By Mary Giorgio
“I just always loved people and making them feel good. I knew early on that I wanted to entertain.” –Florence Henderson
Before she was one of television’s most beloved moms, Florence Henderson spent her formative years in Indiana singing for coins at grocery stores. From an early life of poverty, Henderson rose up to become a successful singer and actress.
Henderson was born on February 14, 1934, in the small town of Dale, Indiana. She was the youngest of ten children and the daughter of a tobacco sharecropper.
As a young girl, Henderson worked alongside her siblings on tobacco farms throughout Southern Indiana and Kentucky. Her job was to pick worms off the plants. As she got older, Henderson took jobs babysitting and cleaning to help support her family.
Henderson’s musical career began as a child. Her mother taught her to sing, so she could perform for coins. These performances often took place at the grocery store, where Henderson would sing while sitting on the counter.
Henderson attended St. Bernard Elementary School in Rockport, Indiana. She was educated by nuns from the order of the Sisters of St. Benedict. Henderson later served as a spokesperson, fundraiser and donor for the nuns. She credited them with giving her the hope and loving care that led to her successful career.
After completing high school at St. Francis Academy in Owensboro, Henderson moved to New York City in 1951 to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Henderson’s ability to move to New York City and study at the school was the result of an anonymous donation. Her benefactor had heard her sing and paid for her move and schooling.
In New York City, Henderson’s career flourished. Within a year, she had earned a spot in the Broadway musical, Wish You Were Here. Soon after, she accepted the lead female role in a traveling production of Oklahoma!. Over the years, Henderson was cast in many musical productions both on and off Broadway.
Henderson appeared on a number of television productions in the 1960s. She served as the Today Girl for NBC, reporting on weather and news. She was also one of the first female guests on the Tonight Show in 1962. In 1963, Henderson signed with VCA Victor (now RCA) to record several albums.
In 1969, Henderson was cast in her famed role as Carol Brady on the Brady Bunch. The show ran for five seasons, from 1969 to 1974. While it was not hugely popular in its day, the show became iconic in syndication.
After the Brady Bunch ended, Henderson guest starred in many TV comedies and commercials. She was the spokesperson for Wesson Oil from 1974 to 1996. Henderson also hosted a cooking show on Nashville Network for several years.
Henderson loved game shows, and over the years, she made a number of appearances on shows like Hollywood Squares, Password and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. She also competed in the 11th season of Dancing with the Stars in 2010.
In 1991, Henderson’s ties to Indiana brought her home for what became an annual event. Henderson was asked to sing “God Bless America” at the Indy 500. She returned each year to the Indy 500 for the next 23 years to sing the patriotic song. In 2016, Henderson served as the grand marshal. It would be her last appearance at the Indy 500.
Henderson died on November 24, 2016, in Los Angeles. She was 82. Known throughout her career for her cheerful disposition, Henderson will be remembered for years to come as an iconic TV mom, much-loved actress, and beloved Hoosier.