Florence Henderson happy to be back in Las Vegas to accept honor

Florence Henderson’s big name didn’t go over well during her first headlining gig in Las Vegas.

She found herself dealing with a case of marquee envy during the sexist ’60s.

“I still have a big picture of me with Alan King” at the Sands, Henderson said in a telephone interview.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said, recalling her rocky start with the comedy legend.

“I had 100 percent billing as the co-headliner and he came to me and said, ‘Would you mind taking less, like 75 percent or something, because your name is so big nobody can see mine.”

Henderson replied, “Make it any size you want. I’m just happy to be here.”

Fifty-some years later, Henderson couldn’t be happier that she’s back in Las Vegas. She’s the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s “Woman of the Year” honoree at Saturday’s Black and White Ball at the Aria.

It’s a big night for Henderson. The former Broadway star and America’s favorite TV mom turns 80 on Valentine’s Day.

Las Vegas, with its big shows and endless lineup of star entertainers, was a nonstop lark for Henderson.

“I even came here for vacation,” she said. “I have always just loved Las Vegas.”

One of the “little” dust-ups of her Vegas days, she said, involved easy-going country star “Tennessee” Ernie Ford and mercurial funnyman Buddy Hackett.

She and Ford were sharing the bill with Hackett and James Darren at the Sahara.

“I guess we thought we were the dinner show and they were the midnight show,” she said.

“We thought we would be the ones to die, but you couldn’t get into our show. And the second show did not do well.

“We shared a dressing room, like James Darren and I shared one and Ernie and Buddy shared one.

“And I guess Ernie was entertaining his friends and I would always move my gowns to make room for James and we never had an issue. But I guess Buddy Hackett showed up and said ‘get the … get out of the damn dressing room’ or whatever.”

That confrontation ended, she said, when Ford told Hackett, “Don’t make me have to knock you down these stairs.’”

Did she run with the Rat Pack?

No, but she accepted a ride to her hotel from a guy with killer blue eyes.

“I did shows with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.,” she said.

“When I was just a kid, maybe 23, I was doing a show in Los Angeles with NBC. I lived in New York at the time but I was staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

“It was a show with Bing Crosby and Sinatra was on it and I think Louie Armstrong. Anyway, I was waiting for a taxi and Frank Sinatra drove by after we had rehearsals and I’ll never forget he had a little Carmen Ghia and he said, ‘Hey kid, where you going? You need a ride?’ And I thought, ohhhhh, I don’t know about this.

“And I said ‘I’m all the way at the Hollywood Roosevelt.’ He said, ‘Hop in. I’ll be happy to take you.’ ”

On the way, they started talking about Broadway people they knew and “he was so lovely and so nice and over the years he was always wonderful to me.”

In her book “Life is Not a Stage,” she wrote that “as he dropped me off (at the hotel), I was relieved that he didn’t hit on me. At the same time, a tiny little part of me felt humorously slighted not to have been asked.”

Here’s more from Henderson:

A month with Milton Berle

“I played the Desert Inn with Milton Berle for one month, two shows a night. Those were the … and God forbid I got a standing ovation! He was on that stage so fast. But I wouldn’t change any of that.”

Advice from mom

“I remember I brought my mother to Vegas. She was a pioneer lady. The first time was at the Flamingo with (comedian) Shelley Berman. So she saw the show and afterwards she said, ‘You know what, I didn’t think he was funny. Don’t work with him.’ I said, ‘Hey ma, when you start paying the bills you can tell me who to work with.’”

One that got away

“I did ‘Sound of Music,’ the national touring company, while Mary Martin was doing it on Broadway. I always felt bad I never got a crack at that movie. My friend Julie Andrews did and did an incredible job, but I always wished I had the opportunity to compete for it.”

Did you ever hear why it didn’t happen?

“No, I just think at the time she was just hot with ‘Mary Poppins’ and all these different things that were happening for her. We started our Broadway careers together. Our stage doors were right next to each other and we’ve been friends all these years. And I did two or three tests for ‘Oklahoma’ when I was 18 years old and you know I didn’t get that. Shirley Jones got that. But we’re also friends. So I didn’t get that but I got ‘Fanny’ on Broadway (as the lead at age 20) with the great Ezio Pinza and really got to learn my craft and studied voice every day so it all works out.”

THE SCENE AND HEARD

I checked out Rose.Rabbit.Lie at The Cosmopolitan and it was worth.the.trip. Loved the food and the scene, and laughed so hard at the puppy cannon that the SPCA may disinvite me to their next event. Give The Cosmopolitan props for again offering something different.

SIGHTINGS

Caesars Palace headliner Shania Twain, taking in the Donny & Marie show (Flamingo) on Tuesday. … Sports broadcasting legend Brent Musburger, dining at Gustav Mauler’s Spiedini Ristorante (J.W. Marriott) on Tuesday and Wednesday. He was in town visiting his son.

THE PUNCH LINE

“When Governor (Chris) Christie was sworn in (Tuesday), he put his right hand on a menu.” — David Letterman

Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0244 or email him at norm@reviewjournal.com. Find more online at www.normclarke.com. Follow Norm on Twitter @Norm_Clarke.

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