Broadway star and TV legend Florence Henderson died Thursday at age 82 of heart failure, according to her family. Nearly 13 years ago, Henderson appeared at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale for a revue called “Florida Follies.” Here’s my interview published Jan. 14, 2004, with the legendary “Brady Bunch” mom:
The indelible Mrs. Brady headlines ‘Florida Follies’
Here’s the rest of the lovely lady’s story:
▪ Before becoming top banana on “The Brady Bunch,” Florence Henderson had a sparkling career in musical comedy as a Rodgers and Hammerstein protégé.
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▪ Henderson and the rest of the bunch strained for years to keep co-star Robert Reed’s homosexuality a secret.
▪ After the hit sitcom ended in 1974, Henderson found her real-life marriage over and fought career-threatening stage fright and a fear of flying.
Now, Henderson is back on stage, headlining “Florida Follies,” a vaudeville-style revue opening tonight at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
“I’ve written my own material, “ Henderson said. “I’ve done my one-woman show and I’ve put it together. I love to make people laugh.”
Henderson has been a star her entire adult life. At 17, she moved from Indiana to New York and won a small part in Joshua Logan’s 1952 Broadway musical, “Wish You Were Here.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II noticed Henderson and cast her as the last Laurey in the original national touring company of “Oklahoma!.” Henderson then returned to Broadway in the title role of 1954’s “Fanny.”
In 1961, Rodgers and Hammerstein gave her another plum part: Maria in the first national tour of “The Sound of Music.” Three years later, Henderson starred on Broadway in Noel Coward’s last show, “The Girl Who Came to Supper.”
“In between all that, I started my television career in the late ’50s as a “Today” girl, “ Henderson said. “I was the first woman to host the “Tonight” show. I did all the game shows.”
In 1956, Henderson married Broadway producer Ira Bernstein and they had two sons and two daughters — in a way preparing her for what would become her most famous role.
“Along came “The Brady Bunch,” said Henderson, who commuted weekly from New York to California for the show. “I became Carol Brady. Let me tell you, that woman receives so much love and affection and mail, it warms your heart.”
“Gilligan’s Island” producer Sherwood Schwartz in 1969 created “The Brady Bunch”: Widow Carol Martin with three girls marries widower Mike Brady (Robert Reed) with three boys.
From Day One, Henderson knew there could be trouble.
While she and Reed rehearsed a kiss for the pilot, “the director wanted something different, “ Henderson said. “I saw Bob get very antsy and protective of himself.
“All of a sudden, I realized, ‘My God, Bob’s gay!’”
Soon, everyone on the set knew. Publicly, Reed stayed in the closet. “Thirty years ago, [coming out] would have been a disaster for Bob, “ Henderson said.
The show embarrassed Reed, who often threatened to quit.
“He thought we should be doing Shakespeare,” Henderson recalled. “I would say, ‘Bob, this is just a sitcom.’”
“The Brady Bunch” ran on ABC from 1969 to 1974 and has been in syndication since. It has appeared in 122 countries and spawned four other series on three networks, two made-for-television movies and two theatrical films, books and a dramatized making-of TV feature.
Henderson, now a grandmother, has stayed in touch with her Brady brood and in 1992 they shared a tragedy — Reed had colon cancer.
“He called me and said, ‘Florence, I’m not going to make it. It would mean so much if you would tell the kids.’ Each one I told and we were all crying.”
Reed, 59, died May 12, 1992. Shortly after, his long-held secret became public when The National Enquirer ran his death certificate on the front page.
“Other significant conditions contributing to death, “ it read. “Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection.”
After “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson endured her own traumas. She and Bernstein ended their 27-year commuter marriage. The stress from her travel was too much, she said.
Suddenly, Henderson became afraid to fly or appear on stage.
Friends sent her to a Los Angeles clinic, where hypnotherapist John Kappas treated her. “Within six sessions, I was feeling better.”
So impressed by the treatment, Henderson became a certified hypnotherapist. She fell in love with Kappas and they married in 1987. He died in 2002.
Henderson runs her own website, www.flohome.com, and sells a greatest-hits CD titled “Mrs. Brady on Broadway.”
“Florida Follies” is her first big show since Kappas’ death.
“It’s a thrill because I never worked in a big production like this, “ said comedian Norm Crosby, 76, a Las Vegas mainstay who is one of three rotating headliners in “Florida Follies.” “I always worked by myself as a stand-up.”
“It’s inspiring, “ Henderson said. “There’s an incredible group of showgirls, none of them are under 50.”
Henderson herself celebrates an appropriate milestone next month: The best-loved sitcom mom of the ’70s turns 70 on Valentine’s Day.