Florence Henderson: There was so much more to her than just the Brady Bunch

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Florence Henderson: Brady Bunch is her first TV series (1970)

By Dan Lewis – The Greenville News (South Carolina) April 13, 1970

NEW YORK — “I am an Aquarius,” said Florence Henderson, as she bounced around the set of The Brady Bunch at Paramount in Hollywood. “And this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius — that’s what the song says,” she noted gleefully.

Young Florence Henderson on the Today show - 1960s

In Miss Henderson’s case, the age of Aquarius seems to have arrived already. In the past year, she completed her first movie and made her first television series, which has been picked up for next year.

The pretty blonde singer from North Carolina captured the hearts of Broadway in the charming hit, “Fanny,” and remained one of the favorites of theater musicals through the late fifties and sixties.

But despite theatrical stardom, and the fact that she has been a big favorite in supper clubs in recent years, she had never made a movie until “The Song of Norway,” scheduled for release soon. She co-stars with Edward G. Robinson and Harry Secombe.

Florence Henderson in Song of Norway movie

On television, Miss Henderson has long been popular with the late-night set, a frequent visitor to The Tonight Show from Jack Paar’s days into the era of the current host, Johnny Carson. A television series was not practical before this season, because her main occupation was raising her own family.

She told me, “I felt it was time to do something different in television. The kids were getting older, and I could try a series. After all, I’m not new to TV audiences.”

Married to a Broadway producer, Miss Henderson has four children, two boys and two girls, all of whom were with her in Hollywood for the summer when she started The Brady Bunch. She brought them back for school in the fall, and they remained in New York when the series’ option was picked up after 13 weeks.

The Brady Bunch role came before the movie. She did the pilot last winter, then got the offer to do “The Song of Norway.” Supposed to be a 10-week project in England and Norway, it lasted five months.

It was a tight squeeze. After she had started the movie, Miss Henderson got word that ABC had bought the series, with Robert Reed (he used to be on “The Defenders”) as costar. She barely got back from Europe in time to start production in Hollywood on The Brady Bunch.

When she finished the first 13 episodes (the story is old hat — about a widow and widower, each with their own children, marry — but it has warm family appeal), Miss Henderson went off on a 10-city personal appearance tour to promote the series. Then she went home for a while to await the reaction.

Florence Henderson in 1966

“It was touch and go,” she confessed. One night, I ran into her at an opening in the Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel, and she gave me the glad news. “We’ve been picked up,” she said excitedly. “We’re going to finish off the season.”

The Brady Bunch, to put it mildly, did not exactly turn out to be rating a giant. But Miss Henderson said she had gotten confidence in the show from her own kids. They enjoyed watching it. She now credits the show’s inclusion on the network’s fall line up to the kid’s interest.

“If kids are any judges,” I recall her saying when we chatted on the set last summer in Hollywood, “then it will have a good chance.”

'The Brady Bunch' Stand In Hotel Lobby.
The Brady Bunch c1969 Photo by Paramount Television
Tang, the retro orange drink mix that astronauts & Florence Henderson liked

Florence Henderson: Despite her four real (and six reel) children, she’s liberated (1973)

The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) Jan 1, 1973

You would think a chat with Florence Henderson would be family, family, family . . . (A) because she has four children of her own (16, 12, 9 and 6); (B) because she is the youngest of 10 children who grew up in a small town in Indiana; (C) because she is the television mother of six on the long-running ratings favorite The Brady Bunch.

Vintage Florence Henderson

Dressed in red and blue plaid jacket with blue shirt and red slacks, petite, blonde Florence Henderson sipped at her black coffee and talked about being liberated, not necessarily a family topic.

“I’ve always been liberated, with the career and all. And I think women’s liberation has done many good things. If nothing else, it’s brought to the attention of the world the unjust things being done to women. The leaders of the cause are sometimes ‘masculine.’ I think that hurts. But that a woman should just do the cleaning and laundry, that’s wrong.”

50+ sexist vintage ads so bad, you almost won't believe they were real

Talented Florence Henderson has done it all — stage, screen, records, summer stock, television and live club entertainment. And the activity only makes her look younger.

Florence Henderson - 1970s with Brady Bunch mom hair

The actress-singer does put husband and children before career, however. Her husband, Ira Bernstein, is a general manager and producer, partially responsible for Broadway’s current smash, “Pippin.”

Their 17th wedding anniversary will be January 9. “People are always trying to get him to play the piano. We were at a party recently, and one woman insisted he was Leonard Bernstein. She kept after him all night to get him to play.”

The Bernsteins’ “real” children joined their mom this past summer, to travel as part of the club act.

“It was absolutely marvelous, so much fun. The kids loved it. And, through travel, they’re bright and mature.” Even a somewhat harrowing plane ride from Reno to New York didn’t faze children, Mom and Aunt Pauline (Miss Henderson’s sister who travels with the clan).

Florence Henderson being welcomed back to her hometown in 1964 – Owensboro, Kentucky

Florence Henderson being welcomed back to her hometown in 1964

Besides touching down in Denver after a hijack scare, the plane left a holding pattern in New York for an immediate landing because of a bomb scare.

“In Denver, they even wanted my needlepoint scissors.” A possible weapon. “How about that? A hijacking and a bomb all on one flight.”

Traveling has worked well for the Bernstein bunch. “It’s our way of life,” she said. “Not usual, of course, but for us it’s normal.”

Miss Henderson and her husband had just returned from a trip to London for a week at Walt Disney World’s Top of the World, an engagement which began Sunday night.

YouTube video

Bring on the Brady Bunch

The Brady Bunch, though a large family may be unfashionable, has ridden the top of the ratings game, not only here, but in South America, Australia, Japan, Thailand and Europe.

“Bob (Robert Reed, her screen husband) was in Germany, and saw the show. He said the voices were good, except they made Ann B. Davis (who plays the Bradys’ housekeeper) sound like a sergeant. ‘YOU WILL DO THIS.'”

'The Brady Bunch' TV Series - 1969-1974

Filming has been completed for the fourth season. and the pretty star (she’s 38 and looks 10 years younger) has no complaints about the schedule. “It’s great. We have so much time.” Time to open Feb. 14 (her birthday) in Las Vegas. And time to arrive at WDW four days early to enjoy the park.

“I would love doing more films,” she said. Her sole venture in this area was a successful one, “Song of Norway,” filmed during five months in the land of fjords. “We should have paid them. It was beautiful.”

With so many children in her life (real and reel), Miss Henderson admits “it took forever to learn the real and stage names” of the Brady Bunch. “We get along well; Bob and I even discipline them on the set.

“People ask me how I do it . . . two families. I pray a lot and take vitamin pills.”

YouTube video

There may be some of the small-town girl in Florence Henderson, but she certainly doesn’t look small town.

The vitamin pills are going to the right places — from the tips of the pixie-cut and frosted hair to the pink fingernails. A huge, square-cut diamond and large gold wedding band, both on the third finger of the left hand, spell class.

About The Brady Bunch: Meet the cast, see the opening credits, plus get the theme song lyrics

The family left behind in Dale, Indiana, still is closely knit. Her 76-year-old mother now lives in West Palm Beach, and one of her brothers resides in Lake Worth. A family reunion is likely while the six Bernsteins are at the Contemporary Hotel.

“My mother is something else, an inspiration,” she said. “She remarried at 75, is on a bowling team and belongs to a health club. If I called her and said, ‘I’m going to send you tickets to meet me in Australia,’ she would go. Such will and enthusiasm.” Like mother, like daughter.

Florence Henderson in 1977

In a career that began when Miss Henderson was attending New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts and won a small part in “Wish You Were Here.” she’s done it all — Broadway (“Fanny,” “The Girl Who Came to Supper”); stock (“Oklahoma,” “Sound of Music“); movies (“Song of Norway”); TV (“The Brady Bunch,” the variety and talk show circuit); clubs (The Empire Room at the Waldorf, Las Vegas) and records, “Liberated” Florence Henderson, an Aquarius, will speak her mind if she feels the need.

“Shouldn’t Disney be paying to build highways around the vacation kingdom?” she asked when she saw the holiday season traffic snarl.

The elevator is crowded as the interview is over and Florence Henderson descends from the Top. People are staring. Is it Ma Brady? Couldn’t be, too young. She couldn’t possibly be the mother of “10.”

Susan Olsen, Florence Henderson and Ann B. Davis in 2003

at ABC's 50th Anniversary Celebration, Pantages Theater, Hollywood, CA 03-16-03
Susan Olsen, Florence Henderson and Ann B. Davis at ABC’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, Pantages Theater, Hollywood, CA 03-16-03 – Photo by S Bukley/Deposit Photos

Florence Agnes Henderson was born on February 14, 1934 in Dale, Indiana — and died in Los Angeles on November 24, 2016.

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