Frank Pooler dies at 86; choral director mentored the Carpenters

Frank Pooler, a choral music director at Cal State Long Beach who was instrumental in the early careers of Richard and Karen Carpenter and co-wrote their classic carol "Merry Christmas Darling," has died. He was 86. November 1974 photo of Pooler directing a class.
(Cal State Long Beach)

Frank Pooler, a longtime choral director at Cal State Long Beach who is credited with helping the 1970s pop group the Carpenters develop their signature sound, has died. He was 86.

Pooler died Jan. 19 in his Los Alamitos home after a short battle with lung cancer, said his wife, Rhonda Sandberg Pooler.

Frank Pooler: In the Jan. 26 LATExtra section, a photograph with the obituary of longtime Cal State Long Beach choral director Frank Pooler should have been credited to the university, not the Los Angeles Times. —

He began teaching at the school in 1959 and founded the choral studies department. Among the students he mentored were a gangly brother and sister, Richard and Karen Carpenter. The two were studying music, Richard playing piano and Karen on the drums, when they landed spots in Pooler’s choir.


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Pooler soon began to encourage them both to sing and compose, instead.

“Frank was unique in his ability to nurture talent and give it wings to fly,” said Leland Vail, a former student and colleague who teaches music at the university.

As the duo rose to fame, Pooler continued to mentor the Carpenters, who often popped into classes to play their latest recordings. They credited Pooler with teaching them his “voice blending” technique, which would become instrumental in the Carpenters’ trademark soft vocal harmonies in hits such as “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Close to You.” The duo later performed several benefit concerts at the school.

“He was the only one down there who actually understood what we were after, and he stood behind us all the way,” Karen Carpenter, who died in 1983, said of him in a 1978 radio interview.

Though he was celebrated in the world of choral singing, Pooler was best known for co-writing “Merry Christmas Darling,” one of the few modern tunes to join the anthology of holiday standards.

The song was co-written by Pooler and Richard Carpenter, a couple of 20-year-olds separated by two decades. In 1946, the year Richard was born, Pooler, young and lovesick, penned the song for a sweetheart. She never received it, but Pooler published it and filed it away.

Twenty years later, when Richard and Karen Carpenter sought Pooler’s advice for ideas on a new Christmas song for their holiday set, he remembered “Merry Christmas Darling.” He showed the lyrics to Richard, who wrote a new melody in about 15 minutes. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts upon its release in 1970.


It was a long way from home for a Midwestern boy who had grown up fishing along the Mississippi River.

Frank Mairich Pooler was born on March 29, 1926, in Onalaska, Wis., the elder of two sons of Frank Eugene Pooler and Florence Mairich Pooler.

At age 6, two neighbor girls invited him to Sunday services at their church, where he heard the choir sing. “That’s where I first got turned on to music,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Onalaska Courier-Life, in 2007.

It was a passion that never left him. Pooler picked up tenor saxophone in junior high, and by the time he graduated from high school in 1944, he had started a children’s choir at a local church.


He went on to study music at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, acclaimed for its a cappella choir.

While there, Pooler’s choir director gave him a chance to take the helm of the group. “I think I’ve found what I want to do,” he said after leading the choral singers.

He remained in the Midwest through the 1950s, earning a bachelor of music degree from St. Olaf’s, where he met and married his first wife, Marie. After he received a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa, Pooler taught music at a college in Illinois, where his daughters were born. His marriage to Marie ended in divorce.

After arriving at Long Beach and starting the university’s choral studies department, he helped establish its jazz studies program, one of the first in the state, a decade later.


During his 29 years as choir director, Pooler earned a reputation for his exacting standards and unorthodox style, experimenting with avant-garde choral music and translating contemporary Norwegian arrangements that were little-known in the United States at the time.

Pooler met his future wife when she was a freshman in his choir, and they married years later.

She survives him, along with two daughters from his first marriage, Jane Blackman and Susan Dewey; three grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a brother.

A memorial service is planned for Feb. 23 at Grace First Presbyterian Church, 3955 Studebaker Road, Long Beach.