Laverne and Shirley are a female odd couple who made many TV fans laugh in the late 70’s and 80’s. The show was set in the 50’s and 60’s, and it took place on the same set used on “The Odd Couple!” “Laverne & Shirley” may have been one of the few successful spin offs of all time, rivaling shows such as “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” which were both spun from “All in the Family.” “Laverne & Shirley’s” popularity may have even surpassed “Happy Days,” the show it was derived from. The show might never have come to be if not for Gary Marshall trying to help his little sister out.
Like any throwback TV show, a lot of things happened on set that are only just now coming to light. It’s hard to believe what people got away with back in the 60s. Times have really changed! Many of the cast and crew have come out with some shocking revelations about what really used to happen on set, and of course…. why the infamous split?
Penny Marshall was previously working on an unsuccessful show called “Friends & Lovers” which wound up being canceled. So Gary, her brother and a successful producer, worked a similar character from that show into a “Happy Days” episode and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first 5 seasons take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and are supposed to occur during the late 50’s (most likely 1958 at the same time as “Happy Days”) and ran through to 1967 (though it was actually in the ‘0s). The girls worked as bottle cappers at the Shotz brewery in Milwaukee.
The opening sequence is the girls skipping down the street chanting a Yiddish hopscotch song. Schlemiel Schlimazel Hasenpfeffer incorporated. The Yiddish is better than its translation which would go something like this: “A klutz, an idiot, rabbit stew company”
Marshall said she used to chant this as a girl, but she never knew what the words meant.
Laverne DeFazio, Brooklyn Transplant
Laverne DeFazio was played by Penny Marshall. She is regularly seen with a giant “L” hand sewed into her clothing. She is a Milwaukee transplant. Laverne grew up in Brooklyn with Italian Immigrants (her mother died before the show began). The giant “L” is there because the actress, Marshall, knew that the audience would remember her name better, and she would have to introduce herself less often. It freed up a lot of dialogue in the script.
Marshall eventually got her directorial debut on the show. Her family connections got her the part and the series, but she’s gone on to direct “A League of Their Own.” Her brother created, produced, directed, and wrote for the show. Her sister was the casting director. Her father was a producer. (Her dad actually withheld a check over a petty rudeness once.)
A lot of the crew resented how well-connected she was. They claim she got favoritism because of her family’s huge role in making the show.
Laverne isn’t Your Average Woman
Laverne is a bit of a loudmouth, and looked at as a “tom boy” during the time period of the 50’s where girls were raised to be more submissive. She also had a real thing for drinking milk and Pepsi together. The whole schtick actually comes from when the real actress went to camp. It was a camp that kept kosher, which came with a lot of rules about how to consume various foods. She wasn’t supposed to drink milk with meat… So in real life her mother would make her drink milk, then Pepsi, before having meat. But there was always a little milk in the glass with the Pepsi. Sometimes a lot of milk. Marshall used that detail in the show and people went wild for it.
Fun Fact: It’s pretty common knowledge that Penny and Cindy thought they were better than the writers of the show.
Shirley Feeney was played by Cindy Williams. Shirley is positive, perky and on the meek side. She is pretty much the opposite of Laverne. This is a great dichotomy, considering their set shared location with the show The Odd Couple.
Cindy didn’t want to get into TV. She thought her career would be bigger if she did theater and films.
“I thank God somebody hit me over the head and said you better do this…” ~Cindy Williams
Supposedly, Cindy broke down the gate at the studio one day when the guards didn’t recognize her, despite her star status. She was so mad that the backed up and floored it, breaking the gate.
Shy On Camera, Loud Behind the Scenes
The shy Shirley has a fascination with Fabian and Carmine Ragusa her high school sweetheart and sometimes her current boyfriend. She is often seen with her pal Boo Boo Kitty, who seems to comfort her when she is unwell or upset.
It’s rumored that Penny and Cindy could be heard screaming and cussing at the writers through the walls. The cast of Happy Days, who filmed nearby, could listen through the walls to their yells and cursing. Garry Marshall’s children were often on set at Happy Days, but were forbidden from visiting L&S, since the language got so foul. Scripts were tossed, fights raged, filming was delayed or not done at all. Just not the greatest scene for kids.
Lenny & Squiggy
The characters of Lenny and Squiggy were created from a purple haze of Mary Jane while McKean and Lander were students at Carnegie Mellon. Their original act was much more lewd and full of profanity. It was cleaned up and given a G rating for TV, but they were definitely ready to step into the role after years of forming those characters. They started out as writers, and then wrote themselves parts.
The show was such a success that Michael McKean and David Lander released an album! They even got to perform on American Bandstand!
Michael McKean, Actor of Lenny
Lenny is played by Michael McKean. Lenny works as a truck driver at the brewery. Both Lenny and Squiggy are upstairs roommates to the girls.
These actors have a much better reputation than the girls. Supposedly the writers thought the starring actresses were too mean to the writers, but no such rumors exist about the boys.
Squiggy by David Lander
Squiggy is played by David Lander, and is often seen entering the apartment with a loud “Hello” that has a particular cadence to it. Squiggy’s real name is Andrew Squiggman. He was originally Antny Squiggliano but the producers changed it because there were already “too many” Italians on the show.
“Yeah, I threw a script ever so often and that got sort of well known, I suppose as a real arrogant or interhostal thing. I was very young and I was very angry.” ~David Lander
David was Mean On Set
Writers have come out over the years, calling David out for his diva attitude. David would be cruel. They went to the table reading and had a script that David and Michael had written. David and Michael loved the script and thought it was genius. But it didn’t go well at the reading. The writers then stayed up all night till 5am writing a new script. Trying to be respectful of their stuff. The writer was proud of his script once finished. That morning around 10, Michael and David walked into the writer’s office and on his desk landed a script in flames.
Garry Marshall was nearly in tears one day. He gathered them together and told them, “If you’re not happy with the material, you can walk out the door and I’ll pay you for every episode. You will not denigrate the material and you will not denigrate what the writers have done.”
They were fine for 8 minutes and then they were back to fighting. The pressure began to draw the staff away.
Carmine Ragusa is played by Eddie Mekka. He is a boxer known as “The Big Ragoo” and the character is also a performer and sometimes singer. He was Shirley’s high school sweetheart, and boyfriend most of the time.
Bright Enough for Broadway
Carmine owns a dance studio, can tap dance and sing. He is always trying to make it big. Carmine is an interesting combination, as he aims to be both a boxer and a tap dancer. This was because Mekka had a Broadway background and the show’s producers felt they could use that from time to time. As L&S was coming to an end, the producers tried to get Carmine a spinoff show. The last episode of L&S is actually a pilot for Carmine’s spinoff, but it never got any traction. His character was slated to become an actor in Hair. Supposedly wacky adventures would have ensued.
Laverne’s dad Frank DeFazio and was played by Phil Foster. He was also the owner of Pizza Bowl, a pizzeria bowling alley where Laverne worked part-time and the girls bowled regularly. Foster was given this part as a return favor from Garry Marshall. Foster gave Marshall his first comedy writing job. He was named Fivel Feldman when he was born, but took a stage name from Foster Ave in Brooklyn, NY. He died of a heart attack at age 72 in 1985.
Edna Babbish (Betty Garrett) played the apartment building landlady, and later Frank’s love interest and wife. She was married 5 times before. The 6th time was the charm, but no not really, as she leaves Frank at the end of the series.
Betty Garrett died in 2011. She rose to fame in MGM musicals, and died doing what she loved, teaching musical comedy.
During the Red Scare (late 1940s, and 1950s), the USA was extremely sensitive to anybody who might have ties to Russia or any other communist country. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witchhunt, holding televised hearings, trying to find US citizens who were not patriotic enough by his standards. 10 writers and directors refused to partake in this circus act, and they were cited for contempt of Congress. This led to the beginning of a blacklist, meaning that those Hollywood folks could not work. Betty Garrett was on that blacklist, which lasted until 1960 or longer.
“It’s not my nature to be bitter. What I feel is deep sorrow. We both, I think, were just on the verge of becoming really big stars, particularly Larry. And it just went crashing down,” Betty said, according to the AP.
Boo Boo Kitty
Boo Boo Kitty is the black plush handmade cat friend. Laverne once used her as a pin cushion, which was not appreciated by Shirley.
The stuffed animal was named after one of her mom’s real cats. There was only one copy of this prop, so it was kept under lock and key, because there was literally no replacement for it. Stevie Nicks supposedly loved Boo Boo Kitty.
You might hear the phrase bandied about by Empire star, Taraji P. Henson. Her character, Cookie, now uses it as a way of throwing shade.
Almost Moved to New York
It was originally planned to end the whole series at Season 5. Supposedly the roommates would move to NYC and that would be the end of things. The stars protested though, and got to keep Season 5 set in Milwaukee.
New Setting: California
Seasons 6 & 7 takes place in Sunny southern California in the city of Burbank. The girls lost their jobs at the brewery and trek the rest of the way across the country, hoping to one day be movie stars.
In the meantime they work at a Department store. Frank and Edna ran a Texas restaurant called Cowboy Bills. They had new characters like a landlord the girls fancied, and a friend named Rhonda. Carmine got work as singing telegram. He eventually leaves to do the Broadway show Hair.
Back to Happy Days
During a Happy Days Cross Over Episode, titled “Marry Me, “the Fonz and Richie Cunningham are being forced to marry two girls as part of a shot gun wedding. The second part of this episode titled “Shot Gun Wedding” aired on “Laverne & Shirley” the following week in 1979. The girls pretended to be engaged to Richie and the Fonz to get out of the wedding.
Laverne and Shirley were “two loose girls from the wrong side of the tracks” when they were on “Happy Days.” Regardless, they were friends of Fonzie and they helped out when they could. The girls characters changed slightly for their own show. Shirley became a bit more of a prude, and Laverne was actually reigned in a tiny bit as well.
So Many Cameos
Here are Carrie Fisher and Laverne as Playboy Bunnies, from the 1982 Episode, “The Playboy Show.” This followed her legendary performance in “Star Wars the New Hope.” Laverne accidentally gets this job, defies her father’s wishes, but seems to be regretting it in this picture.
Ted Danson Shows Up
Before his Cheers days, Ted made an appearance. He played a pretty attractive fireman and love interest. But sadly, he’s killed on the job before the two can settle down.
Frank and Edna, Love Lost
Poor Frank (and even Edna) they couldn’t make it. Sure it was because they had contract problems and had to leave the show, but it still left you feeling a bit flat.
On-Screen and Off-Screen Romance
Despite the persistence of the guys, this group had a pretty platonic and very adventurous friendship. Of course there was that one time when Cindy dated David in real life….
Cindy Williams and David Lander dated a little while and broke up many times. They would get together every night, stay together, go to work the next day, and after breaking up the previous night, in about 12 hours they’d turn to each other and say, “There’s always you.” The both felt the same way, “I’ll be in love with you till someone better comes along.”
“It was like a college campus. You had “Laverne & Shirley,” ” Happy Days,” “Taxi,” “Bossom Buddies,” “Mork and Mindy,” then of course, you had, “Little House On The Prairie.” Let’s not forget that hethenistic cast.” ~Cindy Williams
Some of the writers tried to pick up a Solid Gold dancer.
“We were all single and foot loose and fancy-free.” ~Cindy Williams
Shotz Brewery in the Opening Credits
Laverne and Shirley are working as bottlecappers in Shotz Brewery of Milwaukee. A lot of their friends also work there.
The opening credits feature the girls working on the factory floor, and even putting a glove onto the mass production line. This iconic set of scenes has been used repeatedly in other TV Shows and movies. Whether it is this picture of Laverne & Shirley or them skipping down the street to even Laverne’s glove taking the trip down the brewery line.
Wayne’s World Tries to Parody Laverne & Shirley
Here is one example of this now-iconic show was used in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World. Stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey run an entire parody of the opening sequence.
Never heard the word impossible
The girls got into a lot of shenanigans on the show, such as Laverne having to fly a plane from the episode “Airport ’59.” This occurred because the pilot passed out. Unfortunately Laverne was pretty nervous about flying, as this was their first flight.
The girls bowled in their free time. Bowling was a popular pastime during this time period. Laverne still put that L on her bowling shirts. They bowled for the Shotz Brewery Ladies league.
Laverne Ditched Shirley
The final season was Laverne without Shirley, but it still was titled the same as the name “Laverne” by itself would have been odd. Shirley marries an army medic named Walter Meany and she quickly becomes pregnant (as was Williams, which was the reasoning for her departure) and moves overseas with her husband. The real reason the actress didn’t return? She was pregnant, and the producers wouldn’t accommodate her schedule. They literally tried to schedule her to work on her due date!
There are lots of books by the stars that dispute exactly how it all went down. But the two stars didn’t speak to each other for years.
Laverne & Shirley Make Amends
“Laverne & Shirley” was extremely popular its first three seasons placing either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. It later remained in the top 25, even with Cindy Williams’s departure. By the end of the series (which concluded in 1983) there were 178 episodes. Most seasons are available on DVD.
Supposedly the two women have moved on and are friendly now.
They Reunite on Nickelodeon
Nickelodeon show, Sam and Cat, does a good job of parodying the opening credits. Not only do Ariana Grande and Jennette McCurdy recreate the opening, but L&S actually appear on this episode! They play creators of a 70s show named Salmon Cat.
We always hoped they would get back together. They were so kind about each other when quoted to the press.
Even though the girls bickered, there was a loyalty and bond between Penny and Cindy that was impossible to break.
“You can’t do a show like this and not like the other person. There’s no way. An audience would know that right away.” ~Cindy Williams
“That’s why the show worked. If they really hated each other, then it wouldn’t have worked.” ~David Lander
“We have a relationship that’s almost like a marriage.” ~Cindy Williams
Emmy Dreams Crushed
Despite its popularity, “Laverne & Shirley” never received an Emmy. Not only that, they were never even nominated. The writers claim that they were all considered lower class than the other shows that were out there. There was once a nomination for costumes, but everybody else was ignored. Perhaps it has something to do with how often writers would quit?
The cast was constantly yelling at writers and insulting their work.
“We went through 12 writing staffs at about 12 people a staff. That’s about 144 people who went through our portals.” ~David Lander
They couldn’t get a real director to do more than one show. David remembers going into the writer’s room and there was a big picture of Penny and Cindy and they were throwing darts at it.
Laverne and Shirley in the Army
The brief animated spin-off of “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” was aired on Saturday mornings in 1981. The show metamorphosed a few times over the two years it ran. Somehow Laverne was allowed to wear a giant L on her army uniform. The whole series was spun off from the real show’s Season 5 episodes “You’re in the Army Now.”
Hey, its the Fonz!
Some of the changes included adding in the Fonz as a regular character, and then changing the name of the show to include him. Later they also added characters from the popular show “Mork & Mindy.” That’s some serious cross-over appeal. The Fonz also got to have a dog named Mr. Cool.
Laverne & Shirley Dolls
TV show merchandise became a big part of pop culture in the late 70’s and 80’s. With the popularity of “Laverne & Shirley” the company Mepo actually made these dolls. They aren’t the most attractive toys in the world.
Hot Wheels Shotz Brewery Delivery Van
Hotwheels also put out a Delivery truck, like the one Squiggy drove from the Shotz Brewery. There were also Lenny & Squiggy dolls, puzzles, clothing and coloring books.
Animated cartoons became popular at the time. So even shows like “Gilligan’s Island” which aired just prior to this, became reimagined as cartoons.
Even Ponies got in on the Laverne & Shirley Pop Culture
Even though the show has been off-air for over 30 years, its icon status lives on. Hasbro created some My Little Ponies in the likeness of Laverne and Shirley, as well as some other famous TV friends. In honor of Friendship day, they also made an “I love Lucy” pony group, a “Bert & Ernie” set, and a few more.
The show’s creator, Garry Marshall, sadly passed away in July 2016.
In 2001, Penny Marshall was quoted in The New York Times as saying that her brother “has a life. He’s not into the show business glitterati. If he has a hot movie, that’s great. But if he has something that doesn’t do great, he’s not around those people who won’t speak to you or will make you feel terrible.”
A close relationship
Garry and Penny worked together on many projects over the years. Here’s an interesting fact: the two played the role of an old married couple in one film, 1993’s Hocus Pocus.