(Photo credit: The Bronze Fonz, Milwaukee, WI, Washington DC, courtesy Tim (tditz_gb), Flickr Creative Commons)
If you’re from Milwaukee, WI, or you’ve visited the city in recent years, you’ll probably know about the “Bronze Fonz.” It’s a good example of a recent trend in public art and commemoration. It’s also weirdly cool, like the Fonz himself. But how long will it remain relevant in the eyes of Milwaukeeans?
Actually, today is the day, in 1945, that Henry Winkler was born. That got me thinking about a connection between Winkler, Milwaukee, and public commemoration. Winkler’s most famous fictional role was that of Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz,” who appeared in the hit sit-com “Happy Days” for 10 years, from 1974 to 1984. “Happy Days” was famously set in 1950s Milwaukee. The top-rated show became indelibly linked in the minds of Americans with both the city and its best-known character. The show is still remembered fondly by millions of people today. It is of course available on DVD and other formats, and it’s still seen in re-runs on TV Land. This led to a move by the local tourism bureau to memorialize the Fonz with a commemorative statue on the city’s Riverwalk. Since its completion in 2008, the statue has attracted some criticism but has also become a favorite of tourists and visitors to the city who want to take a snap or two standing next to the statue in silly poses. (Another famous pair of Milwaukee TV characters, Laverne and Shirley, have yet to be commemorated in bronze.)
The Bronze Fonz itself can actually look a little creepy. Some angles are more “Fonz”-like than others, but from certain positions the face looks almost demonic. Also, lacking a pedestal, the statue seems unusually small—it’s supposed to be life-sized, and Winkler himself is quite short. Most visitors, particularly males, seem to tower over the figure. When I was a kid watching the show, it never dawned on me how short the Fonz actually was. Perhaps most weirdly, though, is that the statue’s in color. Unusually even for modern works of statuary, the Fonz’s famous leather jacket is actually colored black, the T-shirt is white and the jeans are indeed blue. The face, however, retains the statue’s natural bronze hue. The whole effect is a bit disconcerting.
The Bronze Fonz is part of a trend of towns and cities around America commemorating fictional figures from film and television that are associated with the municipalities in question. Since “Happy Days” was set in Milwaukee, folks from that part of the world feel a natural connection with the show—even though, like every other TV sitcom, it was almost always filmed on a set in Hollywood. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure there was never a scene in the show’s 10-year run where the Fonz was shown hanging out by the Milwaukee River. Yet today there he is, and there he will stay forever (or at least until city residents tire of his presence).
Next door to Wisconsin, neighboring Minnesota also sports a TV character statue in its largest city, Minneapolis. This is a depiction of Mary Richards from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” commemorated in bronze. The cable network TV Land paid for this statue, also outdoors, which depicts Richards in the culmination of the show’s opening sequence, when she joyfully tosses her tam in the air to the theme tune “Love is All Around.” That freeze frame is an iconic visual image from American TV history. In this case there is at least a direct geographic connection between the show and the statue: the scene was filmed on location, at the corner of 7th Street and Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis; the statue is located at roughly the same spot.
TV Land—devoted to replaying classic American TV shows from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—went through a phase of commissioning commemorative statues around the country (though not including the Bronze Fonz) in the 2000s. There’s the “Bewitched” statue in Salem, Mass., showing the Elizabeth Montgomery character from the show that was set there. Andy and Opie, stars of “The Andy Griffiths Show,” are commemorated in bronze in Raleigh, North Carolina. Chicago, meanwhile, got a statue of Bob Newhart, memorializing that show’s fictional connection with the Windy City. And, not to be outdone, New York City has Ralph Kramden from “The Honeymooners” gracing, appropriately enough, midtown Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Most of these memorials have some things in common. They’re placed either at eye level or on short pedestals. They seem to be designed to facilitate easy access for picture takers to stand next to them, wrap their arms around them, or even place silly hats on them. Their relationship with visitors and viewers is also supposed to be different. These are not heroic figures from history. We’re not supposed to revere them. Rather, we are encouraged to engage with them in a personal, friendly and whimsical way. These statues are practically begging to be photographed with groups of tourists in silly poses with big grins on their faces.
The granddaddy of all memorials to fictional characters has to be the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, based on the feature film of the same name. This statue departs a bit from the criteria set out above, and there’s quite a story behind it, so I think I’ll save Rocky for another post.
Returning to the other examples mentioned above, the TV characters commemorated by their bronze memorials are, in 2013, still beloved by generations of Americans who watched these shows when they initially ran, or, to a lesser extent, by younger folks who watched them in reruns. But why did these shows have such a powerful cultural impact? And will they continue to be well remembered in the future?
You know the answer to the first question—at least you do if you’re older than 40. These shows were all commissioned in network television’s “golden age,” the 1960s and 1970s, when there were only three TV networks in existence, and these three networks grabbed the lion’s share of TV audiences—ratings figures that present-day TV executives could only dream about. That was simply because there were far fewer viewing options available at the time. Top-rated shows in the mid-70s could attract audiences of 15 to 20 million viewers, which represented between a quarter and a third of the whole TV audience at the time.
So what about today’s top scripted shows: “The Big Bang Theory,” “Two and a Half Men,” and the like? These shows can also grab about 15-18 million viewers (reality TV shows might be able to grab a couple million more). But that’s a much smaller proportion of the total audience, which in the past 40 years has almost doubled (in terms of the number of TV sets). Even today’s most-widely watched shows, outside of one-offs such as the Super Bowl, can’t have the cultural impact of the top shows from the 1970s. In a cable environment with hundreds of available channels, the networks themselves—including NBC, ABC, CBS, plus relative newcomers FOX and CW—are shadows of their former selves, and their ability to influence the TV marketplace has shrunk drastically. Even on these networks, scripted shows have lost ground compared to reality TV and other types of non-scripted programming.
So, 40 or 50 years from now, what TV sitcoms are we going to commemorate in bronze from the 2000s and 2010s? Will future generations even care about today’s shows in the way that previous generations cared about “Happy Days”?
And what of these TV statues that will continue to grace the touristy bits of Milwaukee, Minneapolis and the rest? Will passers-by a half-century from now still view them with a pleasant glow of nostalgia, or pay them any attention at all? Or will they simply ignore these bronze casts and consider them with as much detachment or disdain that most people today give 19th century statues of half-forgotten figures from real history? It’s oddly sad to consider a time when a memorial to The Fonz will mean absolutely nothing to the vast majority of passing Milwaukeeans. But is that any worse than today’s Bostonians passing statues of, say, Edward Everett Hale or Charles Sumner in complete ignorance?
The Bronze Fonz. RoadsideAmerica.com. Available at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/18990
Chris Epting (2007). Cultural Tourism. In Richard Sisson, Christian K. Zacher, & Andrew Robert Lee Cayton, eds. The American Midwest: an interpretive encyclopedia. Midwestern History and Culture Series. Indiana University Press.
Top Tens and Trends. Neilsen. Available at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/top10s.html
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