On a Saturday evening in East Rutherford, New Jersey, I found myself seated in the Hilton Meadowlands' large banquet hall surrounded by adoring fans anxiously awaiting a night of long-anticipated appearances. The lights dimmed, and then a familiar tune blasted through the speakers.
"Here's the story / Of a lovely lady…"
The crowd—mostly men and women in their 40s and 50s—roared as they sang along to their national anthem for the weekend. I was at the first-ever Brady Bunch Convention, and Brady fans who had traveled from everywhere from New York to Australia were losing their goddamn minds.
In preparation for the event, I rewatched every episode of the original Brady Bunch, plus the full set of the short-lived 1990 drama series The Bradys. (I have no regrets.) After watching "The Liberation of Marcia Brady," an episode in which Marcia unintentionally becomes her own feminist icon by speaking out about how her brothers undermine her on the local news, I was positive I had fallen in love with the Brady family all over again.
I of course wasn't alone in my excitement.
"My sons really love going to comic-cons, and this just kind of seemed like the comic-con for me," gushed attendee Elyse Major.
Considering conventions exist for just about every pop-culture relic nowadays, I was surprised nobody had hosted a Brady Bunch convention until this year. According to Jodi Ritzen, an organizer for BradyCon, they decided to hold the weekend after they saw a successful Monkees convention earlier in the year.
Surprisingly, they managed to wrangle a considerable portion of the 1960s Brady clan as well as actors from later Brady incarnations. The gathering of the original Brady stars and the performers who played them in later shows and movies meant that there were multiple Cindys and Jans at the convention, like refugees from a collapsing multiverse of Americana.
"I actually felt like I entered the Twilight Zone," Jennifer Elise Cox, a.k.a. Jan from The Brady Bunch Movie, told me about the experience of being on a flight from Los Angeles with most of the Bradys on one plane.
Like most families, the Bradys have their own share of dysfunction. Two of the original Brady girls, Eve Plumb (Jan) and Maureen McCormick (Marcia), were nowhere in sight, and their absence didn't surprise fans—Plumb still works as an actress, but has distanced herself from the nostalgia circuit. McCormick wrote a tell-all memoir, Here's the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice, which created a rift in the Brady family because Plumb thought that McCormick suggested the two had a lesbian affair during the filming of the original series.
The show McCormick wants to escape has stayed relevant thanks to Lloyd J. Schwartz, the son of The Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz, who has turned his father's show into a franchise that includes TV movies, parody movies, a short-lived 1980s series called The Brady Brides, and most recently A Very Brady Musical.
I was born in 1990, so I grew up watching a Brady show Schwartz had nothing to do with— My Fair Brady, a VH1 reality show chronicling the rocky romance of Christopher Knight (Peter Brady) and Adrianne Curry, a model who got her big break appearing on the first season of America's Next Top Model. The two met while filming VH1's The Surreal Life, the same show in which Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen fell in love, and have since divorced. (Reality TV sometimes resembles a big blended family itself.)
"I think television is better today. I think Modern Family is one of the best television shows ever. It's just more of a reflection of what's current," Knight told me when I asked how he feels about television in 2014. "We were a throwback. Current to us was Vietnam. You wouldn't tell that was going on in parallel to what was going on in our family life. We ignored a lot of the environment around us, but that was really what was about the show being about kids. Kids' lives are really about family and what's inside that front door. That's where Sherwood wanted to keep it. This was a very simple kind of portrayal, but that's its brilliance and why it's existing in perpetuity for forty years."
For many Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War, The Brady Bunch's utopian vision felt reassuring, and later generations who have gotten into the show can cuddle up to its optimism, which is pretty rare on TV in 2014. (Sometimes it feels like most of our critically acclaimed shows are about alcoholic cops and drug dealers killing people who are even more odious than they are.) The Brady Bunch is comfort food, but sometimes you need that.
"It was certainly not like my family dynamic, but it was comforting to see the relationships they had," said attendee Jane Barnes. "It was something that made you feel good."
"Every single Friday night we would watch The Brady Bunch together," said Beth Caiola.
"There was usually a sleepover party involved," added her best friend Lauren Auerbach.
Today's teens have also been drawn to The Brady Bunch. Take 16-year-old superfan Alyssa Albarella, who began watching the original show when she was five because her parents had every season of the show on DVD. When she turned eight, her parents drove her to Cleveland, Ohio, to see Barry Williams perform his act Growing Up Brady, and it has been a love affair ever since.
The convention in New Jersey marked the 17th time Albarella has met the Bradys; as a Christmas present, her parents gave her a book with photos of all the times she has met cast members. When I asked Albarella what her friends thought of all that, she shrugged: "They all think it's a little weird."
From across the room, I spotted the piercing blue eyes of one of Albarella's idols, Susan Olsen—also known as Cindy, the youngest Brady sister. At the convention, Olsen was surrounded by candies shaped like cat and dog shit.
See, against her mother's wishes, in her post– Brady Bunch life Olsen has followed her dreams of becoming an artist. Since she was a longtime animal lover, her drawings were at first mostly portraits of horses, and when Christopher Knight introduced her to Georgyne La Lone, who runs animal rescue organization Precious Paws, she became heavily involved with the group and her work began to mostly revolve around cats.
As someone who covers animal-centric stories regularly, I frequently receive pushback from people who don't take my photos seriously. I asked Olsen if she had received similar responses.
"There's this nasty rotten association of women and cats, which I think is derived from male jealousy," she said. "A woman that has cats doesn't need to date all that much. I don't like that image. A lot of men don't like cats because cats aren't easy. You have to win them over—winning over the girlfriend's cat is usually more difficult. They have a resentment, so that's why there's a stigma."
As I continued to make the rounds, I met Geri Reischl, the impossibly charming actress who played Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch Hour. You might know her as Fake Jan, a persona she has fully embraced.
"People love it. They think it's funny, campy, goofy—just like me!" she said. "Fake Jan even as her own holiday, which is January 2, because I am the second Jan. Everybody has to have a cheeseball—that's Fake Jan's favorite food."
Most recently, Fake Jan has been recording her second album. "It's going to be mostly original songs, some country, and a little Robbie Rist, who was Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch," she told me. When she's not recording, she spends her days working with Alzheimer's and dementia patients.
As day turned to night, the crowd gathered for the main attraction of the day: Barry Williams Live: the Brady Bunch Show! Williams has created a personal brand that is all about the 70s; he performs regularly in Branson, Missouri. When I asked him what he loved about the 1970s, he scoffed at my generation's music: "It's the great music. The main difference is the melodies and lyrics you can sing along with. Most pop music today you can't."
When Williams took the stage, the crowd—a few drinks in at this point—went wild. He sung along to emotional ballads while home movies and photos of the Brady's played on loop. He taught the audience the iconic Brady Shuffle, and he made us all honorary Bradys,. We were having a moment. And then a sound we weren't prepared for came out of the speakers: the beat to Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady."
"Don't you know who's the real That 70s Show?" Williams rapped. "It's the return of Johnny Bravo… no, wait, he didn't just say what I think he did, did he? And Greg Brady said… well, I'm tired, he's dead."
Williams's attempt at rapping was entertaining and oddly endearing, but it was also my cue to grab a drink from the bar. When I returned, the organizer motioned for me to grab my camera—and fast. Williams called Michele Smolin, an attendee with impeccable Brady Bunch nail art I had met earlier in the day, and her boyfriend onstage. As Williams held the microphone to the boyfriend's mouth, the boyfriend dropped to his knee and asked Smolin to marry him. In an instant, they were engaged.
" The Brady Bunch is my all-time favorite TV show and has been important in my life. Now, The Brady Bunch, especially Barry Williams, is part of my story!" Smolin said. "I can say that my fiancé is hoping that this doesn't necessarily mean we will have A Very Brady Wedding."