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Geri Reischl — the "Fake" Jan Brady

Originally published
03/30/2017
Updated
09/12/2017

Geri Reischl may not be a household name but she occupies a rather unique place in American pop-cultural history. Some may know her for her singing. Some may know her for her toy ads in the late 60s and early 70s. There are many French Canadians who may remember Reischl from when she toured with singer René Simard. But the majority of those who remember Reischl know her as “Fake Jan.” As in, Jan Brady, the character from the family sitcom, The Brady Bunch. It was in 1976 when 17-year-old Reischl became the second actress to play the role of Jan Brady on network TV. But it was not on the actual sitcom itself where she played the role. Instead it was on a newer TV show featuring the Brady family that was in retrospect one of the most surreal undertakings in American network programming.

To tell Geri’s story, we need to tell a little bit of the Brady Bunch and of the character Jan Brady.

 

Here's a story...

For those who are unfamiliar with The Brady Bunch, it was a half-hour family sitcom that aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974 and revolved around the fictitious Brady family and their housekeeper Alice. As for the general premise, the Brady Bunch theme song explains it best:

Here's a story, of a lovely lady,
who was bringing up three very lovely girls,
all of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
the youngest one in curls,

Here's a story, of a man named Brady,
who busy with three boys of his own,
they were four men, living altogether,
yet they were all alone,

'til the one day when the lady met this fellow,
and they knew that it was much more than a hunch,
that this group might somehow form a family,
that's the way they all became the Brady Bunch,

The Brady Bunch, the Brady Bunch,
That's the way we became the Brady Bunch.

In short: widower with three sons and a housekeeper marries woman — possibly divorced — who has three daughters of her own, wackiness ensues.  

Full cast of the Brady Bunch 1973
Here's what the full cast of the Brady Bunch looked like in 1973. Clockwise from about 1 o'clock: Anne B. Davis, Maureen McCormick, Mike Lookinland, Susan Olsen, Eve Plumb, Christopher Knight, Barry Williams. In the center left to right: Florence Henderson, Robert Reed. (Publicity photo.)

The show was not received well by critics at the time but audiences in general found it palatable. Over the show’s run, however, on-set tensions (mostly between Robert Reed — who played the father of the family Mike Brady — and the show's producers) along with its poor ratings1 compelled the network to cancel the The Brady Bunch in 1975. Then the unlikely happened. In reruns just after cancellation, the show roared into the TV stratosphere as a dedicated fan-base developed and watched and rewatched the shows.

 

The Brady Bunch Hour

It was clear that there was still a lucrative market for the Brady family, at least that’s what ABC’s president Fred Silverman and a programming executive named Michael Eisner who had recently become head of Paramount Pictures2 believed. They decided to put together a new Brady project and tabbed veteran producers Marty and Sid Krofft to produce it.  

Actress Eve Plumb in 1971
Actress Eve Plumb in 1971, around the third season of the Brady Bunch. The original Jan Brady, Plumb decided the time was right to do more adult roles and was unable to do the Brady Bunch Hour. We can be sure that Plumb today has no regrets about missing out on that one. (Publicity photo.)

The Krofft brothers were responsible for some of the worst programming ever to be broadcast. This of course is a contemporary view, but even for the 1970s they didn't have a great record for producing compelling TV. Their best show to date was the Donnie & Marie Show, which featured the then-popular singing duo and was a full-on hit. But that was a lone outlier. The Kroffts were into the sort of big song & dance productions that would blow in every now and then in prime time complete with dancing girls, follies, and well-travelled schtick that seemed dated even then. In addition, they had previously produced a short-lived kids' program called H.R. Pufnstuf, of which the less written the better. But in the eyes of TV executives, the Kroffts had the "show-biz" experience and variety show chops to pull off a Brady variety show.

But why a variety show?

As with today’s reality TV shows, the "variety show" format was a strong go-to for cashing in on celeb status. The format usually revolved around one or several main “stars”, and they’d perform skits, do song & dance numbers, and often interact with the crowd. Dean Martin had one. Donnie and Marie Osmond had one. Flip Wilson. Bobby Darin. The Smothers Brothers. Sonny & Cher. The Jacksons. Carrol Burnett. The Captain and Tennille. It was a pretty well-established formula with some doing it better (Carrol Burnett) than others (Dean Martin).

One the biggest initial problems with which the producers had to contend, aside from their own shitty taste in entertainment, was what to do about the part of “Jan Brady”. Jan Brady was the emotional, not-the-youngest-not-the-oldest, female middle-sibling character. Often portrayed in Brady pastiches as difficult and moody and in parodies as neurotic and at times sociopathic, Jan as a character was probably the most difficult to play of all the Brady kid characters when considering her age and place in the family. 

The Simpsons parodied the Brady Bunch Hour by replacing Lisa with another actress.
One notable parody of The BBH came during an episode of The Simpsons where the show humorously highlighted potential Simpsons spin-offs including a very Brady-esque variety show. As part of the joke, middle daughter Lisa is not present in the picture above, but was replaced by an actress seen on the left. 

Eve Plumb, the original actress to play Jan, was unavailable. She had played the role marvelously during the show’s initial run and reprised the role in many of the Brady Bunch incarnations over the course of her continuing career, including The Brady Kids, The Brady Girls Get Married, The Brady Brides, A Very Brady Christmas, and The Bradys. So it wasn't like she hated the part, but rather she had other things going on. Plumb had just come off starring in a hit TV movie called Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, where she played a very un-Brady-like 15-year-old runaway hooker. Because of its success, the network signed off on a sequel called Alex: The Other Side of Dawnwhich was scheduled to go into production around the time of the Brady variety show. Originally the show was to be a one-off, one-hour special, but the contract they presented to the actors included an option for several more. Plumb was keen on doing the one-show special, but she wouldn’t commit to doing more, which in effect took her out of the cast.

Since they couldn’t have the Brady family without 6 kids and definitely not without Jan, the Kroffts went in search of a “new” Jan Brady. They needed to find someone who could not only sing, dance, and act, but who was the right age and looked somewhat Jan-ish. After auditioning somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 girls, the producers chose Geri Reischl.

Mattel and The Brotherhood of Satan

Reischl was no newcomer to show biz. By the time she became Fake Jan, she had appeared in numerous TV shows and commercials. Born in 1959, she was six years old when she had her first real role playing Gretl in a local production of the The Sound of Music. From there she went on to do commercials, notably for Mattel where she even had a doll made in her image by the toy company. She ended up doing about eleven commercials for Mattel before she was deemed too old for the toys they were trying to sell.

There were a smattering of TV appearances, including one on an episode of Gunsmoke, before Reischl was cast in a horror flick called The Brotherhood of Satan — a movie which even she herself today dismisses with a laugh. Not content with one horror credit to her name, Reischl went on to have a major supporting role in the very straightforwardly titled and seriously terrible 1974 movie I Dismember Mama.

Her singing career had developed a bit more in her early days than the acting career, and for good reason. For a young kid, she had an uncommonly good set of pipes, and even today, always considered herself more of a singer. In 1974, she became one of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “Kids” in his nightclub act at Lake Tahoe, singing alongside him two shows per night for about two weeks. Of this time in her life, Reischl has spoken fondly, and even has a story about getting the hiccups onstage while performing with Davis in front of an audience that included Elvis Presley and his daughter Lisa Marie.

The New Brady Bunch with Geri Reischl
A cast photo of "New" Brady Bunch. Over on the left is Geri Reischl who became known as "Fake Jan". (Publicity photo.)

From there she moved onto other singing gigs. For a brief period, Reischl had her own band with whom she did USO tours where she sang and played guitar. In 1976, just before the Brady gig came up, Reischl had spent most of the summer touring with the French Canadian singer René Simard as backup singer and dancer.

In the eyes of Sid and Marty Krofft, Reischl was perfect. She was cute, blonde, intelligent, uncommonly experienced, and was age-appropriate. Best of all she could sing and dance like a pro. In many ways, Reischel was actually more polished and experienced as an overall performer than the other kids.

Fitting in with the others offscreen wasn’t a problem either. Susan Olsen, who played the youngest Brady sister Cindy, had known Reischl from other auditions they had both been on, and the two became close friends (and still remain so to this day). She also became friends with Mike Lookinland, the actor who played the part of Bobby Brady, the youngest of the Brady boys. In fact, the three youngest Bradys spent much of their downtime together and often ditched school to go hang out with bandleader Paul Shaeffer and Chevy Chase who had offices at the studio. In general, fitting in was not an issue for Reischl.

Things behind the camera really came together well. As for the other side of it…

 

The New Brady Family

There’s no getting around it, the Brady Bunch Hour was a visual travesty, quite possibly the worst thing ever to air on network TV. If the previous description of the show wasn’t bad enough, there were many other facets to the show that left viewers shaking their heads, such as: a crappy made-for-TV band called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs (apparently nobody noticed the KKK thing going on there); Water Follies; sappy dialogue; silly over-the-top and manufactured familial affection that made viewers want to barf. Just try watching a YouTube of an old episode and see how far you get before clicking away to something else.

Despite the many issues resulting from the premise and format of the show, at least the production was done well. The choreography was fine, and the dancing was about as good as one could expect from a cast of 10 (including Anne B. Davis and comedian Rip Taylor), of whom only a few had any background with singing or dancing. The actors weren’t the problem with the show, in fact, they were probably the one thing that made the show at least a tiny bit watchable. This includes Taylor who played the Bradys' wacky neighbor. Altogether, it took a Herculean effort of thespianism never seen before or since for the actors to deliver the endless stanzas of sappy bullshit and perform in the silly song-and-dance numbers. That's sort of the sad thing about the show, the actors were generally undermined by silly writing, doofy music, and corny dialogue. Of course not all was bad. There were a few priceless confluences of pop culture that today seem humorous, while also fascinating, although sometimes downright unsettling.

Reischl held her own quite well on the show. Along with Florence Henderson and Barry Williams, she seemed well-suited to the song-and-dance format. She had several moments where she stood out and was able to show off her singing skills, most notably when she sang "Your Song". All in all, it was a pretty good gig for the young actress.

 

Cereal and Blair Warner

The BBH mercifully ended after a 9-episode run. As for Reischl, she decided to go back to school but kept acting in commercials, notably doing ads for General Mills shilling their Crispy Wheats-n-Raisins cereal. Those ads had a Wizard of Oz theme to them with Reischl playing the part of Dorothy and are some of the more memorable ads from the era. The downside though was that they prevented Reischl from playing the part of Blair Warner in the new future hit series, The Facts of Life.

The Facts of Life, originally called Garrett's Girls, was a sitcom spin-off from the popular show Diff'rent Strokes that ran from 1979 to 1988. The show was about a group of girls at a prestigious all-girl boarding school in Peekskill, New York, and their house mother Edna Garrett. The Blair Warner character was a vain, self-absorbed, mean, rich girl – a role that had a lot of visibility on the show.

Reischl had been cast in the role and even did preliminary readings and rehearsals with the other actors. Alas, it was not to be because the shooting schedule for the Facts of Life interfered with her cereal commercial production schedule and so she had to give up the show. It's possible she could have found a way out of her contract with General Mills, but it may not have been the best idea to back out of a guaranteed gig that paid well. In hindsight, it's easy to think that she made the wrong choice in going with the commercials, but at the time, the Facts of Life was an unknown quantity and could have been a one-season wonder for all anybody knew. So Reischl went with the Crispy Wheats-n-Raisins gig, and the part of Blair Warner went to Lisa Whelchel, which ultimately made her a celebrity in her own right.

Cover to Geri Reischl's 2011 Album
Geri Reischl in the 21st century! This is the cover of her 2011 studio album, 1200 Riverside

 

There and Back Again

Reischl had married in 1979, and became pregnant in 1983 with her first child. Deciding to be a full-time mother rather than try to squeeze in auditions and gigs, Reischl stepped back from her career and spent the next couple decades in relative obscurity. Over the years many had wondered what happened to Fake Jan, especially in 2000 when Barry Williams published Growing Up Brady, his tell-all book about life behind the scenes of the Brady Bunch, which led to a renewed interest in the stories surrounding the show.

Then in 2011, Reischl released a new single entitled Fake Jan Sings for Real, which had a re-recording of her well-received solo song from the Brady Bunch Hour, "Your Song". She then went on that same year to release a full-length studio album called 1200 Riverside

Geri Reischl — Fake Jan — continues to make appearances at charity events and conventions, and even has the occasional singing gig. You can find out more about her recent appearances here GeriReischl.com. As you will see, she totally embraces the Fake Jan thing much to the delight of her dedicated fan base. 

Footnotes
  1. At its peak, the show never went higher than #34 in Nielsen Ratings.
  2. This was about 8 years before Eisner became CEO and Chairman of the Board at Disney.

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