In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Tonight, Happy Days returns to southeast Wisconsin when the iconic 1970s sitcom’s cast members Anson “Potsie” Williams, Don Most (who is better known to the world as Ralph Malph) and The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, swing by the Wisconsin State Fair for “Happy Days Live.” The appearance was allegedly booked “following the hit show’s 40th anniversary,” but I’d wager a guess the cast could be on the region’s collective radar, even without the benefit of a round-number anniversary. (And it’s actually been 42 years since the show first aired, for the record.) Winkler and his pals from Arnold’s might be in town for a special event, but in many ways, they’ve never left.
For some reason, the greater Milwaukee area has been—ahem—sitting on this (and others’) vintage TV program’s tangential ties to the region for an embarrassing duration of time. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up watching Happy Days, and, to be honest, I’m writing this while wearing an “official” 1976 Fonzie belt buckle. (Don’t judge me!) Still, with the city earning so much positive attention for its recent contributions to the arts, dining, and even our fucking fireworks, it’s getting harder for me to hear every fourth touring act reference either cheese or Laverne & Shirley in predictable between-song banter, to see the city go crazy every time a Chicago or New York writer has something kind to say after slumming it for an expensed weekend in our charming borders, and, yes, even to gaze upon the corroded bronze statue cast to honor the King of Cool. I actually moved here post-Bronze Fonz installation, so before I keep rolling, I want to see your thoughts on Milwaukee’s collective attachment to relics that made our city kind-of-sort-of famous, despite doing so in Hollywood studios. Does the city’s semi-starstruck status seem to be fading at all over time, or should we be preparing for a Garry Marshall monument in the near future?
Matt Wild: Oh Christ, this again. In the year of our Lord 2016, the question of whether Milwaukee is embarrassing itself by clinging on to kitschy, outdated pop-culture relics is almost as moldy as those pop-culture relics themselves. If you’ll allow me to quote myself, here’s me back in October 2015 when we were wondering why Milwaukee was getting so worked up over a Portillo’s coming to town:
“You wonder if the excitement is ‘one of the few remnants of our collective populace’s little-man syndrome in our constant and surely futile attempt to keep up with Chicago and “put Milwaukee on the map.”‘ I remember worrying about that sort of thing, too. […] But yeah, I totally got over that shit when I realized a.) I was projecting my own insecurities about myself and Milwaukee onto others, and b.) the rest of the country barely knows Milwaukee even exists. So fuck ’em.”
I wasn’t always this way. In 2012 (or was it 2013?), Mayor Tom Barrett gave a short speech before the opening night film of that year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. In his speech, he proudly proclaimed, “Milwaukee is no longer home to Laverne and Shirley!” Everyone cheered. Yeah! We’re a real city now! With a film festival! And good restaurants! And a bronze statue of Arthur Fonzarelli that we erected just a few years ago! Huh? What hypocrisy!
But like I said, I got over it. Is it weird to continually celebrate a bronze statue of a ’70s sitcom character that fewer and fewer people are familiar with? Sure, though I’d hazard a guess that the Bronze Fonz’s fading TV origins are largely meaningless to younger Milwaukee boosters—and that’s okay. At this point, it’s just a goofy hometown statue that’s been giving the thumbs-up on the RiverWalk for close to a decade. Oh, it’s tied to an old TV show that was supposed to take place here? Eh, whatever.
Let me be clear: I’m eternally gratefully that Milwaukee has blossomed into the city that it is today (even if that blossoming ain’t cheap, and even if that blossoming has been decidedly lopsided). We have great local music, great local food, and enough local pride to power a small nation into the 23rd century. But every Midwest city worth its salt is currently going through a similar “renaissance.” Shit, Des Moines, Iowa is “cool” now. Des Moines!
So, Tyler, shouldn’t we continue to cling on to the random junk that makes us quirky and unique? Any city can have a great restaurant scene, but only one can be home to Laverne and fucking Shirley. It’s not much, but it’s us.
TM: I’m learning that it’s better to go second in these things. Chide writer 1 for bringing up previously agreed-upon topic, tell them to lighten up, hit publish. Fun! Look, I wasn’t really asking for a cherry-picked quote from a past article about hot dogs or manufactured outrage that I dare bring up a broad point of conversation the day after Winkler, again, posed by his statue and it, again, is news in Milwaukee for some reason. My own apparent insecurities aside, I guess what I was getting at was, what the fuck was it like in Milwaukee when all this was happening? I know Mike Brenner closed his gallery and threatened to move when the kitschy local monument was being built. I’d also venture a guess that 2008 Matt Wild wasn’t exactly accepting of its installation. And you two weren’t alone. While I’m not bemoaning the acceptance eight years of personal growth can bring someone (artist-turned-brewer, writer/editor or anyone else) and eight years of seeing firsthand that Milwaukee is still able to exist—nay, improve—in spite of its ongoing attachment to its studio audience-approved past, I find it strange that such a champion of the city is willing to shrug it off with an “Eh, whatever.”
I’m not asking you to hate The Bronze Fonz. Shit, I have more than a few pictures beside the thing. I’m sure to have even more when my mom comes to town in a few weeks. And I’m not about to act like the removal of a sub-six-foot statue that has quickly become a fairly harmless tourist attraction to a specific generation would finally and officially put Milwaukee on this so-called “map” so many seem absolutely desperate for us to appear. I’m fully aware that compared to many other U.S. markets, we’re microscopic. We’re a lazy punchline, if regarded at all. And I honestly don’t give a shit. In fact, I’m glad this city remains a relatively well-kept secret, save for the occasional list appearance or fabled franchise arrival that throws us into a frenzy. What I don’t like as much is that to some, these meaty, cheesy, macrobrewed, and Garry Marshall-produced tropes most Milwaukeeans appreciate for what they are or—like Brenner, you, and so many others (myself included, in some situations) have learned to coexist with—are the only thing outsiders know about us. It’s not little-man insecurity: I’d feel the same watching people chuck fish and put gum on a wall if I lived in Seattle, pose outside Central Perk or CBGB if I lived in New York, or stumble around in search of beads on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
I guess what I’m getting at is, I’m fine with the quirky landmarks and TV trivia tidbits indelibly written into Milwaukee’s backstory, but I just think it’s unfortunate that events like “Happy Days Live” and things like The Bronze Fonz are what bring some to town. All that said, I truly hope those people get enjoyment out these antiquated amenities for what they’re worth, but are also able to look past the glare of the rusting remnants of the Milwaukee Mayor Barrett was referencing in 2012 (or 2013) and find more things to help inform their opinion of our city, because it’s so much more. I think we can agree on that.
MW: Of course we can agree that Milwaukee is so much more. But what’s the harm in having a bevy of meaty, cheesy, macrobrewed, and Garry Marshall-produced tropes acting as introductions to the rest of the city? Come for the Bronze Fronz, look around and stay for the Pabst Theater, the RiverWalk, that new Postman’s Park, and a dozen other things within walking distance of those bronze thumbs. And that’s just a few blocks of Downtown. Whatever get’s ’em through the door, I say.
Will the cities you mentioned above ever lose their cheesy, well-trodden tourist-trap attractions? No, and I think it would be sad if they did. Maybe 2008 me would lose his shit at what I’m about to say, but I’m happy Milwaukee still has its “happy days.” To paraphrase our own Cal Roach in a recent concert review, great job, Milwaukee! You continue to charm the heck out of a lot of people just by being yourself.