Elizabeth Elliot

"Our loving heavenly Father is a compassionate God who seeks the very best for us. Because of this, however, our Creator is also a jealous God who intends that we worship Him and only Him.

God’s jealousy, however, should not be interpreted as a sign that God is uncaring or sinister. God’s jealousy is a righteous jealousy for His people. God wants what is best for us, and what is best is this: nothing other than God."

                        Elizabeth Elliot- Author and wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot

August 8, 2022

Goodbye Olivia!

Such sad news for a Monday! I'd been blessed to see Olivia Newton-John live in concert twice. Grease made me laugh, her albums - and their covers- made me smile. Even watched Xanadu a few times. ;) 

Pop hits to country to lullabys, Olivia could do it all with style, grace, and loads of charm. Her duet partners were numerous, everyone from Cliff Richard to Andy Gibb, to ELO, John Farnham and beyond. (Oh how I wish she'd done that much talked about duet with her good friend Karen Carpenter.)

I wrote about her quite a bit on the Insights and Sounds blog. Here. Here. Here. A look at the hits and more and a look at her view on life. There's even several more places right on this site waiting to be discovered. And a good amount of photos, too.

What a lovely lady. May she rest in peace.

(Photograph by Claude Mougin.)

What Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Really Needs

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge does have some great atmosphere and one really compelling attraction in Rise of the Resistance, but if there's one thing that Walt Disney World's new Galactic Starcruiser has proven, it's this: The suits took some of the best concepts for the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land and saved them for the upcharged, super expensive hotel experience. But there's a better option if the suits think it all through.

Does Disney really want to hold their lead with Universal Orlando's new Epic Universe park? This could be a good start: Who wouldn't like a speeder bike attraction that could compete toe to toe with Island of Adventure's great Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure? Just take a good look at this concept art!

Not only would an attraction like this bring some much needed kinetic energy to a pretty motionless and lifeless land, it would create a well rounded, varied roster of attractions for fans of different ride genres: simulators (Millenium Falcon: Smuggler's Run), dark rides, (Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance) and coaster (Imperial Speeder Bike Race or whatever extended name the Imagineers would give it). 

Round out the land with a new more affordable table service restaurant akin to that found on the Star Wars: Galactic Cruiser, another bar to spread out the guests needing liquor, and you'd finally have a land that you could spend hours in without having to book Oga's Cantina or pay that outrageous fee for the light saber experience at Savi's Workshop.

Will Disney announce something of this caliber for D23? No- but they should.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 7, 2022

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge from the Air

I'll tell you in tomorrow's article what Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge really needs to round out the experience and turn it into something that can do battle with Harry Potter's world at Universal Orlando, but for now, take a look at this great photo of the land found in Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's a beautiful shot! You get a great view of Millenium Falcon: Smuggler's Run as well as all the shops and restaurants in the main portion of the land. In the outback, the entrance to Rise of the Resistance is slightly hidden, only to be easily found by the very long line of visitors who head to Walt Disney World to get the ultimate Star Wars adventure. 

(Photograph by Bioreconstruct.)

August 5, 2022

Two Gilly Waters and a Butterbeer Please!

In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort, the creative men and women have given guests multiple opportunities to gently separate them from their hard earned dollars. 

Gilly Water and Butterbeer are just the right refreshers on a hot, humid, Florida day while you sit in for a break between Escape from Gringotts or Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. All at a very reasonable price, no less.

A frozen Butterbeer still reigns supreme, and I can't wait for my next one, but there's a good bit of fun to making your own Gilly Water concoction. Kudos to Universal Creative for giving guests what they expect from a Potter experience without gauging them.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

August 3, 2022

Weird Carpenters

In what must amount to the strangest promotional ad for Karen and Richard Carpenter, this one for their 1971 concert at the G. Rollie White Coliseum on the Texas A&M campus has to easily beat out any competition. Is it hand drawn or silk screened? Hard to say. 

One thing is certain, the Carpenters were hot on the charts! At the time of this concert, their song Superstar became their 5th Gold single in a row behind Rainy Days and Mondays and For All We Know. The upcoming Hurting Each Other would go to Number One on the Billboard charts and become their 6th to go Gold. 

Just imagine paying only $8 to see a best selling musical act of their caliber! That is a weird thought!

August 2, 2022

Art Deco Life Guard Stations of Miami Beach

Talk about great composition! These life guard stations on Miami Beach, particularly those by South Beach, shine with a variety of cool art deco designs. Apparently the city commissioned a contest, and the line up of the top winners is pretty impressive. This photo from my one of my oldest friends shows them in all their glory. Quite the sight!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

August 1, 2022

D23 2022: Much About Nothing?

Will the Disney Parks and Experiences presentation at this year's D23 be something work our excitement? Will the planned displays for Tiana's Bayou Adventure and the "new" Epcot make us beyond excited? Most importantly, will these additions be significant even to compete with Epic Universe down at Universal Orlando Resort? 

In a word, "NO!" Walt Disney Imagineering may have very grand plans for each of the parks, but let's be honest- they are not running the ship that Walt Disney built. Bob Chapek is, and it seems he has little desire to really stay competitive by building the attractions that blow away guests expectations. He'd rather just increase profits by taking advantage of guests and offering less for more money. Disneyland, Walt Disney World or in any other of their resorts, fleecing the faithful is his course.

At this stage of things, I'm not liking what I'm seeing. The Bargain Basement Imagineering a la California Adventure 1.0 is about to begin again. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 31, 2022

Goodbye to My Favorite Disney Villain

Today I say goodbye to my favorite Disney villain, Ursula, from The Little Mermaid. Actually, her voice was provided by the wonderful Pat Carroll. I remember seeing her on television in the 1960's and her terrific, iconic, one of a kind laugh. You could tell, she just couldn't have been a nicer lady.

Dare I say that Pat as Ursula and Jodi Benson as Ariel made the movie memorable. Yes, the music by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is phenomenal, and yes, the animation superb. But the two main characters were charmingly dastardly and sweetly lovable, respectively. How great they played against each other!

At the opening of the Little Mermaid ride at California Adventure.

RIP, Pat! No one will ever have that great laugh!

July 29, 2022

Notable and Quotable: James

Straight up and pulling no punches, these words in the book of James 5: 5a- "You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence..." tell it like it is.

This verse has always challenged me. Embarrassed me. Made me humble and made me think. It's not a very pleasant thought. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." Jesus' words in the book of John liberate- but first they make us angry as we question our lives when He gets this personal. 

The 2010s changed my life and made me question everything I held dear- including how I use my money. It's really transforming to be introspective and honest with yourself. And sometimes it is just more than a bit disturbing.

July 28, 2022

The Hand of Walt Disney Created a Park the World Loves

It may be rougher than rough these days, but for my eldest son, few attractions say "Disneyland" more than the Matterhorn Bobsleds. This mock up of a proposed attraction poster is really quite nice! It's not in the cool blues and icy whites of what was finally chosen, but the Imagineer captured the pure joy of what it meant to ride the world's first steel tubed roller coaster. 

Even back then, Walt Disney preferred to be on the cutting edge of technology to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Under Walt's leadership, what he wanted was often completed. This is what gives his original Magic Kingdom such a different feel. You can almost sense him walking down Main Street U.S.A., sailing on the Jungle River Cruise, the Storybookland Canal Boats, or aboard the Mark Twain Steamboat

The man did it out of love- not corporate greed- and the world loved him and the park that was created. If only that would be the case today. I wish someone beyond fans and the handful of now mostly retired Imagineers had such a passion for the love of the art. If only.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Comnpany.)

July 24, 2022

Sunsets at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

The beautiful skies of Florida become even more vibrant and breathtaking at dusk- and for someone who loves Walt Disney World, viewing those skies with a magical backdrop make for some very special memories. How I wish these were mine! This wonderful photograph of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort from Disney's Polynesian Village Resort was taken by someone named Sharon on the Tikiman's Unofficial Polynesian Resort Pages on face book. Can you picture the shot of the Magic Kingdom? Yep, me too!

July 22, 2022

A Gorgeous Walk Through Epcot 2022 Food & Wine Festival

The Epcot 2022 Food & Wine Festival is here- and nobody covers it better than this unexpected source. Do you want to virtually visit this great annual event and get the lowdown on all the offerings but without any narration? Would you like to hear the music and absorb the atmosphere while seeing every menu offered? If so, the great video series A Walk in The Parks is just for you! Start your tour through the area formerly known as Future World and continue on through World Showcase. It's just gorgeously filmed... and again, totally engaging as it is narrative free. Enjoy it here.

July 21, 2022

Cousins Reunion

Not nearly as often as we wish it were, but the group of cousins were cheerfully reunited for a week together. Times goes by quickly, and days turn into years, but some memories will last forever.

(Photograph by Mark Taft.)