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Laverne & Shirley (ABC 1976-1983, Cindy Williams, Penny Marshall)

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Spin-offs are a common event on prime-time television, but they are rarely as successful as the shows that spawned them. Most are cancelled within a season or two, but there are a few exceptions. The most notable of these is Laverne and Shirley, a spin-off from the ABC mega-hit Happy Days that even managing to beat its inspiration to go to number one in the ratings during its second season.

Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney were first introduced to television viewers in late 1975 on an episode of Happy Days entitled ‘A Date With Fonzie,’ which had Fonzie and Richie going on a double date with the two women. Laverne and Shirley got their own show in January of 1976, which initially aired after Happy Days on Monday nights. The show’s storyline was simple and straightforward, following Laverne and Shirley through their daily lives as bottle-cappers at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee during the 1950’s. The two shared an apartment as they tried to improve their respective stations in life and looked for true love.

A substantial ensemble backed up Laverne and Shirley: Frank DeFazio was Laverne’s father and owner of local hangout The Pizza Bowl, and Edna Babish was the girls’ landlady who would eventually end up marrying Frank. Lenny and Squiggy were the wacky neighbors who provided comic relief, and heartthrob appeal came in the form of Carmine ‘The Big Ragu’ Ragusa, Shirley’s on-and-off boyfriend.

The show was savaged by critics from the start: Time Magazine voted it ‘The Most Deplorable Success’ on television and others regularly referred to it as ‘TV junk food’ because of its minimalist plotting and its reliance on slapstick humor. None of this mattered to the fans, who adored the show for the comic timing of its stars and the fact that it made its two ‘blue collar babes’ into underdog heroes. Who didn’t cheer when Laverne and Shirley triumphed over the rich, successful types they met (usually portrayed as cruel, unhappy people) by finding happiness in life’s simple pleasures.

After a long period of success, the show took a drop in ratings during the 1979-80 season. This prompted a major change in the story as Laverne and Shirley decided to move from Milwaukee to Burbank, California. Newlyweds Frank and Edna moved along with them to open a new restaurant, Cowboy Bill’s. Lenny, Squiggy and Carmine all followed, and two new characters were introduced: Sonny St. Jacques, the girl’s new landlord (also an occasional stuntman) and Rhonda Lee, a sharp-tongued aspiring model/actress.

In 1982, star Cindy Williams (Shirley) became pregnant and got into a dispute with the producers over modifications of her work schedule to accommodate the pregnancy. She ended up leaving the show, written out of the story by having Shirley marry Walter Meany, an army medic with an overseas assignment. The show was retitled Laverne, ran one more season, and ended its run in May of 1983 after an amazing 178 episodes.

Before it ended, the show’s success prompted a Saturday morning animated series, also entitled Laverne and Shirley which ran from October 1981 to September 1983. The show also spawned another hit in its Top-40 theme song, ‘Making Our Dreams Come True,’ written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and performed by Cyndi Grieco. Since then, Cindy Williams continues to act in films and television, and Penny Marshall has become a successful director of feature films like Big, Awakenings and A League Of Their Own.

production details
USA | ABC-Paramount-Miller-Milkis Prod.-Fox | 178×30 minutes | Broadcast 27 January 1976 – 10 May 1983

Creators: Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz, Mark Robson
Theme Music: Norman Gimble, Charles Henderson
Theme sung by Cyndi Grecco

cast
PENNY MARSHALL as Laverne DeFazio
CINDY MARSHALL as Shirley Feeney
PHIL FOSTER as Frank DeFazio
DAVID L. LANDER as Andrew ‘Squiggy’ Squiggman
MICHAEL McKEAN as Lenny Kosnowski
EDDIE MEKKA as Carmine Ragusa