Friday, December 4, 2020


The Original and Best
On December 17, 1974, ABC aired a Christmas themed program for Episode 11 in Season 2 of its eventual long-running Happy Days  situation comedy series (1974-1984) titled "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas."  In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of this milestone Christmas episode, full historic context is required.  Happy Days initially made its debut as an episode of the ABC sit-com Love American Style (February 25, 1972) -- appropriately titled "Love and the Happy Days" -- and then began its network TV run in January 1974 as a midseason replacement to capitalize on the enormous commercial success of the 1973 nostalgic motion picture "American Graffiti."  Ron Howard was the lead actor in all three variants of this 1950s nostalgic motif.  In its first season and a half, Happy Days was filmed with a single camera, featured a laugh track and had a movie-look instead of taping in front of a live studio audience (which began in Season 3).  During its early run, Henry Winkler, who starred as Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli was largely a supporting character that was a fusion of the 1950s film star personas portrayed by Marlon Brando ("The Wild One") and James Dean ("Rebel Without a Cause") with a touch of the hot-rod racer persona portrayed by Paul Le Mat in "American Graffiti."  As such, Winkler's Fonzie character had an edgy air of mystery and danger that implied he would sometimes engage in activities that were outside the law.  At the time Happy Days began its network TV run, Winkler could also be seen portraying an identical if not very similar character in the 1974 motion picture "The Lords of Flatbush" (that featured Winkler playing alongside future "Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone and TV star Perry King as the lead actors).  This cult classic is still remembered for its famous group shot of the aforementioned actors in its publicity poster displayed in movie theaters (and included in this Blog).  The simultaneous big and small screen presence of Winkler's tough guy persona in a supporting but critical role added something extra special to this family TV show.

It is this context, and more, that is important to include if one is to fully appreciate the wonderment and poignancy of this Happy Days Christmas episode -- long before Winkler's Fonzie was made into a more central character that led to him becoming a TV icon.  Since Fonzie was a combination biker / high school dropout / expert auto mechanic, his presence gave various early Happy Days episodes an element of danger as well as cool since he often was shown giving advice to the squeaky clean teenagers -- especially the Richie Cunningham character played by Ron Howard -- who were seen on TV as approaching coming of age milestones.  Set in mid-1950s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this Christmas episode reveals a very serious side by reminding the viewing audience on the true meaning of Christmas: when we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we are reminded of God the Father's Love expressed through the person of His Son Jesus Christ sent forth into the world in the Holy Spirit.  It is the birth of Christ that gives each of us renewal as God's love fills our heart and soul so that we, in turn, can reflect and share that divine love with others.

It is in this spirit that Richie and his family are able to give Fonzie a true Christmas -- one that warms the heart and soul by dispelling darkness, loneliness and despair while affirming the virtues of faith, hope and love.  After Fonzie repairs the Cunningham family car, he claims to have plans of spending Christmas with relatives in nearby Waukesha to cover up the truth that he will be spending the Christmas Holiday Season by himself!  In a very sad, poignant moment, Fonzie is shown cooking a canned meal over a hot plate with a forlorn, tiny, tabletop Christmas tree nearby.  Having discovered the truth that Fonzie is all alone, Richie and his father (played by Tom Bosley) invite the Fonz to their home on the pretext that their mechanical Santa Claus (part of the outdoor Christmas display at the Cunningham residence) requires his mechanical expertise.  Thus Fonzie is able to join the Cunningham Christmas celebration while still maintaining his dignity and pride, if not his bravura.  Fonzie is welcomed by the Cunninghams, and he easily slips into the Christmas spirit by participating in various family activities including a reading of "A Visit from St Nicholas." In a most touching and fitting conclusion to this classic TV episode, Fonzie then leads the family in a Christmas prayer in which he bows his head and simply says "Hey God!  Thanks!" and then flashes that warm, friendly smile that would become part of his signature style in later years when Happy Days reached top-rated status.

Beyond the earlier background information shared,  the additional context that makes this early Happy Days Christmas episode unique is that it is very rarely if ever shown in syndication in the manner it was originally aired in 1974.  Typically it is seen as a flashback episode in two different variants (1975 and 1976) in which Fonzie is recounting this magical Christmas first with Arnold (Pat Morita) and later with Al (Al Molinaro).  The original version marked the first Happy Days episode in which the Fonzie character was completely featured.  As such, his concise manner of expression along with his street gang style of dress was given a touch of humanity but without being overly sentimental.  This rather thoughtful, somewhat reflective tough guy Fonzie seemed far more genuine and real than the superstar icon he later became in which he was shown repeatedly saying the one word catch phrase "Aaay" to convey reaction to everything from humor to seriousness.  This is not to denigrate either the popular Fonzie character nor the 11-season commercial success enjoyed by the Happy Days series (plus its many spin-offs) but rather a reminder that often the most touching episodes from classic TV come when a series is either struggling for ratings or trying to secure its niche in the early going while its principal characters are not caricatures but real people growing and becoming more relatable to the audience.  The original, and in my opinion, the best Happy Days Christmas episode still resonates more than 45 years after its network TV debut.

In this season of Holy Advent, please take time to view this very special Happy Days Christmas episode that reminds us all that family is that which makes you feel loved.  Please share your thoughts and memories of the Holiday Season via posting on to the Galaxy FACEBOOK page (and be sure to "like" us when doing so) or via e-mail to the GNN web site.  Likewise, I am always receptive to hearing from our wonderful Galaxy audience and/or connecting via LinkedIn.