Youthful delusions may quickly fade away when you realize Happy Days, the nostalgic television brainchild of Garry Marshall, debuted on January 15, 1974 – now a half-century ago.
Television critics have long said the genius of the program was creating a 1950s themed-show and releasing it in the middle of the 1970s. By then, folks who had grown up in the 40s and 50s were hungry to relive their childhood memories – and the Fonz, along with the Cunningham family, Potsie Weber, Ralph Malph and all the varied gang at Arnold’s, were more than happy to oblige.
Despite its midseason launch, Happy Days rose quickly in the ratings and headlines. By 1976, it was the most popular television show in America. Merchants embraced the images and mania, especially Arthur Fonzarelli, whose “too cool” character led to the “Fonz” becoming a household name. He only had six lines in the pilot, but eventually became the breakout star. From t-shirts to lunchboxes, the leatherjacket wearing pseudo-rebel was everywhere.
In fact, creator Garry Marshall said Fonzie was so popular that when the character got a library card on an episode in 1977, libraries across the United States enjoyed a 500% increase in card applications.
The late Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News, once observed, “Television, whether you like it or not, is the most powerful educational force known to man and we’re quivering it away and I find that unacceptable.”
Never mind that his own network contributed significantly to the slide and quivering.
President George H.W. Bush agreed. He once said, “We cannot blame the schools alone for the dismal decline in SAT verbal scores. When our kids come home from school, do they pick up a book or do they sit glued to the tube, watching music videos. Parents, don’t make the mistake of thinking your kid only learns between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.”
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of media on young people. But if it was bad back in the 1990s, it’s far worse today. With the explosion of smartphones and social media, Screen time has exploded, along with the trash so many peddle and promote on it. In fact, the average teen is looking at a digital device of some kind well over seven hours a day in 2024.
Happy Days was in every way a family show, and many of us admired the way “Mr. and Mrs. C” navigated whatever adventure or drama presented itself each week. Of course they were exaggerated and overly simplified, with any problem being resolved in just 30 minutes. But it was a television sitcom. Howard (Tom Bosley) put in an honest day’s work at his hardware store, and Marion (Marion Ross) dutifully served on the home front. She was also the only one who could soften the Fonz’s steely persona.
Over the years, there’s been some criticism of the hormonally charged antics of the boys and Fonzie. Even to this day, it bugs my wife that when the Fonz snaps his fingers a girl suddenly appears on each arm. Sexist? Inappropriate? In a literal sense, yes, but the routine is clearly a gag. S
urely fathers made clear to their sons that 1. That’s no way to get or treat a girl and 2. it would never happen even if they tried.
Yet, life wasn’t all “happy” for the entire television gang of the 1970s hit.
Erin Moran, best known for playing Joanie Cunningham, had a falling out with the cast and even sued CBS at one point. Struggling with depression, the actress declined to participate in reunion shows. But then Lisa Welchel, a fellow child actor who made her name on the sitcom, The Facts of Life, introduced Moran to the Lord. Erin Moran died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 56 – tragically early – but eternally triumphant.
Tom Bosley passed away in 2010. Marion Ross, who is 95, is still living.
One side note that fans of the show might find interesting: The Fonz didn’t even know how to ride a motorcycle.
“I rode it once, which was up the driveway in the opening credits of the show,” he confessed. “I didn’t know how to stop it. I actually nearly killed the director of photography, and I smashed into the sound truck.”
But he had another secret, too. It was far more embarrassing.
Henry Winkler struggled to read and process information, and dealt with it by cracking jokes. He’d be 31 before he was diagnosed with dyslexia.
“As a child, I was called stupid and lazy,” he said. “On the SAT I got 159 out of 800 in math. My parents had no idea that I had a learning disability.”
Dyslexics aren’t any less intelligent than the average person. Often, they’re smarter. Their brains simply operate and process information differently.
“How you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are,” Winkler says.
Some of the brightest and most creative people in history have been beset by the condition.
You know their names: Leonardo da Vinci. Albert Einstein. Muhammad Ali, Pablo Picasso. Steven Spielberg. John Lennon. Richard Branson. And Henry Winkler.
The list goes on and on.
As Christians, we know the happiest days aren’t our childhoods spent in a drive-in burger stand with our friends. But many of the themes (family and friendship, especially) spotlighted during the show’s eleven season run are worth celebrating over and over again.
Image from Getty.