“It was a
spectactular turd,” says Susan Olsen. She speaks of the infamous
Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which inexplicably ran on ABC-TV for a
very short time in 1976 and 1977. Olsen played Cindy Brady, the
youngest of the clan, on the original series from 1969-1974, and in
just about every reunion project since. But she harbors a certain
horror for this first Brady reunion, a reincarnation that should
have remained deceased.
original Brady series defied the boundaries of logic, this
next series sank the seventies into an even deeper puzzlement. It
featured singing and dancing Bradys (even though most of them could
not sing and dance), cringe-inducing “comedy” sketches, a “fake”
sibling, Rip Taylor, dancing mermaids, watered-down disco music and
a leaking pool surrounded by jerry-rigged electrical wiring. The
deadly shock of the show did not come from the live wires.
with the fortieth anniversary of the debut of the original Brady
Bunch sitcom, Olsen has co-authored (along with Ted Nichelson
and Lisa Sutton) the new book Love To Love You Bradys: The
Bizarre Story of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (ECW Press).
that, yeah, the show is bad; we’re saying it’s a turkey,” Olsen
says. “But we also don’t want to put it down. The book itself is
really a labor of love. There is nothing to apologize for now. The
show is so spectacularly bizarre that it’s something to be proud
applying the old standby “it’s so bad, it’s good,” actually works
here. Almost. The book refers to “good seeds, rotten fruit,” in that
bad things happen to good people.
yourself, however: if you are not familiar with this space oddity,
it will change you forever.
“For me, a lot
of the variety hour had been kind of blocked out,” Olsen says, “but
it’s important for us to remember the variety hour because if we
forget, something like this could happen again.”
Vaudeville-type entertainment of this type, with tiresome guest
stars like Tony Randall and Milton Berle, corny jokes and sequined
jumpsuits, was already dying by the late seventies. It was laid to
rest by the hip, young, racy, urban humor of NBC’s Saturday Night
Live. Nevertheless, a desperate ABC smelled ratings, and ordered
the Bunch back.
At the time,
Olsen was a young teen who had returned to “real life” after the
cancellation of the original series. She says, “I figured I wouldn’t
be working again until I was eighteen. Once you get past thirteen,
there are enough eighteen-year-olds who can play young. They’ll get
hired because [producers] don’t want to deal with the child labor
laws. The closer you get to eighteen, the less hirable you are. So I
figured, I’ll just kick back and have a normal teenagerhood, and go
to high school.
“I always went
back to real life. I always went back to regular public school when
we weren’t filming. I did not want to have some kind of weird
sheltered life. I was really adamant about it when I was a kid. I
think a lot of those [TV actor] kids did not know what it was like
to be a teenager because they weren’t living as regular teenagers.”
Yet every time
Olsen tried to get out, they kept pulling her back in.
I’m only fifteen,” she says. “Hopefully, I won’t be held to this
with too much scrutiny. I made my friends promise not to watch it.
And, of course they watched it.”
everybody else. The ratings were through the roof. Yet America’s
initial euphoria of seeing the Bradys reunite (“THE BRADYS ARE
BACK!” screamed the ads) faded fast.
“I didn’t love
what I was doing,” Olsen recalls. “I didn’t love the way I looked or
the way I sounded. We weren’t called icons yet. The Brady Bunch
didn’t become cool until the [Brady Bunch satirical movies of
the 1990s]. It was something I had felt mildly ashamed of, at least
from an artistic perspective. It was not something I could say I was
a part of with any pride.”
feeling became mutual. The boat sank almost as quickly as it was
launched. Nine episodes and out. As Olsen has said, that’s eight and
a half too many.
“I was just
hoping that they would concentrate more on the comedy,” Olsen says,
“because Saturday Night Live had just started. And I was
thinking, if only we could move into that kind of material, wouldn’t
that be wonderful. Of course, we didn’t.”
The cast would
get together for many Brady projects in the coming decades, with
varied degrees of success. However, for this very first reunion, it
was not the Bradys that made us recoil in mortification; it was the
disco-fueled material that was thrown at them, and at us.
victims here. All of us are Bradys.
has since christened the series the fourth worst television show of
all time, and if you think about it, that’s really saying something.
Sid and Marty Krofft] told us that we were going to sing and dance,”
Olsen says. “That’s what made the whole thing awful to me. This was
the kind of music that I hated with a passion.”
Bradys were doing the hustle, literally and figuratively.
“At the same
time,” Olsen says, “The Ramones are playing at CBGBs. Bob Marley was
touring then. Right after we wrapped, I saw Led Zeppelin at the [Los
Angeles] Forum for the first time. I was a die-hard fan of Emerson,
Lake and Palmer. Disco was the last thing on my list. I hated it,
and I hated The Donny and Marie Show, and I hated all Sid and
Marty Krofft shows. Aesthetically and artistically, I could not have
been in a worse place.”
suffering brings family closer together. She remains tight with her
cast mates to this day, including actress Geri Reischl, whom pop
culture has deemed “Fake Jan.”
came along, it didn’t feel like she was replacing Eve [Plumb, who
played the original Jan Brady and did not participate in the variety
hour]. Geri made Fake Jan her own. She really did. And I think that
most of the audience felt that way too. She just created her own
As for Eve
Plumb, Olsen disputes the widely held belief that she was not a team
thought that Eve would eventually do it,” Olsen says. “While we were
working on the variety hour, I once said to Florence [Henderson, who
played mother Carol Brady] ‘Wouldn’t we all be doing something else
if we had something else to do?’ And if looks could kill!
“As for Eve, I
was happy for her and I was jealous of her, because she was moving
on [she had recently appeared in the landmark TV movie Dawn:
Portrait of a Teenage Runaway]. But she did consider doing the
show. She did consider it quite seriously, but she could not commit
to the number of episodes. When it finally came down to no, she felt
bad, although I know that she felt positive about the choices she
made. I know that she watched the show and was sort of glad that she
didn’t have to do what we were doing, but it also really bothered
her to see us all together without her. There is the career, and
then there is the family.
really gets a bad rap as being the bitter Brady. She’s very much
like a sister and very much a part of the family. Career wise, she’s
made other choices. My biggest sadness, probably, was the fact that
she wasn’t going to be on the show. Mike Lookinland [who played
Bobby Brady] and Eve Plumb were the two people I was closest to. Eve
and I would have been friends regardless of us doing the show
together. We just have way too much in common.”
On TV as in
life, all bad things must come to a cancellation, some sooner than
while, it stopped being fun,” Olsen says. “The show probably ended
when it should have. It was getting a little more painful.”
They did give
it the old Brady try, though, right up to the pulled plug. Florence
Henderson, the only cast member who had a solid, professional
background in song and dance, was the go-to Brady when it came to
show time. But even Carol Brady could only be tested so much.
“It was sad to
see Florence as frustrated as she was,” Olsen says.
was Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady and was currently building
a career in theatrical musical comedy.
“It was right
up his alley,” Olsen says. “He took it very seriously and he was
very good. Barry was very much a perfectionist. He was very
motivated to stay focused.
“I was not old
enough to be paranoid enough to realize that I might not be doing
this very well. There wasn’t much desire to be that good. But I knew
that Florence was good at it and I knew that Barry was good at it,
and I knew that I wasn’t.”
though, even the worst experiences can produce a fond memory. The
late actor Robert Reed, who played father Mike Brady and was
infamous for making his disdain for the show known, seemed to be
having a gay old time.
“It just goes
to show you,” Olsen says. “There he was, balking at everything on
The Brady Bunch. I mean, he wouldn’t participate in a pie
throwing, because that would be too undignified for Mike Brady. But
he wears a dress on the variety hour.
“He was a
complicated man, but totally lovable and totally likeable. He
actually was a very musical person. He was a brilliant piano player.
And he was very serious about it. So doing this disco and dancing,
it was very difficult for him. He felt very awkward.”
Reed, who was
closeted for all of his life, was the ultimate irony. America would
be in for quite a shock when learning a bit more about its favorite
Olsen says, “A
part of me loves the fact that Mike Brady was gay, so it’s okay. But
it was never okay to him. So I was very upset to see [news of his
death from complications from AIDS, in 1992] come out the way it
did. Now, we finally reached a level of maturity where we can accept
it. Back then, people may applaud you for coming out of the closet,
but they would never hire you again.
thing is that he didn’t accept it in himself. The saddest thing
about Bob is that he didn’t allow himself to have a true love. He
would have been the greatest partner. He had so many interests and
such a love for life. Gosh, it would have been so great to see him
settle down with another guy.”
phenom in general, with its entire unlikely and unpredictable
evolution, is what it is despite what it is.
everybody loved the show because they got a feeling that we did love
each other,” Olsen says. “We literally grew up together. As kids, we
went on concert tours together. We were traveling, and coming back
for reunion after reunion. That bonded us. We have these feelings
for each other because we generally grew up together. When Bob and
Florence would walk on a reunion set, I would feel like everything
is okay because mom and dad are here.”
universality filters down to a simple thought: living and making a
She says, “As
much as I hated the show, and as much as I thought it was horrible,
working is always good.”
Also good is
the badness of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. When VH1 re-ran
the series a few years back, here is how they described it:
We knew when
they were on and why they were on. We just didn’t know what they
The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and its book, go to
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