Denton’s Randy Schmidt gains national attention by giving the skinny on superstar Karen Carpenter

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer

Randy Schmidt
TELL ME YOU LOVE ME, BABY | Schmidt never expected his little bio to become the must-read beach book of the summer. (Photo courtesy Zachary Stefaniak)

Legacy Books, 7300 Dallas
Parkway, Suite A-120, Plano.
July 9 at 7 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, 2201 S. I-35 East, Denton.  July 10 at noon.

In 1989, a casual viewing of a made-for-TV movie changed the life of 13-year-old Randy Schmidt. He just didn’t know it yet.

When The Karen Carpenter Story aired on CBS, Schmidt became immediately enthralled with both the voice and dramatic life story of the smooth ‘70s crooner, who died of anorexia nervosa in 1983.

“Her warm, rich tone was like velvet, and I’d never heard anything like it,” Schmidt recalls. “She sang so effortlessly and so simply, but there was a great deal of depth and soul that came through in that simple delivery. The voice was the main draw, but the story was so shocking that it reeled me in as well. I remember feeling a great deal of compassion for Karen. I wanted to learn all I could about the woman and her incomparable voice.”

Schmidt’s infatuation turned to expertise on the subject of the Carpenters, leading him to work behind the scenes on documentaries about the Carpenters, including E! True Hollywood Story, A&E’s Biography and VH1’s Behind the Music, as well as a book that was a compilation of articles, interviews and concert reviews entitled Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and Their Music.

But he knew there was still more to Karen’s story, not just a chronicling of her and brother Richard’s singing careers. And so began years of research for what would become Little Girl Blue, a 300-page biography that’s a detailed account of the singer’s battle with fame, eating disorders and her squeaky-clean public persona.

“There came a point in time during this project where I had to distance myself from my ‘fan’ ways of thinking. I also had to stop worrying about pleasing everyone and just focus on telling the truth of Karen’s life story. At that point, I did begin to dig a little deeper and ask the tougher questions. And I’m glad I did. I think it paid off,” he says.

His research included multiple trips to Los Angeles and her hometown of New Haven, Conn., to interview those who knew Carpenter best  — journeys made while Schmidt was raising two daughters and teaching full-time in Denton.

“It’s been challenging, to say the least, and there were many, many late nights to meet my deadlines. I conducted a number of phone interviews before and after school and on weekends. Summer breaks were the times I could get the most work done. It was something I made time for, since it was something that meant a lot to me. The last year of the project was really tough in terms of juggling everything and maintaining enough creative energy to go around.”

Schmidt says his partner of a year-and-a-half is his biggest fan and a huge source of support as the momentum built surrounding the book’s release this month. It has generated buzz and has created a renewed interest in the singer’s life. A feature in The Dallas Morning News and a long segment on Entertainment Tonight are just two of his favorite experiences surrounding the publicity so far.

“I got a call from my publicist the day before school was out for summer break and she was very nonchalant when she told me, ‘We have a request for an interview.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay, what is it?’ She replied, ‘It’s Entertainment Tonight,’ and we both laughed hysterically!” he says. “I expected my first TV appearance to be something local, not ‘the most watched entertainment news magazine in the world.’ I flew to New York a few weeks ago and taped at CBS Studios on Broadway, right above the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman films. I had a makeup lady and an awesome lighting guy. It was hard coming back to the real world and fluorescent lighting.”

He just heard that People has chosen Little Girl Blue as its book pick for its July 19 issue — no surprise, since the bio reads like a juicy novel, a great beach read. The storytelling is compelling and his access to Carpenter’s inner circle appears to be unprecedented, including a last-minute meeting with Frenda Franklin, who was Carpenter’s best friend and matron of honor at her wedding.

“They were friends from the early 1970s and were going together to sign Karen’s divorce papers on the day she died in 1983,” he says. “Frenda is extremely protective of her memories of Karen and rarely has spoken about their friendship. Frenda’s OK came in very late — just in time to make my deadline.”

It was an emotional roller coaster the day he spent interviewing Franklin in her Beverly Hills home. Also just weeks before his deadline, he received a call from Olivia Newton-John.

“I was elated, as you might imagine. She and Karen were close friends over the years, and Karen’s nickname for her was ‘ONJ,’ which she pronounced ‘Ahhhnj.’ So ONJ and I finally met up for a phone interview. That was a thrill.”

Schmidt is deservedly pleased with the final book, even though it was never approved by anyone in the Carpenter family.

“As with most projects initiated without his blessing, Richard is most likely unhappy with the book. It does put his family in the spotlight, and I believe many of those I interviewed were less inhibited than ever before. Agnes Carpenter was still alive to see the release of the 1989 TV movie and a 1994 authorized biography, but she has since passed away. People were not as careful to protect her this time around.”

And it’s abundantly clear, page after page, that there were more skeletons in Carpenter’s closet than just the widely publicized eating disorder, making for a gripping, heartbreaking read, but also providing a front-row glimpse into the complicated life of a true superstar.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 9, 2010.