What would you ask Carol Brady if given the chance?
Inside a black-box rehearsal studio in Burbank, Florence Henderson’s manager was roaming the audience with index cards for anyone who wanted to question TV’s ultimate suburban mom.
Feeling as if I were still slumped in the back row of eighth-grade French class (when I’d raise my hand to ask, “What kind of vegetation grows in Alsace?”), I wrote: “Did you make Ann B. Davis actually clean your house?” My real question, which seemed too unwieldy for the setting, was: “What’s it like to be in the center of a cultural Zeitgeist for a while and then not?”
Henderson was rehearsing her new nightclub act, which she’ll soon be taking on the road, and this was her very first night in front of an audience. Due to the modesty of the theater, Florence entered through an exit door — “stage left.” She looked svelte and handsome and unbelievably well-preserved; it wasn’t just judicious cosmetic upkeep but also an inner fortitude often acquired by (or natural to) performers who spent their youths doing eight shows a week on Broadway. We soon learned that her determined sunniness also came by way of a tough childhood on a small Kentucky tobacco farm, with the happy ending of early success. She wore a striped jacket decorated with a bejeweled butterfly brooch and black slacks and a crisp white shirt, its collar laying flat over the lapel of the jacket. Her hair was short and streaked in shades of blond with a small, elegant rise near the back of the head. In the flesh, she possessed a vulnerability I had not detected on the flat television screen. With the help of songwriters Glen Roven and Bruce Vilanch, Henderson attacked the audience’s expectations head-on in her opening number:
Have I been lifted?
Have I been smoothed back into shape
by surgeons gifted
in taking wrinkles out of crepe . . . ?
Her song may have set up expectations for a different evening, one perhaps filled with bitchy revelations prompted by our probing questions. That evening was not to be. But there was the Dickensian childhood: Florence was the youngest of 10 children, the mother strict and scary, the father fond and alcoholic. The family was so poor that Florence would sometimes literally sing for their grocery money. Whatever else was wrong with the country in the Depression, though, Florence went across the river every day to attend a Catholic school in a much better neighborhood, where her school uniform hid her poverty from her mates. She sang at the home of one friend, whose parents took her to sing for a neighbor, Christine Johnson, the original Nettie in Carousel (meaning Johnson introduced the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to mankind). From there, it was direct to New York, where, within a matter of months, the 19-year-old Florence was singing for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and was cast as Laurey in the first national tour of Oklahoma!
While everyone else in the audience was waiting for the juicy parts, I was most riveted by the picture of the young Florence Henderson being called to sit at the piano next to Richard Rodgers and sing whatever the new song was at the Rodgers’ fabulous annual Christmas party. He was known to be an inveterate womanizer, and Henderson quickly put to bed any rumors that she and Dick ever, you know . . . It’s a tribute to her aura of wholesomeness that you almost believe her.
Henderson introduced the Brady part of the evening with the phrase “I never meant for it to happen.” But it did, and The Brady Bunch, which aired from 1969 to 1974, made her one of the most recognized women in America. She asked us to all sing the theme song with her. My husband the ex-counterculture-hippie was the only person in the audience who did not know the words. The story she seemed to need to tell most was of her relationship to Robert Reed, or a man named Brady.
“We all knew he was gay,” she said, “and no one cared at all.” She seemed proud of herself and the whole Brady clan for not caring. When he got sick, it fell to her to inform the television family, and she found this job to be one of the hardest she ever had to perform. She spoke with uncharacteristic bitterness about a “rag” that reported he had died of AIDS. By rag, she meant Geraldo Rivera on something called Now It Can Be Told. She easily could still connect with her rage over what she saw as a heinous act; she believed that someone with compassion should tell America how hard it was for Reed to play the most famous heterosexual father in America. And now she was doing it herself.