Arts & Resistance theme semester to engage campus, community
When you think of Ann B. Davis, it’s as the center square of a grid, surrounded by the loving people who weren’t related to her but nonetheless—somehow, as the song said—formed a family. So what led her to life in a religious communal home in Colorado?
With a twinkle in her eye, a sturdy hairstyle, and a no-nonsense blue dress, Alice the housekeeper was the nucleus of the The Brady Bunch family, serving up Swiss steak, homemade cookies, and one-liners. The kids are fighting? Call in Alice. How about a snack after school? Alice is your gal. Need to laugh at someone while she flirts with Sam the Butcher? Alice.
As Alice, Ann B. Davis, a 1948 U-M graduate, carved out a special place in pop culture history. She would go on to reprise the roll in spinoffs and specials once the show ended its five-season run; she would create a cookbook based on recipes related to the show; she would star in a Swiffer ad. Surely you, consumer, want to clean with the same product as the world’s most recognizable housekeeper, right? And people did.
Davis was “the glue that held The Brady Brunch together,” said Barry Williams, who played Greg on the show, when Davis passed away in 2014.
Davis’s journey to fame and a 1970’s version of fortune is highlighted throughout the collection of her papers and photographs at the Bentley Historical Library. She grew up in Schenectady, New York, where she, her twin sister, and their brother and parents performed variety shows in the living room. She and her twin sister, along with their mother, performed in community theater and comedy sketches at school.
The twin Davis girls then moved to Ann Arbor, where Ann decided to study pre-med. “I got as far as my second semester,” she wrote in autobiographical papers that are part of her collection. “That’s when I hit chemistry and that’s when I decided I didn’t have the brains for a medical career.”
She switched to speech and drama, and took whatever comedic roles she could find. After graduating in 1948, Davis found roles in summer stock, then community theater in a California town “the size of a small living room.”
She was, however, on the cusp of getting her big break. A friend wrote material, and the two of them performed it in a cabaret venue at the unfashionable end of Sunset Boulevard. Jack Lemmon came. Liberace came. Davis got an audition for a show starring comedian Bob Cummings; she tried out for Cummings and a very encouraging George Burns. She became “Schultzy,” the Girl Friday on The Bob Cummings Show, and two Emmy Awards for the part secured her stardom.
She then returned to the stage, including a time when she replaced Carol Burnett on Broadway in Once Upon A Mattress. Then her father and a close friend died, leaving Davis uncertain about her next steps. “Personally and professionally I was in the pits,” Davis wrote. A USO trip to Vietnam changed everything and “began to turn my life around.”
Then came the second big break of her career: Her casting on The Brady Bunch, which became an iconic television show that now airs every day in reruns around the world. Davis’s character, Alice, was cast as the housekeeper who took care of Mike Brady and his boys, then stayed on when the Brady men joined households with the lovely lady, Carol, and her three golden-haired girls.
The Bentley collection sheds light on this era of Astroturf and polyester, with original scripts such as “The Hair-Brained Scheme” episode, along with remembrances from Davis and castmates. For anyone who grew up watching the Brady family from 1969 to 1974 or during reruns in later years, the Bentley collection is full of nostalgia and revelations—such as the fact that fellow cast members kept in touch with Davis many years after they worked together.
A letter from Susan Olsen, who played Cindy, updated Davis about her boyfriend and her life. “I really hope you can meet him sometime soon. No rush, I have a feeling he’ll be around for a long time,” Olsen wrote. “I enjoyed seeing both you and Flo in Naked Gun 33 1/3,” wrote Barry Williams in another letter, addressed to “Annie B.”
Their affection for her is genuine, and with good reason. “Alice was very real because that’s the way
Ann is. My best memories are of her quietly doing her needlework, waiting for her next scene while complete havoc was going on around her,” Florence Henderson (Carol Brady) said.
Davis loved the big family, onscreen and off, and they loved her. So it makes sense, in a way, that Davis later moved into a communal home where she shared the housekeeping duties, sorted other people’s socks, and offered advice to parents and teens. The difference was: This didn’t happen on television. It happened in real life, far away from Hollywood, in the mountains of Colorado, when Davis stopped worshipping show business and started worshipping God.
After The Brady Bunch, Davis—a self-described cradle Episcopalian—began to seek more fulfillment through religious life. This led to her meeting Colorado Bishop William C. Frey and his wife, and ultimately took her far from the Hollywood hills. She spoke to groups about her faith, volunteered to help homeless people, and never missed her old life.
“All the things in the world that are supposed to make you happy were mine. Money, travel, awards, the acknowledgment of my peers, fame. But I wasn’t satisfied; something was missing,” she said in a 1985 interview about her move to Colorado. “It’s a little surprising to get to my age and find out I’m getting to the good part.”
Davis moved with Bishop Frey and his wife in 1996 to San Antonio, where she passed away in 2014 at age 88. Her papers were donated to the Bentley in March 2015 and are open to the public.
Jamie Sherman Blinder