What’s Milwaukee without the Fonz?

This city is one of many glorifying their fictional TV characters. Some residents don’t like it.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 21 2008

What’s Milwaukee without the Fonz?

This city is one of many glorifying their fictional TV characters. Some residents don’t like it.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 21 2008

What’s Milwaukee without the Fonz?

This city is one of many glorifying their fictional TV characters. Some residents don’t like it.

JAIME J. WEINMAN

The most famous person who ever lived in Milwaukee is one who didn’t exist. That’s the impression you’ll get starting this August, when a life-size statue of Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli from Happy Days is unveiled near the Milwaukee River, complete with a dedication ceremony attended by Henry Winkler himself. And the most unusual thing about this TV-character idol worship is that it isn’t unusual at all: when the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau raised the $85,000 for the statue, they were inspired by other cities that have put up statues of their favourite fictional residents. Minneapolis has a Mary Tyler Moore Show statue commemorating the day she threw her hat in the air. Bob Newhart is actually from Chicago but the city erected a statue not to him but to Bob Hartley, the Chicagobased character he played on The Bob Newhart Show. Whether they like it or not, the residents of a city have to deal with the legacy of people who never lived there.

Most shows take place in New York, Los Angeles, London or another of the big media centres. Which means that the residents of any other city can get a welcome surprise when a show chooses to situate its characters in a place that isn’t normally seen on TV. Milwaukee journalist Erica Perez, who moved to the city from Los Angeles, told Maclean’s that Happy Days and Taverne and Shirley may have helped Milwaukee by giving the city a pop culture identity: “It created an image of Milwaukee where there was not much of an image to begin with. So in that sense I think it helped a little.” Some people, particularly young people, feel a certain pride in hearing their city mentioned on TV: when the site PBSkids.org asked for reviews of the

kids’ show The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, one young viewer wrote that he liked the show because “it takes place in Boston, and when the camera shows the Tipton hotel, you see my aunt’s work building.” And Hugh Wilson, creator of the show WKRP in Cincinnati (he chose the city almost at random), says he’s proud that “Cincinnati welcomed us with open arms when the cast went there, and after all these years I’ve never heard a single citizen have a negative comment.” Sometimes the residents come to resent being too strongly associated with a bunch of California-bred stereotypes. Mike Brenner, the director of a Milwaukee art gallery called Hotcakes, has announced his intention to shut down the gallery in protest of the Fonzarelli-ization of his town. “I cannot see running a contemporary art gallery,” he wrote on his website, “in a city whose ‘leadership’ is so eager to invest its limited resources in garbage instead of fostering its burgeoning arts community.” Perez, who used to work in Orange County, Calif., when the residents were annoyed over their portrayal on the show The O.C., sees something similar in Milwaukee: people “appreciate the attention” they get from shows like Happy Days, but at the same time they “want outsiders to know they’re more than what the show suggests.”

But there’s a reason why no city can com-

pletely sever its ties with a TV show: even if the show creates annoying stereotypes, those same stereotypes create the potential for tourist trade. Minneapolis has a “Mary Tyler Moore Show” tour where people are driven to the various locations that were used in the show’s title sequence and exterior shots. And in Boston, the bar that was used as the exterior for Cheers is also a tourist attraction, disappointing everyone who goes in and finds it’s nothing like the famous Cheers set. Still, some residents resent seeing tourists who only evaluate the city based on what they’ve seen on TV. The producers of Mary Tyler Moore paid a Minneapolis woman to let them use her house as the exterior for Mary Richards’ house; after the show went on the air, the owner became so furious at the invasion of tourists that she hung an “IMPEACH NIXON” banner out of her window to prevent anyone filming it for TV again.

So as Milwaukee prepares to celebrate a leather-jacketed hoodlum, it finds itself in the position of many other cities: split between people who like being associated with old TV shows and people who would rather forget the whole thing. And the divide is a heated one: Brenner’s website includes recordings of angry phone messages he’s received from Fonz-lovers, including death threats and at least one person pretending to be the Fonz. Well, if a fictional character can get a monument that’s usually reserved for military lead-

ers, why shouldn’t he start a civil war? M