But Henderson was already a musical theater veteran by the time she became a TV star. Having made her Broadway debut in Wish You Were Here, she went on to play the title roles in Fanny and The Girl Who Came to Supper. She also had a close association with Rodgers and Hammerstein, touring in Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, and co-starring with Giorgio Tozzi in a 1967 production of South Pacific at the New York State Theater.
Now she's set for two performances of her one-woman show All the Lives of Me...A Musical Journey on Monday, June 11 at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater; her guest host will be Jersey Boys' Christian Hoff, with whom she co-starred in the ABC-TV Afterschool Special Just a Regular Kid: An AIDS Story in 1987. I recently spoke with Henderson via phone, while she was between festivities at the Indianapolis 500.
TM: Wow, the Indy 500!
FLORENCE HENDERSON: Yes. I think this is my 15th consecutive year here. I sing before the race, and I participate in the parade and all the other events. I was born in this state, so it has special significance for me.
TM: It will be great to have you back in NYC. Your shows at Joe's Pub are practically sold out. Have you done this show anywhere previously?
FH: I've only done it twice, in Palm Springs and in Maryland. I guess I think of those as out-of-town tryouts.
TM: What was the impetus for the project?
FH: In my long career and life, I've done so many different kinds of things. People are always asking me, "How did it happen?" I don't have time to write a book right now, so I thought I'd do a show and let people know a little bit more about me. [Musical director] Glen Roven, whom I adore and who's so talented, was available. We started working on it, then we called Bruce Vilanch to join us in the writing, and he said yes.
TM: You're promising some fun stories?
FH: Yes. Everybody thinks I'm this sweet, Carol Brady-type person, but that's just one side of me. I can't resist being a little risqué and going for a joke. I love to make people laugh. Hopefully I'll do that, and maybe bring a tear to your eye. I'm very excited to see how people react to the show. I just hope that everyone has a good time.
TM: I've often heard you mentioned as being one of the nicest people in show business.
FH: Well, that makes me very happy. I find it so much easier to be nice to people. It only takes a second to look someone in the eyes and tell them what a pleasure it is to meet them. I answer all of my fan mail; I always have, since I began my career, and I never charge for postage. I probably could have retired long ago on what I've spent on all that! But it's a way to give back to people.
FH: Haven't I been lucky? Starting at the very beginning with Rodgers and Hammerstein, Josh Logan, Harold Rome, Ezio Pinza, and Noël Coward -- I've been blessed to learn from the best. George Burns was a great teacher of mine, and Bob Hope.
TM: You worked with David Merrick, who produced Fanny.
FH: Yes. That was...an experience. I always think of David as one of those villains in the silent movies, with a black moustache and looking very sinister. I got along okay with him, but he could be very scary.
TM: You have a Q&A session in your show. What's the most outrageous thing you were ever asked?
FH: I don't know why it came up, but someone asked if I'd had an affair with Frank Sinatra. I said, "Maybe." I don't mind; I want people to ask me about anything. I think I'm pretty fearless as far as that goes.
TM: You're in the movie version of Song of Norway, based on the Broadway show about the life and music of Edvard Grieg. It was a huge flop, but it did make it to home video at some point. A friend of mine recently saw it, and his comment was, "Well, it's beautiful to look at and listen to."
FH: That's about it. It was shot on location, all over Norway and Denmark, and we recorded with the London Symphony. That music was incredible.
TM: Were you up for the film versions of any other musicals?
FH: Yes, for Oklahoma! -- but that bitch Shirley Jones got it! I'd never even seen a movie camera when I screen tested for that. I had done the last national company of the show, with Barbara Cook as Ado Annie. I love her; she's brilliant.
TM: I'm sure you're aware that your South Pacific recording has finally come out on CD. The New York City Opera has done some musicals in the New York State Theater, but I think the general opinion is that the venue is too large for musicals. Did you feel like it was a barn to play in?
FH: You know what they did for our show? They extended the stage right to the front row, and the orchestra was upstage, behind a scrim. I think it was the first time that was done. The conductor really had to follow us, because we couldn't see him. There were no TV screens, like they have now.
TM: What was it like to play opposite Giorgio Tozzi?
FH: He was an amateur hypnotist, and he loved to give me suggestions. We were waiting to go on for the last scene in the first act, where we had to drink champagne, and he said, "I want to tell you this quick story about Kirsten Flagstad at the Met. She would go offstage and sip champagne, then she'd go back on stage, hit a high note, and let out the biggest fart. But I don't want you to think about that when we get to our scene." I said, "Oh, you can't break me up. Stop it." So we're doing this warm, fuzzy scene, we're sipping champagne -- and, all of a sudden, I just blew it out. I started to laugh, and I couldn't pull myself together. Then he started to laugh. The stage manager was yelling at us from the wings. Fortunately, the audience didn't know what was going on; they thought we were just giddy from the champagne. But I could have killed Giorgio.
TM: South Pacific must have been your last stage musical before The Brady Bunch. At this point, what can you say about that phenomenon?
FH: It's like an amoeba. You have no idea how big it is, how much warmth and affection I get from all kinds of people -- the African-American community, the Asian and Hispanic communities. I think that show represented the family everyone wishes they had but very few people do. It's almost like your favorite children's book. The thing with The Brady Bunch is that it's never been off the air. I think it's in 122 countries around the world.
TM: Except for that unforgettable episode when you lost your voice just before Christmas, then miraculously recovered at the last minute and sang "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" at midnight mass, you didn't get to sing much on The Brady Bunch. So your show at Joe's Pub should be a real treat for your fans.
FH: Yes, but it's not all about music. It's about my life. I'm scared, because I haven't played New York in a while, and I have so much respect for my colleagues. By the same token, I'm very excited that it's happening.
[Ed. Note: Following the 9:30pm performance of Florence Henderson's show at Joe's Pub, LIFEbeat, the Music Industry Fights AIDS will give fans an opportunity to meet the star at a benefit party to be held at the Chinatown Brasserie, located at 380 Lafayette Street. For more information, visit www.SpinCycle.com.]