Alice: An Appreciation

“They gave me funny things to do, and I did them funny. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”—Ann B. Davis
(May 3, 1926-June 1, 2014)

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This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon’s complete schedule.

As a mental exercise, try to imagine someone other than Robert Reed and Florence Henderson playing The Brady Bunch’s parents. As important as those actors were to the show’s success, many others could have probably managed a respectable “wise father” or “concerned mother” role.

Now, picture other children replacing the familiar Brady kids. As appealing as the entire juvenile cast was, 1970s casting agents could surely have supplied other hunky teen boys and All-American girls with “hair of gold” to play what were basically average kids.

It is much harder to envision anyone other than Ann B. Davis wearing Alice Nelson’s blue uniform. She was as central to The Brady Bunch as she was on the show’s opening-titles grid.

Ann B. Davis was irreplaceable.

That’s what made her passing such sad news, even though she had lived a full and seemingly happy, spiritually fulfilled 88 years.

Overnight Success

Few actors have kept their private lives as private as Davis did. All her obituaries outline the same basic facts: She was born in Schenectady, New York, and raised in Erie, Pa. As a child, she caught the performing bug while putting on shows with her twin sister Harriet. Her mother was an amateur actor, and her older brother was a professional dancer who would appear on Broadway. Ann enrolled at the University of Michigan with plans to be a doctor, but soon switched her focus to acting. After graduating and heading to California in 1948, she did theater and nightclub work until getting her big break.

That was her supporting role as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show (Love That Bob), for which she would win two Emmys. The show ran from 1955 to 1959 and was a major ratings success, and Davis’ role as Cummings’ lovelorn, plain-Jane assistant brought her fame.

“I was an overnight success at 28,” she said in a 1989 interview. “I began to understand the power of TV. Within five weeks–and I was playing a small part, a supporting part–after the series went on the air I was recognized on the street wherever I went. Very scary!”

The show was never widely syndicated, so it is unfamiliar to most people my age and younger.

As you can see from this clip, Schultzy shares certain qualities with Alice Nelson and other classic TV “old maids,” such as Sally Rogers and Jane Hathaway—a lack of feminine graces combined with desperate, unfulfilled man-hungriness.

All About Alice

As Alice, Davis delivered many self-deprecating punchlines. As a kid, I saw Alice as she presented herself to the audience—plain, overweight, old. Having reached Alice’s age myself, I see things differently, of course, and wonder how Davis felt about her portrayal.

She claimed to take it in stride.

“I know at least a couple hundred glamour gals who are starving in this town. I’d rather be myself and eating,” she said.

Her Brady Bunch role combined a poor self-image and an unflattering costume with corny jokes and broad physical humor. If everyone was doing the hula, Alice would be throwing her back out. If a bucket of paint appeared, Alice would be stepping in it. If someone built a dunk tank in the back yard, Alice was getting wet.

It all added up to a role many actors would have hated. Indeed, Davis’ co-star Robert Reed, went nearly mad with disgust over the show’s scripts. He would fire off multi-page memos to producers about the show’s implausibilities, many of which involved Alice. “Even a laugh machine would balk,” he wrote about typical tag scene.

Davis was different. Like Alice delighting in the dunk tank, she threw herself into her role and made the best of it.

In Growing Up Brady, Barry Williams quotes Producer Lloyd Schwartz on the difference between Davis and Reed: “She’d say, ‘A lot of people worked very hard on this, and maybe it isn’t great, but if that’s the case, they really need me to make it work.’ Opposite attitudes.”

In fact, Davis saw Alice’s wacky predicaments as opportunities for her to shine comedically.

And while she didn’t take herself too seriously, she cared enough about her role to create a mental backstory for her character that explains Alice’s single-minded devotion to the Brady family.

In the post-Brady years, the show wasn’t a millstone around Davis’ neck as it was for so many of her co-stars. Shortly after it ended, she became a born-again Christian and curtailed her show business career.

“It’s amazing, but at the age of 47 my life suddenly got to the good part,” she told Australia’s Courier-Mail in 1989. “I thought I had had the good part, but it’s as if the Lord had said, ‘Let’s give this kid everything the world has to offer, then make her a better offer and see what happens.’ Am I happy? Oh, boy!”

She spent many years living in an Episcopalian religious community, first in Denver and then in Ambridge. Pa. She worked with a mission helping homeless people and traveled the country talking to church groups. Eventually, she settled in San Antonio, Texas, with retired Episcopal bishop William Frey and his family.

A born trouper, she never completely gave up acting; she did a great deal of regional theater and showed up for almost every Brady reunion. (One critic, panning A Very Brady Christmas, called Alice “the only real-looking character in the whole fairy story.”)

She also compiled a Brady Bunch cookbook in 1994, while admitting that cooking and child care were not really part of her skill set.

She looked back on her Brady experience with fondness.

“Wouldn’t we all love to have belonged to a perfect family, with brothers and sisters to lean on and where every problem is solved in 23 minutes?” she said.

(And it’s not as though she were incapable of looking back on past work with a critical eye. Speaking of the Cummings show, she once told The Times of London: “Comedy like that gets dated pretty fast, especially since it’s anti-feminist.”)

Lovable

In the early 1990s, when Brady nostalgia was at its height, many experts advanced theories about the show’s appeal to Generation X. My college sociology textbook even explored the subject.

To me, the answer has always been simple: Creator Sherwood Schwartz created a world as a child would wish it to be—a world of good-natured siblings, goofy fun, and people who rally around to solve your every problem.

Blogger Hank Stuever summed it up beautifully in The Washington Post this week, but I disagree with his assertion about Alice’s role in this child-centered utopia: “The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady could not fill. It’s the great unspoken truth of The Brady Bunch, particularly in retrospect: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.”

From my perspective, Mike and Carol were definitely the parents, but Alice was something even better: A cross between an adult and a friend. She would join in your sack race, bake your cookies, dress up as a pilgrim for your home movie, and clean your room—and she would do it all with a smile.

Everyone has parents, but a child can only dream of having an Alice.

And no one but Ann B. Davis could have brought this dream to life in such an endearing way.

“I think I’m lovable,” she once said. “That’s the gift God gave me.”

Lovable. And irreplaceable.

Some Alice Favorites

I must admit that the Alice-centric episodes of The Brady Bunch don’t rank among my favorites. Playing tough “Sergeant Emma” was probably fun for Davis, but none of the Brady double-role episodes work for me. And “Alice’s September Song,” about Alice’s shady old flame Mark Millard, bored me as a child and saddens me now.

I much prefer Alice as a cheerful supporting presence in a typical episode. Here are two quintessential Alice moments, when she gets involved with the kids and pays the price with her dignity.

Alice could be supportive as well as silly. My favorite Alice moment, by far, is her scene with Jan in “Lost Locket, Found Locket.”

I do like getting to see a different side of Alice now and then, such as when she turns on the charm for a surprisingly lascivious Jackie Coogan.

Other Ann B. Davis Sightings

In the late 1970s, Davis did some commercials that played on her Brady image (although, in the second example, they use the name of her Bob Cummings Show character).

Davis had a few small film roles in the 1960s. You can catch a glimpse of her here in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day film Lover Come Back.

Did any single 1960s TV stars NOT appear on The Dating Game? This is cringe-worthy viewing, but Davis is a good sport.

You can see more of Ann B. Davis in action during MeTV’s 3-hour tribute marathon this Sunday, June 8, at 12 p.m. EDT.

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Family Affair Friday: Season 2, Episode 13, “Somebody Upstairs,” 12/11/1967

Written by: Austin and Irma Kalish. Directed by: Charles Barton.

When we look on in on the Davis family this week, we find that the kids have just returned from school. The girls soon head back out to visit a neighbor, but Jody stays to talk to Uncle Bill about his grades. It seems he got an A in penmanship but missed four words on his spelling test. Bill tells him to spend more time studying his spelling.

Jody has a better idea--he's try to do worse in penmanship. That way, the teacher won't tell that his words are misspelled.

Jody has a better idea–he’s trying to do worse in penmanship. That way, the teacher can’t tell that his words are misspelled.

Meanwhile, French is concerned because the girls are spending so much time with their upstairs neighbor, Miss London. Bill only knows that she’s an unmarried older women with no children, and he assumes that the girls are helping her with household chores. Kids, Uncle Bill notes, will do housework for other people that they wouldn’t do at home even if they go paid.

Jody, who seems sharper than usual this week, asks how much Uncle Bill is willing to pay.

For that, he earns a hug and playful spanking.

For that, he earns a hug and playful spanking.

And that’s about all we see of Jody this week because it’s time venture upstairs with the girls and meet the new neighbor:

Joan Blondell! Another one of those "I can't believe she was on Family Affair" Family Affair guest stars.

Joan Blondell! Another one of those “I can’t believe she was on Family Affair” guest stars.

In Davis-land, she is Laura London, a Broadway star, and the girls are enchanted by her show business stories–like the time she played Portia in a musical version The Merchant of Venice. (Portia’s “quality of mercy” monologue became a conga number!)

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When she tells them that, as an actress, she has to watch her figure, Buffy proudly proclaims that she will watch her own figure, as soon as she gets one.

Soon the girls have transformed their living space into what French calls an “off-Broadway bedroom.”

They've even turned their puketastic bedspreads into a proscenium arch.

They’ve even turned their puketastic bedspreads into a proscenium arch.

French is not amused, especially when Buffy demands an actress-style dinner–carrots and cottage cheese.

The next day, when he goes upstairs to fetch the girls, he gets a chance to meet Miss London, along with her maid, Ruby. It’s good news/bad news on the diversity front this week. The good news: We finally have an African-American character with a name who gets to utter several lines.

The bad news: She's a "sassy" maid who says things like, "Come on in, who's ever you are!"

The bad news: She’s a “sassy” maid who says things like, “Come on in, who’s ever you are!”

The three have a funny exchange about whether French resembles one of Laura’s former husbands, Stonewall.

“Stonewall was fuzzier,” Ruby argues.

French returns to the Davis apartment filled with disdain for Laura, whom he considers course, loud, and uncultured. But when Bill hears that Miss London is Laura London, he admits to being a fan.

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He recalls paying a week’s salary to see her on Broadway and re-enacts a quick, cute version of her Portia conga.

Bill doesn’t think French has anything to worry about, but he agrees to talk to Laura himself.

During their meeting, Brian Keith gives Bill a convincing fan-boy vibe. I would guess that Keith liked Blondell because you can usually tell when doesn't like guest stars.

During their meeting, Brian Keith gives off Bill a convincing fan-boy vibe. I would guess that Keith liked Blondell because you can usually tell when doesn’t like guest stars.

Meanwhile, the girls are starting to lose their minds. Laura has praised their talent and encouraged them to pursue stage careers as a “sister act.”

Cissy is experimenting with up-dos. (That's actually a good call, I think.)

Cissy is experimenting with up-dos. (That’s actually a good call, I think.)

And Buffy is practicing her autograph, although she can only print it. She’s also thinking about changing her name.

"Buffy doesn't sound very show biz," she says.

“Buffy doesn’t sound very show biz,” she says.

The girls start neglecting their schoolwork and their friends, and French gets a call from Buffy’s teacher about the song Buffy performed during show and tell. It seems that one more chorus of the bawdy lyrics would have caused authorities to raid the school.

If you took a drink every time French rolled his eyes or Bill rubbed his head during this episode, you might not survive for next week's Family Affair Friday.

If you took a drink every time French rolled his eyes or Bill rubbed his head during this episode, you might not survive for next week’s Family Affair Friday.

Buffy thinks her teacher is just a square who couldn’t tell a “backdrop” from a “second banana.”

Soon the problem escalates to the point that Cissy wants to quit school and pursue stardom full-time. Between head-rubs, Bill agrees to watch Buffy and Cissy perform.

In Laura’s apartment, the Davis Sisters (Vicky and Venetia) perform “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy.

Mere pictures alone can’t really do justice to this scene.

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Buffy includes some choreography that is almost Toddlers and Tiaras-esque.

Bill looks uncomfortable as well he might.

Bill looks uncomfortable, as well he might.

Stay in school, girls. Stay in school.

Stay in school, girls. Stay in school.

Bill decides to take Laura out to dinner to discuss the situation.

The go to his favorite night spot, natch.

They go to his favorite night spot, natch.

Bill expresses his worry about the girls’ desire to quit school. Laura doesn’t see what the big deal is–she dropped out.

Eventually, he gets her to understand that taking the girls "out of their little world" would be detrimental.

Eventually, he gets her to understand that taking the girls “out of their little world” would be detrimental.

With the girls the next day, Laura lays it on thick about the downside of stardom.

She talks about working so hard from a young age that she had "never been a kid--no laughs, no fun."

She talks about working so hard from a young age that she had “never been a kid–no laughs, no fun.”

It’s hard to watch that scene now without wondering if that’s how Anissa Jones felt about her childhood.

Laura's sudden attitude change puzzles Cissy.

Laura’s sudden attitude change puzzles Cissy, and it causes the girls to do some reflecting.

Later, they talk to Uncle Bill. Cissy and Buffy still plan a stage career–but they will wait until after they finish school.

Hey, Jody's back! And probably wondering what the hell everyone's talking about.

Hey, Jody’s back! And probably wondering what the hell everyone’s talking about.

Bill is so relieved to have this nightmare end that he offers to take the kids out to a movie. When French reminds him that it’s a school night, he rescinds the offer, causing Buffy to utter the line that must appear in every theater-themed classic TV episode: “That’s show biz!”

Then the kids leave the room in the most natural and normal way possible.

Then the kids leave the room in the most natural and normal way possible.

Commentary

Joan Blondell plus a musical number equals a memorable episode (whether you want to remember the musical number or not).

The cheesy show biz lingo gets old pretty fast.

Got to hand it to the set decorators--every apartment in the Davis building is ugly in its own unique way.

Hats off to the set decorators–every apartment in the Davis building is ugly in its own unique way.

Guest Cast

Laura London: Joan Blondell. Ruby: Ernestine Wade. Blondell had a long career in films, mainly in “wisecracking friend of the leading lady” roles in light musicals. Some highlights from her career in the 1930s include Golddiggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and The Crowd Roars. She was once married to Dick Powell. Later, she had more serious roles in such films as Cry Havoc (fellow Family Affair alum Ann Sothern also starred) and the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She had regular roles in the TV series Here Come the Brides and Banyon and played Vi in 1978’s Grease.

Wade played Sapphire Stevens in the TV series Amos and Andy.

Fun Facts

Buffy’s favorite food is southern fried chicken.

Musical Notes

Gypsy–my favorite musical–struck a chord with TV producers. Here are other examples of what happens when Sondheim meets sitcom.