Florence Henderson enters the beachside Los Angeles hotel looking just as trim, taut, and terrific as you’d expect. She’s right on time and as she walks through the lobby, hotel guests and staff swivel their necks like star-struck giraffes to watch the beloved blonde actress and singer make her way to the restaurant. Whether they know her from her recent work on MTV’s The Surreal Life and the ABC series Samantha Who?, or from her legendary turn as Carol Brady on the hit sitcom The Brady Bunch, one thing is clear: they all know her—and more importantly, they adore her. Then again, everyone adores Florence Henderson, even our First Lady.
The Brady Effect
As Craig Robinson introduced his sister, Michelle Obama, before she addressed the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he referenced the moral values and cultural touchstones that Mrs. Obama shares with her fellow Americans. By way of example, Robinson also recalled, “As a child, Michelle memorized every episode of The Brady Bunch.” The show’s producers then conjured up the image of Henderson’s Carol Brady character by showing Mrs. Obama and her daughters smiling and waving to Barack Obama’s video image on a screen as he waved back. This video moment replicates the opening credits of each Brady Bunch episode. “I was moved to hear that Mrs. Obama liked the show so much,” Henderson says. “To think that something I was involved in had such a positive effect on so many people’s lives is satisfying beyond words.”
She pauses a moment to reflect on what it means to have this kind of impact on total strangers. “I often get stopped by people who want to thank me for The Brady Bunch,” she says. “I was recently shopping at Bloomingdale’s in Los Angeles and an African-American woman recognized me and burst into tears of joy. She walked over and asked, ‘Please, can I hug you?’ Of course I said yes,” Henderson continues, “and we embraced each other. The woman told me how much The Brady Bunch had meant to her because it showed how a family gets along and solves its problems.”
Henderson, who was born in Dale, Indiana and turned 75 on Valentine’s Day this year, is clearly grateful for her good fortune. “If someone had predicted that I’d be doing acting on television well into my 70s, I’d have said that sounds too good to be true,” she says.
But while her career longevity is a testament to her talent, there is also something else at play—her charisma. In an intriguing measure of Henderson’s mass appeal, The Wall Street Journal named her among television’s top five endorsers based on Q scores, the advertising industry’s celebrity index of consumer appeal.
“Like everyone’s life, mine hasn’t always been easy,” she confides. “When I was doing The Brady Bunch, I commuted by plane to Los Angeles to rehearse and film the show. I missed my husband and children a great deal. I don’t recommend that situation to others.” (Henderson had four children with her ex-husband Ira Bernstein: Lizzie, Barbara, Joseph, and Robert.) At present, she has two grandchildren and is also a step-grandmother.
During those hectic cross-country commuting days, Henderson developed a fear of flying. “I thought to myself, ‘all of this responsibility and I’m on a plane.’ It made me very anxious.” While she also intermittently battled stage fright, Henderson resolved her fear of flying through hypnotherapy. “I took classes at The Hypnosis Motivation Institute (HMI) and eventually became a certified hypnotherapist,” she says. “Hypnotherapy is such a powerful tool, with many potential benefits.” (The HMI is the first hypnotherapy training institution in the US to become nationally accredited by an agency recognized by the US Department of Education.) Henderson eventually married HMI’s founder, Dr. John Kappas, who passed away in 2002. “I just adored him,” she says of her late husband. “His work continues to help people today.”
Over a bowl of garden-fresh vegetable soup, Henderson describes her lifelong interest in various modalities of holistic healing. “I got tuned into holistic healing very young because I was swaybacked and suffered from back pain.” As the youngest of ten children in a financially challenged family, Henderson says she “couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, so one of my sisters would push on and around my spine with her fingers to relieve my distress. Little did we know then,” Henderson remarks with a smile, “that she was giving me acupressure.”
Becoming the 70s Super Mom
As a child, Henderson was a musical and singing prodigy; when she was seventeen, her musical and dramatic talents won her a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. “All of a sudden I had the opportunity to audition for Broadway shows,” she remembers. “I had beginner’s luck and quickly landed a role in Joshua Logan’s musical, Wish You Were Here.” Although the part was minor, Henderson captivated the legendary team of Rodgers & Hammerstein, who spirited her away to play the lead in the national touring company of Oklahoma!
Around this same time, a fellow cast member gave Henderson the name and number of Dr. Getti, a New York chiropractor renowned for healing bad backs and dancers’ injuries. “When Dr. Getti showed me the X-rays he’d taken,” Henderson recalls, “he said, ‘you poor child,’ and explained to me that I’d been born minus a pair of ribs and seemed to have a mild form of spina bifida.” While his treatments made an immediate improvement in Henderson’s spine, Dr. Getti also taught her a priceless lesson. “I realized then that I had the power to listen to my body and to help myself heal,” she says. “Most people never take responsibility for monitoring their health and so remain out of touch with their bodies as long as they’re alive.” Another practical rule of self-care that Henderson learned from Dr. Getti involves the healing power of massage. “If you have a pain somewhere; if you have a lot going on in your life and need to relax,” Henderson says, “the best thing you can do for yourself is to get a massage.”
Before she became the first woman to host television’s The Tonight Show and starred on The Brady Bunch, Henderson also played Maria in The Sound of Music and had lead roles in Fanny and The Girl Who Came to Supper, which was Noel Coward’s last show on Broadway. After performing to sell-out crowds in the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific as Nellie Forbush, Henderson won the starring role of Anna opposite Ricardo Montalban’s King of Siam in the production of The King and I that inaugurated the Los Angeles Music Center. During her run in this musical, Henderson began to notice a loss of hearing. The situation progressed almost to the point of deafness, before specialists determined that a hereditary condition called otosclerosis was the culprit. “In this condition, the bones in the middle ear become soft and sludgy,” Henderson explains. “The nerves get infected, which leads to hearing loss. I had surgery on both ears, which involved implanting stainless steel and Teflon® to help me hear.”
Henderson’s successful surgery forged a long association with the House Ear Institute. “I do fundraising and special appearances for them,” she says. Her other contributions to medical philanthropies include 20 years as the national host of The United Cerebral Palsy Telethon and fundraising for the City of Hope Hospital just outside of Los Angeles (www.cityofhope.org/). “City of Hope is one of only 40 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers nationwide,” Henderson explains. “They are also an independent biomedical research, treatment and education institution. I make myself very available to them because their innovative treatments and compassionate patient care makes them a leader in helping patients around the world conquer cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.”
Because spiritual experience is equally important to Henderson, she also does fundraising for the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana. “The sisters are one of the largest Benedictine communities of women in the United States,” Henderson says. “The sisters serve in the areas of education, parish work, health care, counseling, retreat and spirituality work, social services, and mission work in other countries.”
Nourishing her own spirituality through physical and mental self-care is a constant of Henderson’s daily life. “I love to do deep breathing when I am exercising, driving, or at home and relaxing,” she says. “For cardiovascular conditioning, I walk on a treadmill every morning.”
Henderson also takes regular Pilates classes at a gym near her Los Angeles home. “After I do Pilates, I always feel and look a little taller,” she says with enthusiasm. “The no-impact exercises are gentle yet they help you stretch and strengthen core abdominal and back muscles. Pilates can help you get in shape, stay in shape, or recover from muscle strains and build up core strength.”
When she’s not doing Pilates, Henderson also takes yoga classes. Because she loves the physical and mental benefits of yoga so much, she jokes, “I should have a yoga show or do a yoga DVD called ‘Flow Yoga with Flo.’ Movement is so critically important to well-being,” she says, “but so is following a proper diet and taking individually tailored nutritional supplements.” Like many avatars of positive aging, Henderson is highly disciplined regarding the food and supplements she puts in her body. “I avoid sugar, salt, and all processed foods,” Henderson explains. “I get scientific nutritional advice from chiropractors and doctors, I read Life Extension® magazine and take my supplements religiously,” she says. “I like staying informed about nutritional supplement research, so it was very enjoyable for me when I visited the Life Extension® offices in Florida, where I spoke with some of the staff.”
As Henderson sees it, “Most people seem very afraid of change, yet everything is always changing, and this is especially true of our bodies.” If you focus on how to best nurture yourself and stay balanced amidst life’s changes, however, Henderson says, “You’re going to stay positive and raise the odds of healing any health problems.”
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