Monday, June 02, 2014

Anne B. Davis, RIP

Years ago, I stood uncomfortably in a Brooklyn apartment full of 20-somethings, holding a cocktail, making the sort of small talk that gets progressively more difficult as each succeeding salvo falls flat.  It was a Christmas party thrown by (if I recall) a friend's ex-girlfriend.  Or something like that.  The crowd was a mix of artists, journalists and -- mostly -- youngsters trying to find their way in life.  I was about a year away from discovering my own vocation, some college pals were about the same distance from law school.  One guy was twenty years out from his bestseller and a couple more from his suicide.

For whatever reason, the party was failing.  That indefinable chemistry that creates a good time simply was not there.  We were all shuffling our feet, checking our watches, wondering whether there weren't some place else we could go to have the kind of fun we wanted.

And then Ann B. Davis came to save us.

She had help:  Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, a bunch of youngish adults including the pulchritudinous Eve Plumb.  Because, yes, somebody had done the unthinkable:  turned on the television at a party.  And what happened to be on television that night (probably 18 December 1988) was a holiday special reuniting the Brady Bunch.

It was, evaluated as either comedy or drama, simply godawful.  (Can Mike and Carol get their kids together for Christmas?  No, because Peter is schtupping his boss and Jan is getting a divorce).  But about half of us drifted silently toward the TV, finding comfortable spots to sit or to recline, laughing at the jokes.  We laughed at the jokes, we followed the plot, we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.  A room full of modestly sophisticated New Yorkers, tense and insecure, was turned ad break by ad break into one full of snorting, giggling children.  The mood softened and we all relaxed.

And at the center of all this, of course -- literally the center of the Brady family, as depicted on the famous opening credits -- was Ann B. Davis, the actress who played Alice the housekeeper.  She was a wry, materterine presence, the voice of wisdom and experience holding the strangely blended family together.  She died last week, age 88, following a fall.

Davis was already a celebrated TV actress when she got to the Bradys, having won two best-supporting Emmy awards for her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show.  This was news to me when I saw the obit, never having heard of Bob Cummings or his show.  What I had heard, over the years, were veiled references to Davis having hooked up with "a religious group" of some sort, even going so far as to "give it her money."  In context, this was always made to sound as though she had joined a cult.

Well, she had.  The Episcopal cult.

Davis was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, and lived out her final years in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.  She lived her last years in the home of the Rev. William C. Frey, who is indeed a bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.  He is the former bishop of Colorado and a former dean of the Trinity Episcopal School of MInistry in Ambridge, which Davis attended for a while.

Trinity is a seminary representing the low-church and theologically conservative wing of PECUSA, which opens its doors eagerly to future leaders of non-Episcopalian Anglican churches and which has in recent years dropped the word "Episcopal" from its own publicity, although retaining it as part of the legal name.  (Just as PECUSA has dropped/retained the word "Protestant.")

Frey does sound like an odd duck.

In 1971, he was deported from Guatemala for "interfering the political affairs" of that country, of which he was the Episcopal bishop.  It appears that his interference consisted of nothing more than calling for an end to political violence and asking that all citizens be guaranteed their constutional protections, which is never a bad thing to do and, in the midst of Guatemala's brutal civil war, was probably a very good one. Reading between the lines, the guy sounds like something of a lefty -- in those days.

Davis seems to have met him in 1974, when she was playing summer stock theater in  Denver and he was the (apparently newish) Bishop of Colorado. She experienced some sort of adult conversion experience, and in her own words, "decided to sell my house in L.A. and yield my life to the Lord."  This involved moving, with Frey's family and some others, into a converted Victorian in the Mile-High City.

In 1978, Frey's wife explained to a local newspaper that their home was not -- contrary to what you may have heard -- a commune.  It was rather, she said, "an ecclesiastical Waltons," a large house in which 18 people lived together, rose each morning to read the Lectionary, and were supported by three incomes -- those of Bishop Frey, of an unnamed aerospace engineer, and of Ann B. Davis.

It is not hard to guess which of those incomes was largest, four years after a run on one of America's most beloved sitcoms. but ... so what?  if she wanted to support Denver's own Little Gidding, why shouldn't she?

The same local newspaper identifies Frey as a leader in "the Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship," which is, more than anything, a reminder of what the 1970s were like.  (As recently as the 2000s, Lutheran pastors were asked, when filling out forms, for their opinion of "the charismatic renewal among us."  Many of us scratched our heads about that one; it would have been easier to answer a question about the renewal of Scholasticism or monothelitism among us.)

In any case, a key thing to remember about Frey is that he remained an Episcopalian, even as his church splintered.  In 2009, he was assisting the Diocese of the Rio Grande, and a separatist website took umbrage at how much satisfaction he expressed at the PECUSA's ability to retain legal title to its parishes.  He may be an odd duck, but he's a loyal one.

So far as we can tell, David lived out her life as part of the Frey housegold, both in Denver and in Ambridge.  It seems likely that her money helped support the household, and probably the seminary.  She was, it seems, an Episcopalian of Charismatic tendencies and a communitarian lifestyle.  Rare enough in her profession, and kind of neat.

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