Stories of the Ages: Anita Bryant – Sunny Side of Life

Written By Robert Medley, Staff Writer The Oklahoman

Story by Robert Medley, Staff Writer

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It was a cold, solemn day on the Texas ranch.

A biting, prairie wind was staved off with a thick, fur coat wrapped around an American music icon.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson had said before he died that at his burial he wanted the Rev. Billy Graham to pray and Anita Bryant to sing.

Bryant, once Miss Oklahoma and a Miss America second runner-up, was known in 1973 as the vivacious spokeswoman for Florida orange juice and the Sunshine State. She nervously tried to get her voice ready to sing for a worldwide satellite television audience at the president’s burial, but she wasn’t sure she could hit the B-flat in the cold air needed to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“It was a little more terrifying than normal,” Bryant said.

A framed photo of her at the burial is on a shelf in her Oklahoma City office overlooking the Bricktown Canal. She’s been back in Oklahoma since 2002. In one room of a refurbished loft, the walls are lined with album covers. In another, photographs, many curling at the edges, chronicle a life of song, from the 2-year-old who sang “Jesus Loves Me” at a Barnsdall Baptist church to two Super Bowls.

Although Bryant’s singing talents and beauty brought her national attention, she garnered additional notoriety — and a pie in the face — in the 1970s when she took a stand against homosexuality. Since that time, she has endured lost endorsements, bankruptcy and depression.

But now, Bryant, 70, lives in Edmond and writes and sings Christian children’s songs. She teaches a Sunday school class at Victory Church in Warr Acres, focusing on the heart, the soul and the body.

God’s warmth

Under the big oak tree in Texas in 1973, on that frigid day on the Johnson Ranch, Bryant said she wrapped herself in the fur coat that covered her black dress, waiting to sing as the president’s casket was lowered into the ground. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the casket. The bitter cold made it hard to move her lips. She had a metal pitch pipe she often blew into to warm up, but she didn’t want to touch her lips to it.

Then, she thought of the fishhook pin on her dress, a symbol of her Christianity she wanted the world to see. So she took off the coat.

“I tried the pitch pipe and got nothing. It wouldn’t work. So I said, ‘God give me a B-flat,’ ” Bryant recalled.

She thought about the late president, whom she had met when she sang the song at a private dinner at the White House. She felt warmer and forgot about the cold at the Johnson family cemetery west of Austin.

“It was like God had put a fur coat all over me because I was so warm. It was a phenomenal time. It was freezing, and I started on the right note,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. He showed up.”

Bryant was at a pinnacle of her popularity, the top of her career, that four years later would spiral out of control.

Wholesome image

Anita Bryant was crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1958
Anita Bryant was crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1958.The Oklahoman Archive

A Miss America runner-up in 1959 and Miss Oklahoma in 1958, Bryant rocketed to fame in the Space Age of the late 1950s as a beautiful, clean-cut woman with a sweet but powerful voice. She broke into the national pop charts with the song “Till There Was You” from the musical “The Music Man.” Her background in acting and drama and radiant personality was exactly what television networks wanted.

She’d been the spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, singing in a black-and-white TV commercial on a beach with the Brothers Four, promoting America’s soft drink. Her late ’50s and early ’60s hits in the Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon period of pop made the charts four times. Her biggest hit, “Paper Roses,” in 1960 thrust her into the forefront of an era of the wholesome, happy pre-Vietnam ’60s pop idols. Other hits, “In My Little Corner of the World” and “Wonderland By Night,” featured the voice of a torch singer, but with the clean image of Doris Day.

She traveled with Bob Hope to Vietnam on televised USO shows for the troops. Her image as the pop culture patriot prevailed.

By the mid-70s she’d sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at two Super Bowls.

Surviving to thriving

Lenora Bryant carried her baby girl a month past her due date. On March 25, 1940, Anita Jane Bryant was not breathing when she was born in her grandparents’ tiny wood frame house. Her skin tone was dark. The doctor couldn’t find a pulse and thought she was dead as he laid her little body on a table to try to save Lenora. Her grandfather John Berry threatened to kill the doctor if he didn’t save the baby. The doctor dunked her in a pail of ice water. Mother and daughter survived.

“It had to be supernatural breath from the Lord,” Bryant said.

In September 1963, five former Miss Oklahoma winners gathered in Oklahoma City. Pictured from left are Anita Bryant (1958), Mary Hazelton (1959), Kay Creed (1960), Dana Reno (1961) and Billi Kaye Smith (1962).
In September 1963, five former Miss Oklahoma winners gathered in Oklahoma City. Pictured from left are Anita Bryant (1958), Mary Hazelton (1959), Kay Creed (1960), Dana Reno (1961) and Billi Kaye Smith (1962).The Oklahoman Archives

By the time she was 2 years old, her grandfather noticed Bryant’s singing skills. He taught her to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” She started singing at church and soon talent contests.

Growing up in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, she got her start on local television stations such as WKY-TV as a child star-in-the-making. First, it was an appearance on the WKY-TV “Gizmo Goodkin” puppet show before landing her own “The Anita Bryant Show.”

“I was small for my age, but I had a big voice,” Bryant said.

She grew up singing gospel and listening to Kay Starr and Patti Page, she said.

“I’ve always tried to develop my own style and not copy anybody.”

She’s got the look — and voice

Danny Williams, Oklahoma City TV and radio personality, remembers playing Anita Bryant's ballads on WKY radio.
Danny Williams, Oklahoma City TV and radio personality, remembers playing Anita Bryant's ballads on WKY radio.Photo provided

Oklahoma City television and radio legend Danny Williams appeared on the “Sooner Shindig” show on WKY-TV and later spun Bryant’s records at the WKY radio station.

Music on radio during the pre-Fab Four era of the early ’60s was not all rock and roll. Williams said ballads were popular, and his favorite was “In My Little Corner of the World.”

Williams still has a black-and-white photograph of Bryant at age 12 at the WKY studio as she posed, pretending to operate a large TV camera. In a skirt, sweater and scarf tied around her neck, she is smiling, a brunette who looked older than most 12-year-olds. The caption under the 1952 picture read, “Little Miss Terrific.”

Williams said he remembers when she was the darling of Oklahoma City television and made her first appearances on WKY-TV.

“She had so much talent and still does,” Williams said. “She had a great personality, very friendly, very likable, had a nice sense of humor.”

Through the 1960s, she sang on televised shows with Bob Hope on the USO tours. Her image became embedded with American patriotism.

The soldiers liked to hear and see “pretty girls” perform, he said. She fit the bill.

In November 2010, the Oklahoma City Freedoms Foundation Chapter honored Bryant with a merit citation for her years of supporting American troops.

Chapter President Sara Jo Odom of Oklahoma City said Bryant’s military support has lasted long after the Vietnam War tours with Bob Hope.

“We honor people who promote patriotism and have done things to better our country,” Odom said. “She’s continued to do this, and we’re very proud she is an Oklahoman."

Anita Bryant traveled with the USO tour. Pictured from left are Bryant, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Janis Paige and Delores Gay. This photo was taken at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico.
Anita Bryant traveled with the USO tour. Pictured from left are Bryant, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Janis Paige and Delores Gay. This photo was taken at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico.Photo provided

Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma History Center, is working on a permanent Anita Bryant exhibit to be unveiled at the Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture that is expected to open in Tulsa’s Brady District by 2015.

“To me, she is one of those people who can help you really understand popular music in American culture,” Blackburn said.

Bryant was already recording when she won the 1958 Miss Oklahoma contest. Her spotlight as a second runner-up to Miss America further advanced her talent. In fact, she won the talent contest with her voice at the ’59 Miss America pageant.

By 1966, the Beatles were dominating the top 10. Bryant’s ballads began to dwindle off as American rock and pop bowed to the Liverpool lads.

But, Bryant was the singing spokeswoman for Coca-Cola and Florida orange juice, and these were sweet gigs, Williams said.

“In our business in TV anyone who does commercials can make a lot of money, especially on the national level,” he said.

Along with an animated orange bird, Bryant was the spokeswoman for the Florida orange industry in the late-’60s and early ’70s.

For one TV commercial, she walked down a row of orange trees as she sang while looking at a weight swinging on the end of a fishing line. As the movie camera rolled, a man on a ladder held a fishing pole with the lead weight at the end. She extended her hand and sang to the little fishing weight in her hand.

Later, Walt Disney Studios’ animation artists edited a cartoon orange bird into the clip where the fishing weight had been.

In the 1970 commercial, she sang the orange juice jingle and then recited their slogan, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

She narrated and sang the songs in the Disney album “The Story and Songs of the Orange Bird,” released in 1971. She opened Disney World in Florida in October that year, where the Orange Bird found a home in the mythical Sunshine Tree Terrace in Adventureland.

Anita Bryant as a television start, co-host and pitch woman for Florida orange juice
Top left, Anita Bryant became a guest star on several television shows after winning second runner-up in the Miss America pageant. Here, she's pictured with Lawrence Welk when she was a guest on "The Lawrence Welk Show." Photo provided
Top right, Anita Bryant, pictured with comedian George Gobel, became a vocalist on the Gobel Show.NBC photo
Bottom, Florida orange juice commercials starred Anita Bryant walking through an orange grove and singing to an animated orange bird.Photo provided

A personal campaign — A public voice

By the late 1960s, Bryant was taking a stand against what many said was a decline in moral values.

Bryant’s work to promote decency in popular entertainment started after a concert by The Doors.

Jim Morrison of The Doors was arrested following a Doors concert in Miami in 1969, and Bryant was involved in the Rally for Decency campaign that followed. Morrison was charged with indecent exposure in Dade County, Fla. The late singer was pardoned in December 2010 by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who said evidence showed “an injustice had been done.”

Bryant’s platform would soon turn to a campaign against homosexuality.

In 1977, Bryant was an outspoken opponent of a Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. She also opposed a national bill in Congress to declare homosexuals a minority group.

In her book “A New Day,” she stated, “I made a stand, not against homosexuals as persons, but against legislation that would tend to ‘normalize’ and abet their lifestyle and would especially afford them influence over our children who attended private, religious school.”

She became the leader of a group called Save Our Children, and her highly publicized campaign against gay rights took off. She was quoted in a news conference that can still be seen on YouTube video clips today saying, “The war goes on to save our children because the seed of sexual sickness that germinated in Dade County has already been transplanted by misguided liberals in the U.S. Congress.”

Dade County voters repealed the ordinance.

During a 1977 news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, a banana cream pie was thrown into Anita Bryant's face. The pie was thrown by gay rights activist Tom Higgins of Minneapolis who was unhappy with Bryant's views on homosexual rights.
During a 1977 news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, a banana cream pie was thrown into Anita Bryant's face. The pie was thrown by gay rights activist Tom Higgins of Minneapolis who was unhappy with Bryant's views on homosexual rights.The Associated Press

Bryant participated in other nationwide campaigns involving gay rights issues.

At a Des Moines, Iowa, news conference, gay rights activist Tom Higgins slammed a pie into her face for television cameras.

She responded by saying, “At least it was a fruit pie,” before breaking into tears.

“He hit me pretty hard,” Bryant said, remembering the day. “My sense of humor kicked in when I said, ‘At least it was a fruit pie.’”

The pie-tosser and other gay activists spoke with reporters as Bryant cleaned the pie off her face. Then, her husband Bob Green, a Miami radio disc jockey, slammed another pie into the activist’s face for the cameras.

Bryant also campaigned for a California initiative that would have prohibited pro-homosexual views in the classroom. That initiative was defeated by California voters. Real footage of Bryant’s crusade from the era was used in a 2008 film, “Milk,” starring Sean Penn that chronicled the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978.

“They said I created an atmosphere of hate,” Bryant said. “That was hogwash. That is not who I am.”

Scott J. Hamilton, 50, the executive director of the Oklahoma City-based Cimarron Alliance Foundation, a gay rights advocate group, said Bryant’s campaigns from the late 1970s had long-lasting effects.

Although Anita Bryant gained popularity with her singing voice, she attracted controversy and spurred public protests when she became vocal against homosexuality.
Although Anita Bryant gained popularity with her singing voice, she attracted controversy and spurred public protests when she became vocal against homosexuality.Photo provided

“Because she was a beauty queen and a singer she had a national platform that you can’t buy,” Hamilton said. “She forced people to stay in the closet, like myself, for a longer time.”

He said gays, lesbians and transgenders have made strides since the Anita Bryant days, and although many young gays might never have heard of her today, he thinks their lives have been affected by her work.

“What she did do is she helped to galvanize the gay community,” Hamilton said.

In the wake of the pie incident, the national media coverage and nationwide boycotts of Florida orange juice, the Florida Citrus Commission dropped her as a spokeswoman.

Bryant divorced her husband Bob Green in 1980. The couple had four children.

No longer was Bryant the voice of the Disney “Orange Bird” — or Florida orange juice.

Even conservative Christians blacklisted her because she had divorced. Her family endured daily death threats, bomb threats and received hate mail with human feces and voodoo dolls, she said.

Although Anita Bryant gained popularity with her singing voice, she attracted controversy and spurred public protests when she became vocal against homosexuality.
Although Anita Bryant gained popularity with her singing voice, she attracted controversy and spurred public protests when she became vocal against homosexuality.Photo provided

In 1980, Bryant gave up her career and reached a point she wanted to commit suicide. In the middle of the night she tossed in bed, thinking of ways to kill herself.

“My state of mind was depressed, and I didn’t know how I was going to make a living,” Bryant said. “I gave up at that point, but God didn’t give up on me.”

The presence of God came to her, she said.

“God came to me like a big ol’ daddy who cradled me in his arms,” Bryant said.

She endured her “wilderness years,” trying to raise her children as a single mother for a decade.

“There was a time when I thought I didn’t want to sing and I was through with everything,” she said.

In the 1990s, two failed entertainment ventures, “Anita Bryant’s Music Mansion” in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and another in Branson, Mo., caused financial setbacks.

In 1990, she married her childhood sweetheart Charlie Hobson Dry, 72, a NASA test astronaut and military test pilot. They have been married 21 years.

Today, she says she does not regret her stance against homosexuality.

“I did the right thing,” Bryant said. “I’ve never regretted what I did.”

She said she does not hate homosexuals.

“My motivation was one of love, of loving my God, my country and my people, even homosexuals,” Bryant said.

Nathaniel Batchelder, director of the Oklahoma City Peace House, a well-known war protester and a board member of the Church of the Open Arms, a church for gay Christians in Oklahoma City, said he maintains respect for Bryant.

“I think Anita Bryant is a great lady and a wonderful woman,” Batchelder said. “She always took action in service to her beliefs, and I celebrate that in any person who has beliefs and opinions, though they may not align with my own.”

A new beginning

Bryant continues to write religious children’s songs, such as “Jonah” and “The Swinging Song.”

Hollywood screenwriter Chad Hodge is working on a feature-length biopic of her life for HBO.

Hodge, 33, who is gay, said he has always had an interest in gay rights history. Bryant has always been vilified in the gay community, he said.

"I wanted to find out who this woman is," Hodge said.

Hodge is now working on the second draft of a screenplay for HBO options.

Bryant said she thinks the movie could change her public image and other perceptions.

“From what I've been told, they don't want to hear the bashing of Anita Bryant, but they want to hear the true story of my life and who I really am. So that's exciting,” Bryant said.

Bryant said God once told her to expect more than just a comeback album. She’s never stopped writing, recording and singing live. Her heart is in gospel and country.

She says she holds on to the scripture a man quoted to her after her divorce.

“My latter days will be greater than the beginning,” Bryant said.