February 28, 2004

'Brady Bunch' Mom Whips Up Older Fans in Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Hollywood Reporter) - In a new stage show called "Florida Follies," quintessential TV mom Florence Henderson pours herself into a tight black vinyl miniskirt and bustier -- with whip to match -- for a knowing parody of the all-American housewife.

If indeed Carol Brady had a naughty side, it might look a lot like this saucy, vaudeville-style revue, bankrolled by a group of longtime New York-based theatrical producers. The show, which settled in at the Parker Playhouse last month for a winter run, is a throwback to the old days of variety, when dancing dogs, borscht belt comics, long-legged showgirls and ventriloquists were staples in casinos and big hotels and on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The cost of turning Mrs. Brady into a whip-cracking dominatrix and all the other original costumes, sets and choreography was $1.5 million. It's an investment the show's producers say will pay off over several seasons here.

"We believe that what audiences want is pure entertainment," said producer Martin Markinson, owner of the Helen Hayes Theater in New York and operator of the Parker Playhouse. "They don't necessarily need a musical with a book."

Markinson, who also runs the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles, has produced Tony winners like "Torch Song Trilogy" and said "Follies" is not Broadway bound. In fact, it will likely never tour at all.

"It's a destination show," he said, adding that it is the audience who will bear the cost of the travel to see this production, just as it has for all manner of variety shows in Branson, Mo., and more recently for long-standing concerts in Las Vegas starring Celine Dion and Elton John.

The skyrocketing costs of touring Broadway shows and midsize theatrical productions have left many theaters like the Parker Playhouse dark for weeks at a time in recent years. That's why destination shows like this one -- which require a relatively modest capital investment and only slight refreshing each season -- look to be the way of the future, particularly in markets with lots of tourists and retirees.

"We didn't expect to make money this year, but we've really done what we intended to do," said executive producer Ken Greengrass, who initiated the project. "We've established the 'Florida Follies' as something to see here."

Henderson, a TV icon who -- refreshingly -- never tires of "The Brady Bunch" afterlife, said she was happy to take part in this experiment, primarily because "it was something different."

"For me, I think the best thing is always just around the corner," she said backstage between shows last week. "I really like working. I think I'll retire when I'm 95."

Modeled, particularly in an economic sense, on the long-running "Palm Springs Follies" in California, "Florida Follies" also features a cast of "retired" showgirls (no one under 55 need apply), all veterans of Las Vegas, the Lido, Broadway and so on.

"It's really a celebration of life and energy," said Henderson, who had just completed a run with "Singular Sensations" in New York before joining this cast. "We don't make fun of age. We embrace it. We don't put anyone down. There's very little talk of it."

That the "Follies" performers all look fairly incredible for their ages (or any age) is among the reasons the show is a hit, she said. "I receive mail from people who say: 'This has inspired me so. I'm coming back next week with my mother,"' she said.

In a career spanning five decades -- from an early stint on "Today" to "Later Today" and those indelible commercials for Wesson Oil and Polident -- Henderson is now the host of the Lifetime informational series "Speaking of Women's Health." Still vivacious and quite youthful, she said she works out just about every day and watches what she eats. That there is additional, long-range gold for the "Follies" producers to mine in the cross-promotion of numerous stay-fit, stay-young health products is not lost on her or any of the participants in this show.

"This show will be an annuity for my investors," said Ellen M. Krass, a producing partner. "We are definitely bringing it back next year." A deal to air it on PBS also is in the works.

For her part, Henderson (who also hopes to be back next year) said she doesn't mind at all that much of the allure rests on a raunchy sendup of her sainted TV character.

"'The Brady Bunch' is part of the fabric of my career," she said. "It certainly isn't all of my career. I had one before, and I've done so many things after. But to grow, you have to accept your past. You have to learn to love it. There's always another generation (of TV viewers) coming up. It just seems to mean so much to people. So this has been lots of fun."

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