A Valentine to Florence Henderson

Through hard experience on this blog, I’ve learned that headline writing is crucial. A catchy headline means the difference between thousands reading and nobody reading. There have been times when I’ve gone back to write a better headline for a post, and lo and behold, people started checking it out. If the headline is a little misleading sometimes, that’s the price of doing business. Thus we weren’t too chagrined by this 1969 TV Guide headline about Florence Henderson (1934-2016). And frankly, it’s down to a failure of language. As a critic, I frequently find that when you say something is “not the best”, people go crazy because they somehow take those words, rhetorically, to mean “the worst”. And you want to go, “No! I meant what I said! Literally!” Something is allowed to be ‘not the best’ without being terrible. In point of fact, it may well be SECOND best and still ‘not the best’.” But that’s not how it’s taken. Thus we have the article above, which I read, and it was similar in effect. When you read “Suzie Sweet She Ain’t”, you go, “Ah, okay, I get it, she’s a monster!” But that’s not what anyone said at all. All that anyone meant is that she is not “Suzie Sweet”. That is to say, her image, which is not unlike that of Shirley Jones or Julie Andrews, is wholesome and squeaky clean to an angelic degree. And very much like those other musical actresses, Henderson was not the Virgin Mary, but neither was she the OPPOSITE of the Virgin Mary. She was a normal person who probably swore when she stubbed her toe like the rest of us.

From what I can tell, she seemed like a truly lovely person. Much like the aforementioned actresses she started her career as an accomplished star of musical theatre. Then she became overly identified with a single TV role (Carol on The Brady Bunch) and thereafter every subsequent development in her career was colored by that five year patch (1969-74, with many later sequels). Yet she appears to have dealt with that outcome with nothing but gratitude and good grace.

Whoa. Am I right?

This may have had something to do with her humble origins. Henderson grew up on tobacco farms in Indiana and Kentucky during the Depression; her father was a sharecropper, which meant a grind of debt and poverty. After graduating from high school she went to New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was only 18 when she began getting cast on Broadway in such shows as Wish You Were Here (1952-53), Oklahoma! (1953 revival), and the long-running Fanny (1954-56) in which she starred as the title character. A televised salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1954 was the first of her nearly 300 TV credits. One important factoid that has gotten swallowed up by time is that she was one of the first female late-night hosts, sitting behind the Tonight Show desk for an extended time between the reigns of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. THAT has to have been a very different Tonight Show.  Still theatre continued to play a major role in her life through the end of the ’60s, including the touring version of The Sound of Music (1961-62), her last broadway show The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963-64) and tours of The King and I (1965) and South Pacific (1967). She also starred in Song of Norway (1970), Andrew Stone’s musical film about the life of Grieg.

Wait — which one is the Muppet?

Playing such distinctly unfashionable roles in the far-out sixties undoubtedly fed the wholesome image that got Henderson cast in The Brady Bunch. From that point on, she was a household name, appearing not only on the many Brady Bunch sequels and TV movies, but countless variety, talk, and game shows, and guest starring on such shows as The Love Boat (11 times, including the original TV movie), Fantasy Island (3 times), Murder She Wrote (3 times), etc. Sometimes, she was asked to do self-parody, as in one of the Naked Gun films, or Roseanne, which she seemed to be a good sport about. In later years she had her own talk show The Florence Henderson Show (2007) and her own cooking show and Who’s Cooking with Florence Henderson? (2013).

Henderson’s death in 2016 was shocking for its suddenness. People live so long nowadays that we sometimes forget that it is possible to succumb to a heart attack from out of nowhere at age 82. Henderson had been active and present in pop culture right up til’ the end, so it felt like she was stolen at a much younger age. How appropriate that she was born on Valentine’s Day, and died on Thanksgiving. She was a national institution.