Happy Days and the ’50s Nostalgia Boom of the 1970s

Ron Howard’s birthday’s a good time as any to do an overdue appreciation of a major pop culture phenomenon of my youth, and a follow up of sorts to this recent piece about Jazz Age nostalgia in the early 1970s. There’s no mystery as to why this happened when it happened. Baby Boomers were reaching middle adulthood. In other words, they had arrived at a time in life when it was possible to look back, and so they did.

Happy Days launched at the beginning of 1974, but it wasn’t the first manifestation of this trend, just the biggest and most pivotal. Foreshadowing includes the inclusion of Sha Na Na at Woodstock, and the Beatles Get Back/ Let it Be sessions, both in 1969. The musical Grease debuted on Broadway in 1972. Happy Days began as a sort of “back door pilot” episode on Love, American Style in 1972, with Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams already among the principals. The following year Howard was in the ensemble of George Lucas’ American Graffiti, another nostalgic riff on the the lives of teenagers in the 1950s.

Howard came to the project with loads of associations for the audience, having played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), and been in movies like The Music Man (1962), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) and Village of the Giants (1965). Having Howard at the center of Happy Days was virtually stunt casting. On the show, he played Richie Cunningham, a Milwaukee teenager in the middle 1950s. His best friends were Ralph Malph (Donnie Most), a practical joker, and “Potsy” (Anson Williams), a sort of good looking idiot. His parents were Ross and stage and screen veteran Tom Bosley; his little sister Joanie, Erin Moran. Henry Winkler played an enigmatic motorcycle hoodlum named Fonzie, who was initially on the periphery.

The show was smartly produced by Garry Marshall, with echoes of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and other family-oriented, coming-of-age sitcoms of two decades earlier. For older people it was a flashback. For kids like me (I was 8 when it premiered) it was a weird kind of education in older pop culture. The ’50s had ended only five years before I was born; to me it seemed like ancient history. On Happy Days, I was introduced to the music of Bill Haley and the Comets (who did the theme song) and Fats Domino. Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabelle the Clown were guests in one episode. Ralph Malph did a Jack Benny impression. Some of the cool meta stuff was subtler or behind the scenes — much of this I am sure through Marshall’s influence and his affection for show biz. Danny Thomas made a guest appearance. Burlesque vet Herbie Fay is in an episode. Cathy Silvers, daughter of Fay’s old comedy partner Phil Silvers, played Jennie Piccolo. Howard Dodson from The Andy Griffith Show played Ralph’s father.  Most of the episodes were directed by Jerry Paris, who played the next door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Beatrice Colen, memorable as the carhop Marsha Simms, was the granddaughter of George S. Kaufman. 

Marshall put his personal stamp on the show in other ways. The first two seasons had been shot in the one-camera “cinematic” style, with a laugh track, and many locations and sets. For the third season, as he had done with his earlier hit show The Odd Couple, he switched to a 3-camera “taped before a live studio audience” format, and it clicked with the audience much better. Other Odd Couple imports include Al Molinaro (who’d played Murray the Cop) as the diner owner Al; and sister Penny Marshall (who’d played Oscar’s secretary Myrna) as Laverne DeFazio (later of the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley).

It was at this stage that Fonzie, previously a supporting character, became central to the show. Winkler’s appearance in the 1974 TV movie The Lords of Flatbush may have helped. Happy Days was too ensemble-based to call Winkler the undisputed “star”; the plots still revolved around the Cunningham family. But increasingly Winkler’s iconic character, a kind of mix of Brando, James Dean, Elvis, and Eric Von Zipper, became the one everyone tuned in to see. (The success of another ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, also about a group of misfit delinquents, around the same time, felt related).  Fonzie’s every utterance (“ayyyy!” “whoa!”) became a national catchphrase. Dolls and lunchboxes were sold to children. By season 4, Happy Days was #1 in the ratings.

It was surely not a coincidence that other manifestations of ’50s nostalgia emerged around the same time. Early rock and roll acts like Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, and Frankie Valli re-emerged to have new strings of hits. Linda Rondstadt recorded several hit covers of ’50 tunes. The Bobby Vinton Show launched in 1975.  Sha Na Na got their own tv show in 1977. The movie Grease came out in 1978.

Season 5 of Happy Days was the turning point. Still # 2 in the ratings, that season was the juncture when the show went too far — so far in fact that one of its most egregious lapses spawned what is now the idiomatic descriptor for when a show passes its peak and begins to decline: “jumping the shark”. By this point in the show’s history Fonzie had grown into a sort of demi-God, with magical properties. He wasn’t just “cool”, he could now punch a broken appliance and make it work, a sort of Jesus repairman. In the shark-jumping episode, Fonzie did an Evel Knievel-meets-Jaws inspired stunt where he jumped over a bunch of man-eating sharks on water skis. For many of us, it was a bridge too far. I was only 12 and I already thought it was stupid. In fact, having the entire cast go to Hollywood in the first place was stupid. The shark had been jumped even before the shark had been jumped.

That episode aired in 1977 and I didn’t really stick around too long as a viewer after that. Astoundingly, Happy Days remained on the air another 7 years, even a season or two after Ron Howard himself had left. Its legacies included the spin-offs Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Joanie Loves Chaci, Blanskys’ Beauties, and Out of the Blue. It seems to me That Seventies Show was very much inspired by it.

At any rate there’s much more to be said on this nostalgia topic (not all of it positive), but the shadows are growing long. We’ll pick up the thread later.