Death of ‘Alice’ a personal loss to ’70s generation

  • By Lisa Black Chicago Tribune
  • Wednesday, June 4, 2014 8:20pm
  • Life

Alice died, and I feel as if I’ve lost a family member.

Her real name, of course, was Ann B. Davis, but she played the role of the wisecracking housekeeper on “The Brady Bunch” so well that it seems hard to believe that she ever aged, that she was 88 and that she died after a fall Sunday.

The show was so thoroughly ingrained in my childhood psyche that for years I would say in a funny voice, “Pork chops and applesauce,” without realizing where I picked up the phrase.

Then one day my husband was channel-surfing, and there was Peter mimicking Humphrey Bogart: “Pork chops and applesauce.” We burst out laughing.

It’s scary in a way; I feel like a piece of my childhood has crumbled.

In January we lost actor Russell Johnson, the Professor in the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” who died at age 89. Again, in my mind, the Professor never aged. He’s that benign middle-aged guy who, like Alice, seemed to be the only “real” person in their respective casts.

“The Brady Bunch” was so outrageously wholesome that my brother, sister and I mocked its characters mercilessly. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” we’d whine, though I secretly coveted her perfect blond hair and popularity. We seized with laughter at Greg’s dorky attempts to be hip; meanwhile, I harbored a secret crush on Peter.

Despite our public insistence that “The Brady Bunch” was the lamest show ever, we turned on the TV to watch it day after day. When I asked my brother what he remembered of the show, he responded:

“All I can think of is the ‘dancing’ Bradys dressed in bad psychedelic costumes singing: ‘Gotta keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, movin’. ”

And then he cursed me for planting the song in his head.

Looking back at the context of the times — the show originally aired from 1969 to 1974 — I realize that Alice presented a consistent voice of reason that was comforting. She was always there, cooking for the newly blended family, cleaning up scrapes, helping the six siblings resolve their feuds.

My memories of Brady spats overlap with personal recollections during the same era. I can almost feel the resentment return when I think about how my brother used to finish off the chocolate chip cookies before I could get to them.

I also remember feeling a little funny about Alice’s suitor, Sam the butcher. What if he took her away from the Bradys? How would they get along without her?

My own home life was fairly turbulent; my parents divorced while I was in high school. I grew increasingly aware that other families had problems, too, but cynically observed how they hid them well.

While we are not defined by the television we watched as youngsters, I wonder about long-term effects — if any — on each generation. We were still naive, lacking much of the sarcastic brand of humor that dominates prime-time television today.

During the 1970s, “The Love Boat” and Cher’s skin-baring outfits on the “Sonny and Cher Show” were about as steamy as prime-time television got. And that was enough to make my grandmother look nervous, as though she might flee the room.

Over time, “The Brady Bunch” gave way to other ’70s sitcoms that I affectionately loved to hate. I admit to buying knee socks — and wearing them to school — that showed Fonzie saying “Aaaay” from “Happy Days.”

Not everyone associates Davis with Alice. Before joining Brady Bunch, she played Schultzy on “The Bob Cummings Show,” some of my older friends noted.

I have a hard time imagining today’s youth mourning the future passing of a television character. They have so many choices on cable, it must be tough to connect on the same level.

We were stuck with “The Brady Bunch,” like it or not, because we had so few TV stations.

And that is still groovy by me.

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