© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Exploring Milwaukee's mixed relationship with 'Happy Days,' 50 years after its premiere

Henry Winkler as the "Fonz" (front left) and Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham (right) alongside other "Happy Days" cast members, 1974
Wikipedia Commons
Henry Winkler as the "Fonz" (front left) and Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham (front right) alongside other "Happy Days" cast members.

Happy Days first premiered on January 15th, 1974, and ran for 11 seasons with a total of 255 episodes. Set in Milwaukee, the sitcom is centered around Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, his family, and his high school friends, with Fonzie being one of the most notable characters played by Henry Wrinkler.

Milwaukee has a bit of a mixed relationship with Happy Days and its cultural impact, and Archer Parquette wrote all about it in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine in honor of the show’s 50th anniversary.

A common topic surrounding Happy Days is how "Milwaukee" in the show is actually portrayed. "Anyone from Milwaukee that's seen the show pretty much knows it's not much of a Milwaukee show," notes Parquette.

After the pilot was initially turned away by ABC, American entertainment began to enjoy 50's nostalgic pieces like American Graffiti and Grease. So, ABC jumped on this trend and decided to move forward with the project, and one of the final decisions was where the show would be based. Out of the three hometowns of the show's producers, Milwaukee was chosen because of its Midwest feel. But in many ways, that's where the connection mostly stopped.

Parquette explains, "Nothing was ever shot here. So obviously, all the interiors of Happy Days were shot on a sound stage in Los Angeles. But even the exterior shots were in other shows you might expect. [The] skyline where it's set or street shots were, also were not from Milwaukee. The Cunningham home was a house in L.A. about a few blocks from where they were shooting the actual show. So, really, there was not much representation from Milwaukee."

What little representation of our city is in the show - like clothing and college banners on the wall - was thanks to one of its producers, Tom Miller. He grew up in Milwaukee and went to UW-Madison to study drama before moving to Los Angeles to start working in television.

"[Miller] has passed away, but I spoke to a number of the cast members who mentioned sort of his love for his hometown and that he tried to lace that in where he could," says Parquette.

Even with the lack of a sense of place, Happy Days and its cultural influence has still left its mark on the Milwaukee area. Parquette says, "All those folks who were sort of arguing about if culture would be sidelined by the 'Bronze Fonz' being set up on the Riverwalk — clearly it hasn't. [Milwaukee] culture has really had a boom in that decade since the the statue went up."

"It is remarkable that we're still discussing Happy Days," he adds. "I mean, there's very few sitcoms of that time that have had that longevity."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
Related Content