Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Brady Bunch - It's a Sunshine Day: The Best of The Brady Bunch

Looking back, 1969 was a pretty important year for me. It was the beginning of my formal schooling, with my entrance into kindergarten that fall. And it was the summer I met the best friend of my childhood, when Ricky and his family moved in just down the street. All in all, it's the first full year I can remember fairly clearly even now, not just fleeting bits and pieces from my earlier toddlerhood.

1969 was also pretty memorable for the rest of the world - one of the most pivotal years, full of significant historical and cultural events both here and abroad. As such, this current year (2019) has been chockablock with fiftieth anniversary tributes to that time and era. Over the past twelve months, there have been celebrations and memorials, movies, films, books and museum spectaculars commemorating events as various as the Stonewall riots, Chappaquiddick, the 'Miracle' Mets of baseball, the Manson Murders... and the first artificial heart implantation, 747 flight, ATM machine, and successful moon landing. Culturally,
1969 is remembered for The Beatles' final public performance as a group (the legendary Abbey Road Studios "rooftop concert"), the debut of Monty Python's Flying Circus on BBC1, Woodstock, Altamont, the rise and fall of 'supergroup' Blind Faith, and the deaths of Judy Garland and Brian Jones. It was the year of the debut of beloved children's series like Scooby Doo, The Wacky Races/Penelope Pitstop, Sesame Street and The Pink Panther, and the final seasons for programs fondly recalled to this day. like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Star Trek, and the ignominious demise of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. And as can be judged by the spate of "50th Anniversary" box sets being released this year, 1969 was also a big year for music, with the release of celebrated classics such as The Beatles' Abbey Road, The
Band's Music From Big Pink, The Doors' The Soft Parade,  Aoxomoxoa by The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King, The Who's Tommy, The Kinks' Arthur, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and debut albums by Santana, David Bowie, The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, The Jackson Five, Elton John and Chicago.

However, there's one culturally significant golden anniversary this year which seems to me hasn't received that much attention: The Brady Bunch premiered on ABC TV fifty years ago today, on September 29th, 1969.

This show was a rite of passage during the early '70s; EVERY kid I knew - shoot, probably every kid in America - watched this show religiously. On Fridays during the summer, the streets would clear of children early on those evenings, as everyone would be inside viewing the program. The critics at the time hated it - but I and ten of millions of other kids like me didn't know about or care about TV pundits panning the show or putting it down. We all just loved seeing kids on screen, doing kid stuff in a bright Day-Glo California world, where the weather was always perfect and the problems always happily resolved in thirty minutes.

The inspiration for The Brady Bunch was a magazine article that longtime TV producer Sherwood Schwartz read in 1966, stating that a third of all U.S. families had at least one child from a previous marriage, Schwartz, the creator of Gilligan's Island and It's About Time, two comedies running on CBS-TV at the time, was searching for a new project as both of these programs were reaching the end of their network TV runs (both were cancelled in 1967). So he wrote up a 30-minute pilot episode about a blended family - a man with three boys marrying a woman with three girls, along with several other potential story ideas regarding the joys and problems this new family would face. Schwartz then shopped it around to the three major networks at the time (ABC, CBS and NBC), where all three expressed a modicum of interest but insisted on changes to the situation and story. The producer, who felt he got burned by the networks with the changes he was forced to make with Gilligan's Island, refused to compromise, and shelved the concept for the time being.

It was two years later, in the wake of the success of the Desilu/United Artists motion picture comedy Yours, Mine And Ours, that the "blended family" show pitch was revived. The movie, starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, was based on the true story of the Beardsleys, a Navy officer with ten children who married a woman with eight children of her own. The film was a huge hit, one of the top grossing movies of 1968 and earning back more than ten times its production cost (my parents took my siblings and I to see it at the old drive-in near Janaf Shopping Center in Norfolk, with all of the kids dressed in pajamas seated in the back of the VW van). Of course, nothing changes a corporation's mind like the prospect for huge financial gain... so it was then that the TV networks changed their minds about Schwartz's pilot, and came calling. ABC won the bidding war for rights to the program, and production/casting efforts began immediately. [side note: The real Beardsley family ended up settling in the Monterey, California area and ran several businesses, including a donut shop near the Naval Postgraduate School that I used to regularly patronize as a high school student there.].

The producer began by casting the children; his vision was that of three blonde girls and three dark-haired boys. Over 1,200 kids auditioned, with Schwartz personally interviewing more than a third of them, looking for the right mix/fit. In the end, he cast Maureen McCormick, Eve Plumb and Susan Olsen as Marcia, Jan and Cindy Brady, and Barry Williams, Christopher Knight and Michael Lookinland as Greg, Peter and Bobby Brady (this despite the fact that Lookinland had blond hair; it was dyed dark for the duration of the program).

The adult roles were more of a problem. Originally, Schwartz had his eyes on longtime radio and TV veteran Monty Margetts in the role of Alice, the housekeeper, Joyce Bulifant as mother Carol Brady, and for the role of patriarch Mike Brady... none
other than Gene Hackman. But the network balked on Hackman, who, despite his Best Supporting Actor nomination the previous year for his role in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, they considered a relative "unknown" with little TV experience. And Schwartz replaced Bulifant with Florence Henderson after Henderson gave him a phenomenal screen test for the role. With Henderson as Carol Brady, the producer determined
that the role of Alice should be more comedic, serving as the mother's foil, and replaced Margetts with award-winning TV comedy veteran Ann B. Davis. With the network balking on Hackman, Schwartz turned his attention to actor Robert Reed, a Shakespearean-trained actor who had recently completed five seasons on the courtroom drama The Defenders and who was at the time appearing on
Broadway. Reed was under contract to both Paramount Pictures and ABC, and as such was semi-obligated to accept the role of Mike Brady... a decision that Schwartz would soon regret. At any rate, with the cast in place, filming of the Brady Bunch pilot occurred during the second week of October, 1968, with the show destined for an early Friday slot for the upcoming (1969-70) season.

Most of the storylines and overall focus of the series centered around the Brady kids and their trials and tribulations, the ordeals of growing up, both serious (sibling quarrels, parental restrictions, and adolescent love) and somewhat trivial (breaking Mom's favorite vase, missing dolls and treehouse admittance) - all semi-relatable to most kids around that period, which made the show that much more popular with the preteen set. Despite the "blended family" premise of the show, during the first season this aspect was rarely mentioned, and in the following seasons, not at all. The two halves of the family integrated relatively seamlessly - for instance, the kids seemed to have no problem calling their stepparents "Mom" or "Dad".

In the first couple of seasons, there wasn't much thought regarding making the Brady children into a singing group (although an album of Christmas standards sung by the kids was released in the fall of 1970). It wasn't until halfway through the show's run, on the "Dough Re Mi" episode (#65) aired during the third season in January 1972, that the first overt moves were made to establish the Brady Kids as a legitimate pop group. Two songs are featured on this episode: "We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter" and "Time to Change" (yup - this was the one where Peter's voice was changing):

Three months later, the first album, Meet The Brady Bunch, was released, featuring those songs plus a number of covers of recent hits, including "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo", "Baby I'm-A Want You" and "American Pie". Pushed by the network and by exposure on the TV show, Meet The Brady Bunch actually charted, peaking at #108 on the Billboard 200.

Over the next year, more episodes featuring the kids singing were aired, including "Amateur Night" in January 1973 (featuring the tunes "Keep On" and "It's A Sunshine Day") and "Adios,
Johnny Bravo" in September 1973 (where the kids warble "Good Time Music"). During that time, the group released two more pop albums targeted to teens/preteens, The Kids From The Brady Bunch in December 1972 and The Brady Bunch Phonographic Album in June 1973 (in addition, there was a duet album featuring just McCormick and Knight released in late
1973) - none of these albums charted. The group (now billed as "The Brady Bunch Kids") also began a national concert tour, with their first public appearance at the National Orange Show in San Bernadino, CA in May 1972, and subsequent shows at places like Knott's Berry Farm, Atlantic City's Steel Pier and various state fairs. Producer Schwartz wasn't happy
with this latter development, as it began to impact the production schedule of the TV show and removed the kids from his constant direct influence. The Brady Bunch Kids weren't music superstars per se, but they were considered a safe and reliable concert draw for the entire family, and with more bookings nationwide, their popularity grew. As the fifth season wound down, the kids and their agents began pressuring Schwartz to include more musical episodes for the upcoming season.

The Brady Bunch was never a critical or ratings hit. The best the show ever placed in the Nielsens during its entire run was during during its third season (1971-72), when it ended the year just outside of the top 30 programs. That was the same year the
Top 5-rated show Sanford & Son began airing on rival NBC, a program The Brady Bunch was paired against for the next three seasons and regularly got stomped by, in terms of viewership. By then, in many ways, the show was set up as sort of a sacrificial lamb by ABC - I assume they figured they were going to lose that time slot anyway, so draw what viewership it could at 8:00 pm on Fridays (primarily preteen) and use it as a "loss leader" for the more popular and successful network shows that came on immediately afterwards (the top 20 programs The Partridge Family in 1971-72 and 1972-73, and The Six Million Dollar Man in 1973-74). That sufficed for a time, but by late 1973 the show's Nielsen rankings were mired into the mid-50s, with no foreseeable prospects for improvement... not that they didn't try. With the kids in the regular cast getting older, Schwartz made an attempt to goose viewership by the show's much-needed younger
audience with the introduction of a new character late in the season: the Bradys' cousin Oliver (played by Robbie Rist). But the new character was whiny and annoying, upsetting the core Brady family balance, and accelerating the program's slide (to this day, "'Cousin Oliver' Syndrome" is a much-recognized and maligned TV trope, the telltale sign of a show going downhill).

In addition, Robert Reed was increasingly becoming a problem for Sherwood Schwartz. Reed had always considered the show silly and beneath his status as a dramatic and stage actor, and held the producer in contempt over the content and premise of this and his previously-produced CBS comedies, full of what Reed saw as "gag lines" and zany scenarios that pandered to the lowest common denominator. Over the years on the program, Reed fought constantly with production staff and directors, and routinely peppered Schwartz with memos complaining about the themes and content of show scripts and detailed dissertations over character motivations. The producer generally ignored Reed's protests, but on occasion, to alleviate on-set tensions, Schwartz allowed Reed to direct some episodes [To his credit, however, Reed did not direct his disenchantment and dissatisfaction regarding the show at his cast members; He was a consummate professional in front of the camera, and got along well with all of his co-stars. He was especially beloved by the Brady Bunch kids, who saw him as a true father figure].

However, by the end of the 1973-74 season, things between the star and the producer had come to a head. The final show of that season, "The Hair-Brained Scheme", had Bobby trying to get rich by selling homemade hair tonic, with the usual "wacky hijinks" ensuing. Reed sent another memo to Schwartz, pointing out in intricate detail the myriad problems he saw in the hackneyed premise of the script, and suggesting changes. The producer, either by oversight or by choice, didn't read the memo nor make the requested script changes in time for filming, leading to Reed walking off the set. Therefore, the family patriarch does not appear at all in the final episode. That was the final straw for Schwartz, who began making plans to replace/remove the Mike Brady character for the show's upcoming sixth season [As Carol Brady's prior marital status (whether she was divorced or widowed) was never explicitly specified, the producer contemplated writing Reed out of the program and bringing Carol's ex-husband back into the family].

While Schwartz was struggling to deal with the twin problems of Reed and the kids' musical desires, ABC cancelled The Brady Bunch at the end of the season, making any such moves unnecessary. With 117 episodes in the can, the program just barely made the threshold for syndication. In hindsight, the show's cancellation was in all likelihood a blessing in disguise for Schwartz, as it prevented him from overt conflict with his show's stars, and improved his bank balance (with compounded royalties from repeated airings of the program). The Brady Bunch entered syndication a year later, in September 1975... and has never left it. Every single day for the past forty-plus years, somewhere in the world, an episode of this old, formerly critically-reviled program has aired, and it continues to charm audiences, create new fans and reconnect old fans to its uncomplicated, wholesome, nostalgic "good clean fun" premise.

By the 1990s, even with The Brady Bunch firmly established as a pop culture icon after fifteen years of reruns, almost all of The Brady Bunch Kids albums (with the exception of Merry Christmas From The Brady Bunch) had long been out of print. MCA Records, eager to cash in on Brady nostalgia, issued the compilation album It's A Sunshine Day: The Best of The Brady Bunch in 1993. This set features selections from all four Brady Bunch albums, along with a cut from the Chris Knight & Maureen McCormick album and an unreleased Barry Williams number (Williams began work on a solo album in 1974; six tracks were completed before both the show and the album were cancelled). Almost all of the fan-favorite songs are featured here, including the one that, for good or ill, The Bradys will be most remembered for - the title track, "it's A Sunshine Day":

[For some reason, what is in my opinion the best song ever done on the show was left off of this disc - perhaps because it featured another cast member other than one of the Brady Kids. It was on "The Show Must Go On?", a fourth season episode aired in November 1972. In this episode, Marcia (Maureen McCormick) and her mother Carol (Florence Henderson) perform the song "Together Wherever We Go" (from the hit 1959 Broadway stage musical "Gypsy") for Marcia's high school talent show, the "Family Night Frolics". Its a bit fondly remembered by aficionados of the program, and cited by McCormick herself as her all-time favorite moment performing on the show. A clip of this performance is located here.]
The Allmusic review of this album sort of says it all:
"If you have fond memories of watching The Brady Bunch while growing up or if you have all the episodes on tape, there's no escaping it -- It's A Sunshine Day: The Best of the Brady Bunch is indispensable. If your appreciation of The Brady Bunch is not so intense, the abundance of bad singing and playing that clutter this disc will not be charming or endearing; it will just be irritating."
I suppose I'm one in the former group; I've owned my copy of this compilation, on either cassette or CD, for decades, and still derive a guilty pleasure from listening to and reveling in these happy, goofy songs. But the attitude by which you decide to approach this album is up to you - I'm just acting as the source for you all! Here for your listening (dis)pleasure is It's A Sunshine Day: The Best of The Brady Bunch, released by MCA Records on March 2nd, 1993. In any case, as always, let me know what you think.

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