All right, so we covered movies set in the 50’s in the last edition of Keeping the 50’s Alive. So now we are going to talk about television shows that were set in the Fabulous 50’s.
The first (and most quintessential) is the 1970’s TV hit “Happy Days”! Just the mere mention of the show “Happy Days” has one picturing images of the Nifty Fifties.
When I was a kid, I would watch “Happy Days” in re-runs every chance I got. It was probably my favorite show, even though by the time I came around, it was in syndicate. I suppose this is yet another piece to the puzzle of my 1950’s Obsession.
“Happy Days” was filmed before a live studio audience between 1974 and 1984. It was set in Milwaukee, WI., the hub of middle America and the center of the American Dream at the time. It starred (the now famous director) Ron Howard, Tom Bosley, Marion Ross, Erin Moran and, of course, Henry Winkler as “The Fonz” (Ayyyyyy!) The show followed the lives of the Cunninghams, a good upstanding middle class family living in Milwaukee in the 1950’s and 60’s. The family of four consisted of teen-age Richie (Ron Howard), his parents, Howard and Marion (Bosley and Ross), and Richie’s snarky kid sister Joanie (Erin Moran). Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzerelli lived in an apartment-like space above the family’s home. Fonzie was a mechanic and a womanizing rebel who wore a leather jacket and drove everywhere on his beloved motorcycle. Fonzie’s main objective in life was to be the embodiment of “Cool”. His greaser look was a sharp contrast to the clean-cut, boy-next-door looks of Richie Cunningham. But despite their differences, Fonzie and Richie were great friends. Richie’s best friends at Jefferson High School were Warren “Potsie” Weber (played by Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (played by Donnie Most.)
I could go on and on about my favorite episodes (such as when Fonzie jumps the shark in Hawaii or when Potsie gets an A in biology class by writing a song about how the heart pumps blood) but I will try to stay on task. From the booths and juke box at Arnold’s Diner to the band’s early Rock n Roll music (which featured Potsie singing actual hits of the era)… this show gave viewers a taste of life in the 50’s to the point of being as iconic as the 50’s themselves. However, there is a notable difference between the very first episodes of this series to the ending ones. The first episodes are clearly set in the 1950’s, and Arnold’s is more of a Drive-In restaurant than an indoors hang out. There are car-hop girls serving patrons on roller skates and the boys of Jefferson High are always seen in their letter jackets. The theme song for the first season was Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. (This later changed to the well-known “Happy Days” theme song) As the series progressed, so did the time period. If I am remembering correctly, I think Richie graduates from Jefferson High School in 1962. While still in the malt shop era, the show, from then on, was set in the 1960’s. Still, the name “Happy Days” appropriately covers that whole era of life in middle America and it’s sweet simplicity.
“Happy Days” itself has become a staple of American Pop Culture. In 1995, the band Weezer set the video to their hit song “Buddy Holly” in Arnold’s Diner, combining clips from the original show. (Yes, it’s one of my favorite videos!)
The next popular classic show that took place in the 1950’s was actually a spin-off of “Happy Days”, and that was “Laverne & Shirley”. The characters, Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) first appeared as dates of Fonzie and Richie on “Happy Days”. The characters were such a hit, that in 1976, Laverne and Shirley got their very own show. The show was about two best friends living in Milwaukee who worked as bottlers at Shotz Brewery. Other characters on the show were: Laverne and Shirley’s annoying greaser neighbors Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David Lander), Shirley’s sweetheart Carmine (Eddie Mekka), and Laverne’s father, Frank (Phil Foster).
As best friends do, Laverne and Shirley would get into all kinds of whacky dilemmas. Their predicaments would be funny to the audience, but not necessarily funny to the characters themselves. Laverne was known for wearing a sweater with a large “L” monogram. Shirley had short hair and sometimes wore a neck scarf. Although their daily activities were not as 1950’s-based as the characters on “Happy Days”, they did frequent the bowling alley and the pizza parlor where Laverne’s father worked.
“Laverne & Shirley” lasted six fun-filled years before their last season in 1983, and has become another 70’s classic, set in happier times.
Oh, I almost forgot! My favorite episode is the one where they go on vacation and the hotel is a dive. Then a hurricane comes and the whole side of the hotel room blows off. It sounds scary, but it’s done in the most comical way and it’s a true classic!
Now, for more recent TV programs, there is Amazon Studio’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. Set in the year 1958, it’s a show about a housewife named Midge (Amy Sherman-Palladino) who becomes a stand-up comedienne after her husband confesses to having an affair. I have not yet seen an episode of this show, but I have some friends who swear it’s the bee’s knees. I’m sure it’s pretty good, if for no other reason, the fashions. Although I am not sure about how well they portray the 1950’s era through the updated themes in the plot, but I suppose that’s just me being anal again.
Finally, as an honorable mention, is the very popular series “Mad Men” which began in 2007 and ended in 2015. “Mad Men” is actually set in the 1960’s and has many complicated themes and situations, but even so, it’s responsible for the re-newed popularity of the glamorous fashions of the general era. There are some really beautiful clothes and hair styles in it. When you’re shopping for vintage dresses (and I often am) many sellers will promote their clothing listing by mentioning the dress they are selling looks like something “right out of ‘Mad Men'”.
So that’s it for this edition of Keeping the 50’s Alive. Please join me next time when we’ll talk about songs that sound like they were made in the 50’s– but weren’t! 🙂