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Florence Henderson on Her New One-Woman Show and Why She Was No Fan of Cousin Oliver

Mrs. Brady is in town! Florence Henderson is performing through Saturday at Feinstein’s in All the Lives of Me … A Musical Journey. The autobiographical one-woman show reminds cabaretgoers that the woman who played the perky, minxy blended-family matriarch spent decades as a big-throated Broadway star playing leads in golden-era musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Noel Coward. (How’d she react when peer-buddy Shirley Jones beat her out for the lead in the film adaptation of Oklahoma!? “That little bitch!”) Vulture spoke with soulful Flo, a satin-skinned 74, after her opening night, about her early days in New York, her friend Robert Reed — and things we never knew we wanted to know about The Brady Bunch.

Growing up poor in Kentucky, you were the youngest of ten children, and your father was a dirt farmer. What was that household like?
I slept in a bed with sometimes four others. Never had a room of my own or a bed of my own ever. My sister and I were the last two of the ten. We laughed, because we would freeze. We didn’t really have heat in the winter. We were like spoons. I’d warm her back, she’d warm my back. That’s how I grew up.

You talk in your show about your early days, in the fifties, as a drama student and actress trying to make it on Broadway. Where’d you live and hang out back then?
I was by myself, barely 17, pretty terrified. I moved into the Three Arts Club, up on West 85th Street, a club for women. I had a room smaller than a walk-in closet that I have now. There were communal showers. After I got to know some of the kids, we went down to the Village. There was a club, the Rainbow Club. I’d never seen a transvestite. One of them called herself Titanic. She smoked and was very funny. I was sitting there in the audience, down front. My eyes must have been so wide open. She flicked her cigarette, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, honey, I was young once.”

You spoke and sang so lovingly about Robert Reed — Mr. Brady — who was gay and died of AIDS in 1992. Had Robert lived longer, do you think he’d be a part of the gay celebrity community that’s so visible today?
I don’t know. He was a very private man. Very dignified. He did everything he could to protect himself — mainly because he loved the kids so much. We were his family, and he had so much respect for us. But the kids knew he was gay, and it wasn’t an issue for us. When I started my career, I was becoming aware of homosexuality. Like when I first did Oklahoma! … all these gorgeous dancers. And I thought, Gee, no one asked me for a date! I didn’t know Brokeback Mountain existed then.

You’ve said that Maureen McCormick fabricated stuff about you in her memoirs — that you sunbathed topless and were a sexpot. Would you ever call her to complain?
I talk to Maureen. I wish her luck. Everybody has selective memory. Whoever published it — they want sensationalism. We all knew Maureen had a problem with drugs and all those things. I try not to judge the kids too harshly. They’ve all turned out fairly well.

What’s the most ridiculous Brady fan encounter you’ve ever had?
There have been so many. People want me to adopt them. I was in Bloomingdale’s the other day, and people of all ages grabbed me, in tears. A Russian lady in the lingerie department said, “I lahv you. I lahv your show. I learned Eeeng-lish on your show.” I was playing blackjack in Vegas, there was a tap on the shoulder, and there was this gorgeous young black man. And he said, “Forgive me, but you were such an influence in my life growing up.” I gave him a hug.

Were there any plot developments on the show that you thought twice about? Evil taboo in Hawaii, Cousin Oliver, Greg’s record contract?
Cousin Oliver I thought was a stretch. They wanted to introduce a younger kid. It was a gimmick. The show was like a fairy tale, seen through the eyes of the child. And if you start breaking that … There was talk that next year [before it was canceled] that we were going to adopt an Asian child and a black child.

Which has been the most lucrative: your commercials for Wesson and Polident, or Brady Bunch residuals?
Not Brady Bunch reruns. This show is sold so easily around the world, and the merchandising from Nickelodeon and TV Land, and everybody makes a fortune but the actors. We made residuals for a while. But I sold Wesson oil for 22 years and Polident for 10. Those are very lucrative deals. I always say it buys a lot of music and a lot of clothes.

Florence Henderson on Her New One-Woman Show and Why She Was No Fan of Cousin Oliver