“A Bipolar Evening with Friends” – Bruce Vilanch and Florence Henderson

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“A Bipolar Evening” with Disparate Friends
By Tiffany Razzano

Just when you think that you’ve seen everything in the Hamptons, East Hampton’s Guild Hall is bringing together an unlikely duo on July 24 in an event dubbed “A Bipolar Evening with Friends.”

The two performers on the bill, longtime friends, couldn’t be more different from one another. Comedy writer and performer Bruce Vilanch is best known for his raunchy one-liners and writing for just about every awards show you can think of, while actress Florence Henderson, who has starred on stage, television and in film, is best known for her role as the squeaky clean Carol Brady on TV’s “The Brady Bunch.” The two go back to the 1970s, when Vilanch worked as a writer for “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.”

It was Vilanch who coined the event “A Bipolar Evening,” to Henderson’s delight. “Nobody expects the two of us together,” he said. “I have a much spicier reputation than Florence. But I plan on changing that for her. It’s not too late for her to be Joan Rivers.”

In the two-part show, Vilanch will take the stage first, telling tales from his career and tackling tabloid fodder. “My half of the show is about my bizarre life behind the scenes, writing for everybody else,” he said. For those quick to consider it a stand-up act, think again. “I like to call it sit-down. I just tell stories.”

Following Vilanch, Henderson will perform her one-woman autobiographical musical, All the Lives of Me, touching upon everything from growing up during the Great Depression to her years as America‘s favorite TV mom. And Henderson says you can expect Vilanch to make a special appearance during her segment and vice versa. “Usually Bruce would work alone or I would work alone,” she said. “This should be a tremendous amount of fun for us and the audience.”

Growing up in Kentucky, Henderson knew she wanted to get into show business at a young age. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be an entertainer,” she said. After high school, she received sponsorship to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and never looked back.

She debuted on Broadway at 18, with a small role in Wish You Were Here, capturing the attention of the legendary Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. She was then cast in Oklahoma! in the lead role for its last national tour, leading to many other Broadway roles.

However, Henderson didn’t limit herself to the stage. “My goal always was to have longevity [in this industry.] So I diversified early,” she said. “I loved theater and I still do.” She became the first woman to guest host “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1962 and became “The Today Girl” for NBC’s morning show.

Then, in 1969, she landed the iconic role of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,”-a role she still embraces. “I can’t ignore it,” she said. “It’s the elephant in the room.” But she’s never felt pigeon-holed because of it, like many actors known for portraying legendary characters. “For me it’s part of the fabric of my career, not the whole thing.” Carol Brady is a role Henderson revisits. She has lovingly skewered the character in various comedy sketches, made a cameo in the first Brady Bunch parody movie and participated in the reality show “My Fair Brady.”And her career continues to thrive in other ways, with the many charitable organizations she represents, as well as being a product spokeswoman and motivational speaker and appearing at events as varied as singing the national anthem at the Indianapolis 500 to hosting wrestling matches.

As for Vilanch, recently nominated for an Emmy for his role as a writer for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, his career has been vastly different from Henderson’s, but no less successful. Studying theater and journalism, he began his career covering music for the Chicago Tribune. This is how he met Bette Midler. He began writing bits for her, and slowly built up the list of performers he wrote for: Cher, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross.

From there he moved on to Hollywood, writing for various variety shows, most notably “The Donny and Marie Show,” and many awards shows. He’s written for 21 consecutive Academy Awards. But he was able to move from behind the scenes and into the limelight while a head writer for “Hollywood Squares” in the 1980s. He was asked to sit in one of the squares, which, as a performer, he says he jumped at. “I got to sit next to Whoopi [Goldberg] for four years and crack wise,” he said. “I think they just wanted someone to tame her. I got lucky.”

This opportunity kick-started his performance career, leading to engagements around the country at various events and venues, performing a one-man off-Broadway show in 2000 and starring in Broadway’s Hairspray as Edna Turnblad. “I had to shave for that,” Vilanch said. “I couldn’t talk them into a bearded lady.” And many of the stories he’ll be telling on July 24, could very well find their way into the book he’s working on about his career.

“A Bipolar Evening with Friends,” featuring Bruce Vilanch and Florence Henderson, John Drew Theater at Guild Hall. Saturday, July 24, 8 p.m. For tickets, go to guildhall.org.