“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”
Any successful television series is likely to have a spin-off or two, and the enormously popular Happy Days was no exception. But, while most spin-offs are lucky if they last a full season, this time lightning struck twice. Following the lives of two lovable brewery workers who lived in 1950s-era Milwaukee, Laverne and Shirley won the hearts of television viewers almost immediately and enjoyed a longevity that few spin-offs have ever managed to achieve.
Debuting in 1975, Laverne and Shirley followed the lives of Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, two friends who worked as bottle-cappers for the Shotz Brewery and shared an apartment together. Laverne’s father, Frank, owned the local hangout, The Pizza Bowl, and his sweetheart was Edna Babish, the lovable landlady at the apartment complex where the girls lived. Also in residence at the apartments were two harmless dimwits, Lenny and Squiggy, who preferred to walk in unannounced at every opportunity. Shirley frequently dated a hunky dancer named Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa.
Each week, Laverne and Shirley did their best to improve their blue collar existence and their love lives leading to one crazy adventure after another. The critics regularly panned the show, due to its slapstick tendencies, but that didn’t sway their loyal audience one bit. The one-two punch of Happy Days followed by Laverne and Shirley gave ABC command of the Tuesday night lineup for many a season.
But after years of success, it was inevitable that the ratings would eventually falter and, as a result, drastic changes were made to the premise in the final seasons. In 1979, Laverne and Shirley left their Milwaukee surroundings for a sunny new life in California. Frank and Edna, now newlyweds, tagged along, as did Lenny, Squiggy and Carmine. Audiences were also introduced to two new characters – Rhonda Lee, an up and coming model/actress with an acerbic wit, and Sonny St. Jacques, Hollywood stuntman and the girl’s new landlord. In other words, the show jumped the proverbial shark.
Before the eighth (and final) season rolled around in 1982, a pregnant Cindy Williams got into a contract dispute and decided to leave the series. To account for her absence, it was explained the Shirley wed an army medic and joined him on an overseas assignment. With the show’s chemistry forever altered, it spelled the end for Laverne and Shirley in 1983.
A few years prior, in 1981, the show’s popularity spawned a Saturday morning animated series. Laverne and Shirley in the Army eventually morphed into The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour and ran until the cancellation of the original series.
Laverne and Shirley also managed to have its theme song reach the Top-40 charts – “Making Our Dreams Come True,” which was composed by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Cindy Williams continues to appear on television and in films, while Penny Marshall has found success as a director, producing such films as Big and A League of their Own.
Laverne and Shirley ran for a very respectable 178 episodes. Each week, audiences tuned in by the millions to laugh along with their zany antics. It was good, clean fun and proved beyond a doubt that a spin-off could be mightily successful in its own right.
If you have fond memories of those Tuesday nights on the 70s, when it was Happy Days, then Laverne and Shirley (and eventually Three’s Company too), we welcome any and all of your recollections in our comments section.