Hamming it up in heaven
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
Remembering Schultz, Alice & Ann B. Davis
Veteran character actress Ann B. Davis, 88, who played beloved housekeeper Alice Nelson on "The Brady Bunch," died Sunday, June I, of a subdural hematoma sustained after a fall at her home near Leon Springs.
I have never seen "The Brady Bunch," but my mother was a devotee of "The Bob Cummings Show," which aired from 1955 to 1959. Cummings played a bon vivant photographer and Davis his tart-tongued assistant, Schultzy. Even at a young age, I considered Our Hero quite stupid for mooning over an interchangeable series of vapid blonde models when Schultzy was right there. She was smart, funny and pragmatic - much the same as her doppelgänger, Ann B. Davis. With her roles, Davis exemplified a clear case of art imitating life.
Not for nothing did she win back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Show on Cummings' show in 1958 and 1959. Later, the Emmys served as bookends.
While working in Kendall County, I had the great good fortune to interview Davis in 2004. From the onset, I knew she didn't suffer fools lightly - if at all. For an hour at least, I was on my best behavior.
'Dear Celebrity ...'
"I still answer about 50 fan letters a month. I receive more, but I never reply to the ones that begin, 'Dear Celebrity'," she said. And, despite her several attempts to retire, show biz kept getting in the way.
During the interview, Davis recalled spending three days in Los Angeles the previous fall filming a commercial for a time-saving cleaning device. The now-classic commercial featured Davis and a host of other small screen maids, housekeepers and even a butler, extolling the virtues of the Swifter® - which El Guapo still swears by. By way of illustrating her new-found leisure, Davis - or her double - executed a perfect half-gainer off a high diving board.
And that was the extent to which Davis was willing to speak about her theatrical career. "I've been talking about show business and answering the same questions for 50-odd years. I'm bored with that. I'd rather talk about what I'm doing now."
Her "now" began in Denver Colorado in 1976, when she was introduced to the extended Christian family, headed by Episcopalian Bishop William C. Frey and his wife, Barbara. The introduction gave Davis' life a new direction.
"Working on The Brady Bunch allowed me to be in a very good spot in my life. For the first time, I didn't have to worry about where my next role was coming from. I was making enough money to pay off my house and other debts. I was healthy and had friends," Davis said. "But something was missing from my life. There was a hole within me that couldn't be filled. I felt greedy because I didn't know what was missing and felt I should have been satisfied."
Davis began attending Bible study classes at an Episcopal Church in North Hollywood. She immediately found solace in the liturgy, which was based on Biblical quotations remembered from her childhood attending church with her family on Sundays. Through her reawakened devotion to religion, Davis finally learned how to fill the emptiness within her.
Her epiphany proved both simple and profound.
"There's a God-shaped space within us that most of us spend our lives trying to fill - with booze, material possessions, food, drugs, all kinds of things. Mine was career," Davis explained. "Until we fill that space within us with God, we can never feel whole.
She had no trouble reconciling her spirit-filled existence with her busy life as an actress constantly on the road. "I never went to parties. I only accepted invitations from people I met at church - people who had experienced the Holy Spirit through the acceptance of Jesus Christ," Davis said.
Ferreting out like-minded people proved no problem for a crafty woman like Davis.
"After arriving in a new city, I located three things, the hotel, theater and a church. She pointedly attended mid-week religious services and, as a result, "the attendance always doubled."
After situating herself in the congregation, Davis invited the minister and his wife to the theater and dinner afterward. "After that, they felt obliged to invite me into their homes," she said.
During a theatrical stop in Denver, she used the same technique with Bishop Frey and his extended Christian family. "They fell right into my trap," Davis recalled - or rather, she fell into theirs.
After extending her usual invitation, Davis discovered the extent of the Frey household. This was her first contact with a Christian community and the profound sense of family it engendered.
"These people were not related, but they considered themselves family and took care of one another like a family," she said. "They were totally unselfconscious about their relationship with one another." Because she had been on her own - and alone - for so long, the concept fascinated and perhaps evoked more than a little envy in Davis.
Although her career kept her on the road, she maintained contact with the Christian community in Denver. After a gig in Canada, she stopped in Denver on her way back to Los Angeles - and stayed with the Freys for six months. At that time, the family consisted of 19 people from four separate households who lived together in a big Victorian house.
As usual, Davis' timing was impeccable. "Although I had worked steadily for years, I didn't get a single acting offer for six months, which allowed me to spend the entire time in Colorado," she said. However, all good things must come to an end. Davis eventually received a record three job offers within three days. A decision had to be made.
"At that time, I had six agents - one for television, one for stage, one for movies, one for commercials, etc.," she said. "When I decided to stay in Denver for good, I called each one and said, 'Don't call me for a year.' After I explained my situation, every agent said, "Well, Ann, I understand, but, you know, the others won't." Undeterred, Davis sold her house in California and "retired" to Colorado.
Pennsylvania & Texas
Of course, fans of The Brady Bunch know that "Alice" didn't really "retire." When the television family reunited for periodic specials, Davis would don her apron and hit her marks just as she'd always done. However, someone from the community would always accompany her to Los Angeles.
As Davis recalled, "They'd sit on the set and inevitably someone would ask them 'What's Ann doing in Denver?" Well, she was testifying and speaking at churches and pray groups throughout Colorado and the United States - but with one caveat. "I had to be back in Denver in time for Sunday service," she said.
After serving as Episcopal bishop of Colorado for 18 years, Frey became president of the Bible-based Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The family moved halfway across the country to the small community near Pittsburgh.
"Ambridge was a depressed steel town and the seminary helped revitalize it," Davis explained. By that time, the household had dwindled down to about six people. The members took up residence on campus and stayed there for six years.
However, 18 years ago this Labor Day, the family, which then consisted of four people and several dogs, moved to the Hill Country. "Bishop Frey was born in Waco and I had played San Antonio in a couple of shows and really enjoyed the area," Davis said. Still, the household had planned to tour the southwest in search of a retirement community with "no snow." They arrived in Texas on Sept. 1 and "with paper plates and paper napkins" moved into Cross Mountain Ranch on Sept. 15.
Parish of her own
For Davis, the move proved perfect. In short order, she joined the "spirit-filled" St. Helena's Episcopal Church in Boerne. "While I was on the road, I didn't have a parish family," Davis said. "This is the first time I've been a real member of a parish." The church also reminded her of long-ago Sundays in her hometown of Schenectady, New York.
"The liturgical structure is very comforting," she said, "and the experience of the Holy Spirit is with St. Helena's." Davis even joyfully played tambourine in the church's contemporary Christian band.
By all accounts, her arrival at St. Helena's was a perfect fit. As a fellow parishioner said, "Ann's faith is as deep as that of anyone I have known."
Until her death, Davis continued down her spirit-filled path. "The Lord has a plan for all of us, but sometimes we don't follow or fulfill that plan," she said. "I live my life for Him and He will point the way out to me."
Godspeed, Schultzy, Alice and Ann B. Davis. We will miss you.