It didn’t take long for Florence Henderson to hit Variety‘s radar after she moved to New York from her childhood home in Kentucky to pursue a career on the stage. She was dubbed “the blonde charmer” in one of her earliest mentions in the showbiz bible.
Henderson, who died Thursday at 82, was inextricably linked with the ever-cheerful TV mom that she played for five seasons (and in countless revivals) on the ABC sitcom “The Brady Bunch” from 1969-74. But she had a busy career as an actress and singer for nearly 20 years before she became Carol Brady. She did Broadway, regional theater, touring productions, all manner of TV shows and had recording contracts with Kapp Records and RCA’s Camden label.
From 1958-61, she partnered with singer-actor Bill Hayes to pitch Oldsmobile cars in what qualified as a multimedia advertising campaign of the era. The pair hawked the latest models off the Olds assembly line by doing everything from nightclub engagements to TV commercials to hosting a 13-week live series on NBC, “Oldsmobile Musical Theater.”
Here’s a look back at Henderson’s early career, as seen through the pages of Variety.
- The first mention of Henderson came in the Sept. 3, 1952 edition of weekly Variety, in a review of a New Haven, Conn. staging of “Oklahoma!” Our reviewer obseved that Henderson was among several newcomers in the production who were able to “register” with the audience.
- A few months later, Henderson’s ingenue status was flagged in the Just for Variety column from Dec. 19, 1952, with an item noting that the 18-year-old actress was heading to Los Angeles with the touring “Oklahoma!” production. Henderson landed one of the lead roles in the tuner after impressing — with all of one line — in her Broadway debut as part of the chorus in Harold Rome musical “Wish You Were Here.”
- Just for Variety columnist Sheilah Graham managed to predict the “lovely lady” sobriquet to come for Henderson courtesy of the “Brady Bunch” theme song. In her Feb. 2, 1953, item on Hollywood stars flocking to the “Oklahoma!” production, Graham gushed: “And what a comer is blonde, blue-eyed, lovely voice, lovely period, Florence Henderson.”
- Two months later, Variety was reporting chatter about screen tests “cooking” for “the blond charmer” at Universal and 20th Century Fox. Henderson was up for the role of “Oklahoma!’s” Laurey in Fox’s big screen rendition of the tuner, but the part eventually went to Shirley Jones, the future “Partridge Family” star who became a close friend of Henderson’s.
- On March 27, 1954, Henderson was part of the troupe that appeared on a Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute TV special that aired across all four broadcast networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and DuMont. Variety dubbed it “the biggest, costliest commercial hookup on record” with an estimated audience of 70 million viewers. Henderson sang a tune from “Oklahoma!” with Gordon MacRae.
- Henderson was a regular on TV variety shows in the 1950s and ‘60s, including her co-hosting stint of the CBS summer series “Sing-Along” in 1958. But in a departure into the dramatic realm, the March 20, 1957, edition of weekly Variety ran an item noting that Henderson was slated to head to Cuba to film eight episodes of the syndicated adventure series “Captain David Grief.” (It’s not clear if Henderson actually made the trek to Havana.)
- The teaming of Henderson and Hayes for Oldsmobile was highlighted in the March 26, 1958, edition of weekly Variety, in a story about automakers courting stars and singers for elaborate endorsement pacts. Henderson and Hayes were so popular in a nightclub stint they did in Detroit that the pair were booked at New York’s St. Regis Hotel. Variety noted that they marked the first musical outfit put together by an automaker “to make the class hotel circuit.”
- Henderson was schooled in the classics. She starred in two TV musical renditions of literary favorites: a November 1957 production of “Huck Finn” for CBS’ “U.S. Steel Hour” and an October 1958 production of “Little Women,” also for CBS. In both cases, Variety’s reviewers found Henderson’s singing to be the highlight of otherwise forgettable productions.
- Even as her star began to rise, Henderson never forgot the break she received in “Oklahoma!” In April 1959 she journeyed to St. Louis to sing with Hayes at a symphony performance of Richard Rodgers tunes, with Rodgers himself at the baton.
- Henderson also never forgot her Roman-Catholic upbringing. In November 1960, Henderson handled the entertainment for the annual meeting of the Catholic Apostolate Radio-Television Advertising association at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.