Milwaukee Has A Bronze Fonz. Now How About A Statue Salute To Laverne And Shirley?

Like many a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I recently returned to my land-locked homeland for the holidays. I am a proud native son of Milwaukee, that blue-collar, bratwurst-loving beertown 90 miles up I-94 from Chicago. If you were born in Milwaukee somewhere between the dawn of Beatlemania and the moon landing, you were the right age to believe your very hometown was the center of the universe in the mid-1970’s. And for me, the visit this holiday season felt poignant knowing we had just lost a beloved adopted daughter who was a pivotal part of that glorious era.

The late great actress, comedian and film director Penny Marshall passed away on December 17, and while she was not a native Milwaukeean (she was born in another hardscrabble corner of the country known as The Bronx), she and the character she portrayed on television is an indelible part of the city’s history alongside baseball great Hank Aaron, basketball coach Al McGuire, supermarket mogul Maxwell Kohl and another 70’s sitcom star, Henry Winkler.

If you walk alongside the Riverwalk in downtown Milwaukee, you’ll pass a bronze statue of Winkler’s legendary character, “Happy Days” sensation Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, cast in bronze and flashing his signature thumbs-up salute. The aftermath of Penny Marshall’s recent passing is as appropriate a time as any to raise the question — Milwaukee already has a “Bronze Fonz,” now how about a statue salute to “Laverne & Shirley”? Like The Fonz, they represent a part of city history, and a tribute to the heroic, hard-working spirit of all Milwaukeeans.

“Happy Days,” a warm-hearted ode to middle American family life, premiered in 1974 and quickly became the top-rated show on television. It introduced the world to the Cunninghams, a typical close-knit Milwaukee family (working dad, home-making mom, dutiful son and devoted daughter) and the various adventures of its main character, Richie (future Oscar-winning director Ron Howard) and his circle of friends (including Fonzie, a leather-clad lothario whose semblance of being “cooool” and uttering the catchphrase “Ayyyyyyy” made him the most famous TV character of the time).

“Laverne & Shirley,” a spin-off centering around two roommates who first appeared double-dating Richie and Fonzie on “Happy Days”, arrived two years later, during the Bicentennial year 1976. Like the “Happy Days” crew, its tireless heroines and their cast of cohorts lived, loved and learned life lessons on the streets Milwaukee. The show’s opening montage even included a downtown building adorned with the lettering “Welcome Milwaukee Visitors” — appropriate since millions of Americans did indeed “visit” Milwaukee each Tuesday night for a primetime double bill of the two sitcoms.

In the 1970’s TV universe, Mary Tyler Moore achieved iconic status by twirling her hat in the air and thriving as a single career woman. She resided in Minneapolis, a more cosmopolitan, glass-tower town than Milwaukee 350 miles southeast. Laverne and Shirley were single working women too, but the blue collar, forklift-driving variety, 70’s era Rosie the Riveters as opposed to Mary Tyler Moore’s more pristine, pant suited professional.

While Mary proved she was “gonna make it after all” in a Minneapolis newsroom, Laverne and Shirley proclaimed they were “doing it our way” on a brewery assembly line. And in typical Milwaukee fashion, they were a little goofier, a little clumsier, a little less refined and a lot more prone to pratfalls than their northern neighbor. In the process, they represented something, then and now: the hardworking Milwaukee (and middle American) woman, fierce and fun and family-and friend oriented and never too far from making her dreams come true (or at least daydreaming about them as the beer bottles go by).

The statue of Fonzie (nicknamed “The Bronze Fonz”) was designed by artist Gerald P. Rivers and erected by the river’s edge in 2008. Fonzie certainly deserves to be immortalized there — he represents the epitome of Milwaukee Guy Cool.

But Laverne and Shirley, the ultimate Milwaukee gals who made their dreams come true one laugh and stumble at a time, surely deserve a statue too. As we continue to mourn the loss of Penny Marshall, our very own Laverne who did more than a few things her way in blazing a trail as an actress and filmmaker, I’d like to suggest that my hometown pay tribute to Laverne and Shirley in the same way as The Fonz. They, too, represent a part of our pop culture history and heritage, in Milwaukee and beyond.

So here’s a New Year’s wish for Milwaukee and statue sculptors everywhere… “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, schlamiel, schlamazel… let’s make that dream come true.”

For me and you.

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