The "Brady Bunch" theme song, which begins with the "story of a lovely lady," doesn't bother mentioning Alice Nelson, housekeeper to the blended brood of six. Alice pops up in the now-iconic opening sequence grid at the end, almost as an afterthought.
But she's right where she belongs, in the most important spot – dead center, in the middle of the action.
As earthy Alice on "The Brady Bunch," Ann B. Davis grounded a silly and sweet show so light, it threatened to float off the screen at times. That's a tribute to the talents of Davis, a character actress known more by face than name, who died Sunday at age 88, her modest place in pop culture history well secured.
The Bradys, a family made for television, were already a 1950s anachronism when the gentle sitcom debuted amid turbulent times in 1969. That’s the year ABC, which aired the show, infamously turned down "All in the Family," a reality-driven comedy that would go on to upend TV in 1971.
The debut of "The Brady Bunch" also came a month after Woodstock, where Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane oozed "White Rabbit," the psychedelic drug-and-Lewis Carroll fantasia whose key line is "Go ask Alice."
The phrase took on an entirely different meaning in the more hermetic fantasy world of "The Brady Bunch," where Alice shined as a surrogate mom/big sister – the go-to adult for minor crises heightened by youthful emotion. She rolled reassuring words into no-nonsense quips – nursing the kids through broken noses and bruised feelings, while providing witness to unlikely celebrity cameos (Davy Jones, Joe Namath, Desi Arnaz Jr.) and gamely grinning through one earwig of a song ("It's a Sunshine Day”).
Alice served as a stand in for viewers across the Brady spectrum. For the adults – and adults-to-be who eventually would appreciate the show’s kitsch value – Davis’ sharp, nod-and-a-wink delivery suggested she was in on the joke. For the kids, Alice offered vicarious hope than an outsider could be part of the family.
At least kind of – in TV’s caste system, Alice ended up with Sam the Butcher, a fellow working stiff bigger on personality than glamour. But even if Davis was never a traditional star, she was the glue of a sitcom that maintains a strange hold on many, 40 years after its last episode and nearly 20 years after her scene-stealing cameo in “The Brady Bunch Movie,” which captured the program’s multilevel appeal.
Davis’s death offers a bittersweet opportunity to remember a lovely lady in her own right who made us laugh as she stood at the center of a show about childhood that now harkens to lost youth.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.