BWW Interviews: Florence Henderson
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Florence Henderson became a household name. It was certainly through the medium of television, but was it her numerous appearances on the then-popular variety shows? Perhaps it was because of the proliferation of commercials she did for Polident and Wesson Oil; the latter in which she helped coin the phrase "Wessonality". Obviously her long stint as Mrs. Carol Brady in "The Brady Bunch" played a major role in her becoming not only a name people easily recognized, but a talent that has genuinely been appreciated by different generations down through the years.
Speaking by phone with Florence Henderson proves to be a genuine treat. She's warm, humorous, insightful and extremely gracious. Calling from sunny California on a day when New York was experiencing one of its coldest weeks of the winter, Henderson is brimming with excitement about her upcoming trip to the Big Apple where she will give two performances of her much acclaimed show ALL THE LIVES OF ME at Joe's Pub and participate in the talk-back which is part of Encores! presentation of Harold Rome's melodious FANNY at City Center. She has many memories of what was her first major role on Broadway.
Florence Henderson, who appeared on Broadway in Rome's WISH YOU WERE HERE, had been starring in the last touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA ! in Boston when she came down to audition for the role of Fanny. In fact, she made several trips to New York to audition for the show. The tour of OKLAHOMA ! was over and Henderson auditioned yet again before deciding to go home to Southern Indiana and Kentucky right on the Ohio River. "So I arrived home and a couple of days later I received a telegram saying, ‘Come home, Fanny' or something like that," she explains with a hearty laugh.
The musical FANNY has several themes, but mostly tells the story of an unwed teenaged girl living in the seaport town of Marseille , France. Ms Henderson was pretty much the same age as the character she was playing and stayed with the show for almost two years. One would assume that she left the production to go onto bigger and better things, but that wasn't the case. "I left because I was pregnant," Henderson explains. "I was living my role, actually." The singer had become engaged while she was in FANNY and after a year and a half of never missing a performance, asked for a week off so she could get married. Producer David Merrick grudgingly gave it to her. "Ten months to the day afterwards, I had my first child. I stayed with the show until I was six or seven months pregnant, though."
Henderson was married to Ira Bernstein for 25 years. They met when he was the casting director for Feuer and Martin. He was very young. We both were. "We met at the 46th Street Theatre [now the Richard Rodgers], where GUYS AND DOLLS was playing and I didn't know what it was for. In those days I went to anything I could. I met Ira and he was very nice. He told me he thought I had a tremendous future and said that he knew I'd been offered the lead in the OKLAHOMA ! tour He urged me to take it so I could get experience on stage playing a leading role. So I took his advice and did the tour which turned out to be the best thing." Before going out on the road with the Rodgers and Hammerstein show, Henderson dated Bernstein a few times. He flew out to see her as Laurie and went up to Boston to see her in FANNY. "When I came back to New York is when we really started dating." They married and had four children. Although divorced, they remain good friends and Bernstein will be seeing ALL THE LIVES OF ME during the New York engagement.
Henderson may have played the title role in FANNY, but above-the-title billing went to Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak, who were cast as the fathers of the Gaelic lovers. "Every once in a while Pinza would hit a note that was so beautiful that you could just understand why he was one of the greatest opera singers of all time. He was a dear man who had a great sense of humor. He loved to pinch my behind and I'd go, ‘Oh, Ezio, now!' and he's say, ‘Oh, bella, bella, I'm only teasing you! Oh, bella, bella!' I loved him," Henderson happily adds.
In 1963, Henderson starred with Jose Ferrer in Noel Coward's musical THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER, a show that ran three or four months on Broadway. "We were a huge hit out-of-town in Boston ," recalls the blue-eyed star. "Then we went to Toronto , where they weren't too happy with Jose and he graciously volunteered to leave the cast. We all encouraged him to stay and we kept on working. In Toronto we played the O'Keefe-- which is a huge theatre when compared to the Colonial in Boston . It most certainly was not a hit in in that town. We then went to Philadelphia where we were very well received, but that was a small theatre again. At that point Joe Layton, the director, got very ill with acute hepatitis and the show was too long. Obviously we had work to do but Joe was out of the picture. Anyway, we came into New York 's Broadway Theatre, which was much too big for our show." She adds, "It was a great experience and I will always treasure it because of Noel Coward."
The mention of Coward's name brings a fond chuckle to Henderson 's voice. "He was a very kind man," she remarks. "He was incredibly smart and witty, but he had a really wicked sense of humor. Very wicked! One of my memories of Noel is when we were flying from Toronto and he and I shared seats on the plane. Noel had had a terrible fire in his apartment and I guess it was very serious. I think he came close to losing his life. Anyway, we were talking during the flight and I asked him if he was afraid of dying. He said, ‘Oh noooo. I have so many friends waiting for me on the other side. I have Gertie and Vivian there!' He then went on to name a list of famous people who he'd been friends with but had passed away. He was just a delightful, delightful person. He would have been a great Prince in the show."
When it comes to Jose Ferrer, Henderson remembers something that seems to be in sharp contrast to this actor's reputation. "It was very difficult to understand him," she states. "Here he was this great Shakespearean actor and I remember him wearing a body mic in this show. That was one of the first times I'd seen that. I don't know what it was. I mean we got along extremely well and he took voice lessons with my teacher because he really wanted to sing. I must admit, he was pretty good, but I guess he wasn't romantic-looking enough for some people. Who knows?"
With the current production of SOUTH PACIFIC playing at Lincoln Center, people tend to forget that in 1967 Henderson starred with Georgio Tozzi, another renowned opera singer (and the singing voice of filmdom's Emil de Becque), in the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center's production of the show. "That was the first time the orchestra was behind the stage," she explains, "It was behind a scrim." This was problematic because the cast couldn't see the conductor and he couldn't see us," explains Henderson . "John Anderson was the conductor and there was never any problem. It was just perfect. Maybe that's the way it should be." In current times, televisions are used so that the cast and conductor can see each other.
Was there ever a divo-like tantrum working with Tozzi? "Never, no!" asserts Henderson . "Georgio was just wonderful. I loved working with him he was a fine man and an amateur hypnotist. I remember once he made a suggestion as we were going out to do a big love scene and we were right down in front. We had the champagne, and it's a wonderful scene. Before we got on stage he said to me, ‘You know Kirsten Flagstadd used to drink champagne before every performance and when she would go for a high note she would, you know, fart.' He just said that and then told me not to think about it in the scene where we're drinking our champagne. So we got on stage and the scene was set as Joe Layton directed it. We were sitting on the floor and the first row of seats was almost on stage with us. We got to the champagne and I'm drinking it and he was drinking it and suddenly I had a mouthful and, well...out it came and I started laughing. Of course, he started laughing and the audience became hysterical but no one knew what it was all about. I honestly could not pull myself together when the stage manager came into the wings and yelled. That made us laugh all the more. Finally we calmed down and I told Georgio never to do something like that again! That was my lesson in the power of suggestion!"
All during her Broadway days, Florence Henderson was a regular guest on television-both as a singer and as a participant on game shows. However, she became extremely well known for the commercials she starred in. Her appearances on behalf of a particular cooking oil stand out in a person's memory to this day. "Yes, I sold Wesson Oil for twenty two years," Henderson states. "Twenty two years," she repeats. "I even survived five ad agencies, which is pretty remarkable. It was a fabulous deal for me. It allowed me to buy a lot of music and a lot of beautiful gowns and clothes. I mean, it was just wonderful." She also adds that she sold Polident for ten years. Did she use either product? "Well, Wesson Oil is something that I used since I was a child because it's one of the older products on the market. On the other hand, I didn't use Polident and I told them that they couldn't say I did because I have my own teeth. Still, it was a successful campaign for a decade."
She then adds, "Polident is an excellent product. As I understand, it's not only great for cleaning dentures but it's also great for polishing silver."
Yet it was the long-running sitcom THE BRADY BUNCH that brought Florence Henderson her highest recognition. The series, about a mother with three daughters who marries a man with three sons, ran from 1969 to 1974. However, Henderson is quick to point out that the show has never been off the air in the Unites States. "It's being shown in over 122 countries around the world." Even younger people know about the Brady family through its syndication.
"I had been in California doing "The Dean Martin Show" and was on my way to Houston to do an appearance there and my agent called and told me they wanted me at the Paramount Studios for a television series. I told him I didn't want to do anything like that, explaining that I lived in New York and was a ‘Broadway person'. He encouraged me to just go there and meet them and I agreed, but only if I'd be able to get on the plane to Houston. Anyhow, I got to Paramount and met Sherwood Schwartz, John Rich, Doug Cramer and all these people at Paramount and they asked if I'd mind putting a scene on film for them? I agreed, so long as I'd be able to make my plane. So I was led to the STAR TREK make-up trailer and William Shatner was in there and he didn't seem too happy that I was invading his space. Anyway, I did the scene, thanked them all and told them it was very lovely and caught my plane to Houston . The next day I rehearsed in Houston and was getting ready to open when I got a call from my agent who was telling me that they wanted me to come right back and do the pilot. So I had to get somebody to fill in for me at the last minute and fly back to LA where I did the pilot. Everything went well but I sort of forgot about it. I was cast in the movie THE SONG OF NORWAY and while I was on location in Scandinavia I got a message that the BRADY BUNCH pilot had sold and they needed me back in LA. The problem was that I wasn't finished with the movie. I finished the film and when I got to LA, I found that they were already ahead six episodes. I had a lot of catching up to do. They had shot the scenes I wasn't in so when I got there, they'd film those scenes. It was awkward, but we did it and no one ever knew the difference."
Henderson says the BRADY BUNCH cast still keeps in touch and was happy that Eve Plum wascoming to see her at Joe's Pub. It is the two performances at Joe's Pub that finds Henderson 's voice brimming with excitement.
"Over the years I've had a million different ‘acts'. I've played Vegas. I've had acts with four boys in them. I've had acts with two people in them. I've had every kind of act you could think of. I thought that I didn't want to do that again. I've got a garage full of music by some of the greatest arrangers of all time, but I felt I wanted to do something simple; something different. I had worked with Glenn Roven in New York when he had a little show called SINGULAR SENSATION in which he interviewed different people. He did it with Carol Channing , Donna Mckechnie and I forget who else. I've known Glenn forever so when I was doing the show I asked if he might help me. I told him I wanted to do a one-woman show that was very autobiographical. He and I started working and we came up with ALL THE LIVES OF ME. Bruce Vilanch contributed little bits and that's how it came about. It's been great fun to do. It's never not done incredibly well. Many times I find that the venue dictates how the audience will respond. For instance, I just did the show with the Indianapolis Symphony. The reaction was absolutely amazing. We were blown away. We'd felt that it would be a little quieter and whatever, but the audience laughed harder and I've got a little risqué humor in there. That's where the crowd laughed the hardest! Then you go to a place like Joe's Pub, it becomes a very relaxed audience. Those crowds are very effusive and they ‘get it'. When you go to Feinstein's, you find it's a little more reserved audience. It's just a little different in every venue. That's why to wanted to go back to Joe's Pub, which is also affordable for people. "
The big question, of course, is whether Florence Henderson would like to return to Broadway? Without missing a beat she responds, "Absolutely! I've done most of the roles for women except Mame, but I would like to do a new show. There is talk about it and as soon as I know that's happening I'll let you know." Henderson laughs heartily when it is mentioned that she would look stunning walking down a staircase in a red dress. "Sounds good to me!" she adds. "I would love to come back. Broadway has always been my first love. I don't think there's anything like the theatre and its energy. Nothing like it."
Hopefully Florence Henderson will be bringing her special energy to the Great White Way soon. Her vivacity is undiminished and her beautiful singing voice may have even improved with time. She is a true Broadway Baby and would certainly fill the seats in any Broadway house her enormous talents and her "Wessonality". Until then, New Yorkers will be able to appreciate her live personality when ALL THE LIVES OF ME plays at Joe's Pub on February 12th and 13th. There is no performance the next day, presumably because Valentine's Day is Florence Henderson 's birthday.