Al Molinaro: Just a Guy From Kenosha

We are in the midst of our “Men of August” series and today we to learn about another Wisconsin resident, Al Molinaro. Last week we delved into the career of Tom Bosley; Molinaro and Bosley were castmates on Happy Days but made their way there on very different paths.

Photo: itvhub.com

Al’s parents immigrated from Italy. His father had a true success story. He began his life in America at age 15 working as a water boy with a railroad crew heading west. He met and married his wife in Kenosha, Wisconsin where they settled down to raise their family of ten children. Al was born in 1919.

Al’s father, Raffaele, owned a restaurant/hotel and sponsored hundreds of Italians so they could make their way to the United States. Al’s brother Joseph became the district attorney for Kenosha County, and his brother George served thirty years in the Wisconsin State Assembly.  

After high school, Al became a union leader at the Vincent-McCall Furniture Spring Factory. A year later, he later took a position with the City of Kenosha as assistant to the city manager. A friend of his had relocated to California to work in the aircraft industry and encouraged Al to give it a try.

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Where Al watched movies in Kenosha dreaming of being an actor–Photo:cinematreasures.com

In 1940, Al left Wisconsin for a career in California. Although Al would never live in Kenosha again, it held a special place in his heart and later in his life, he said that “I love that town; I love it. If it wasn’t that I left it for show business, I’d still be there today.”

His first job in Los Angeles was with Reginald Denny’s Hobby Shop. He began working odd jobs in the television industry such as a live action animator at George Pal’s studios.  He then worked for a bill collecting company until he had saved enough money to open his own collection agency. Although he moved on to another career, he held onto the collection agency until he retired. During this time, he also got involved in real estate. One of his properties was purchased for a huge retail mall which gave Molinaro the funds he needed to pursue an acting career.

During this time, he met his wife, Helen Martin, and they married in 1948, eventually divorcing in 1980.

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On Bewitched–Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Al began receiving television roles in 1969. He first appearance was on Green Acres. Lisa opens a box of cereal only to find real gemstones in her box of Crickly Wickly. It turns out jewel thieves hid their stolen goods in the box in a Chicago factory. You know this will be a fun episode right from the beginning when the credits show up graffitied on a wall behind the crooks. Al was one of those crooks, and he would show up in two other Green Acres episodes. He also appeared on Bewitched, Get Smart, That Girl, and Love American Style.

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He took an improv class where he met Penny Marshall. In 1970, Penny introduced Al to her brother Garry which would change his acting journey. When The Odd Couple was casting for roles, Al wanted an audition for the role of Murray Greshler, the police officer who played poker with Oscar and Felix. Garry didn’t think he was right for the role, so he resisted, but Al was so persistent, he finally brought him in and ended up offering him the job.

After the show ended, Garry offered Al the role of Al Delvecchio, replacing Pat Morita who was leaving Happy Days as the owner of Arnold’s. Happy Days was set in Milwaukee, a city Al was very familiar with. While on the show, Molinaro suggested that Robin Williams be cast in a role John Byner declined which led to a new career for Williams.

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In 1981, Al married Betty Farrell. About this same time, he was one of the cast members who made the transition from Happy Days to the show’s spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi.

After portraying a restaurant owner on the air for many years, Al became one in real life when he and Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) opened a chain of diners called Big Al’s.

Molinaro continued to receive acting offers from Garry for some of his movies, but he felt he had to turn them down. He couldn’t reconcile his role with the language in movies that he felt was offensive. As he said, “I can’t work in movies with Garry because I’m so square that I won’t be in a movie that has four-letter words in it. . . . You gotta live with yourself.”

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Molinaro retired from acting in the early nineties but continued to appear in commercials for another decade. His commercial career included being the spokesperson for Cortaid Hydrocortisone Cream, Mr. Big Paper Products, and 42 spots for On-Cor Frozen Foods.

Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the mid-90s. He died from complications from an infected gallbladder in 2015.

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Considering Al was only an actor for 22 years or so, he created several of our favorite characters. He seemed to have a full life and stayed very humble. Happy Days would not be the same without Al, and he added a lot of humor to The Odd Couple’s weekly poker nights. A true success story; I’m glad he provided us with so many memorable moments without sacrificing his personal moral standards.

Any Time Spent with the Cunninghams Are Happy Days

Continuing the theme “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies,” we find ourselves transported to Milwaukee, WI in the 1950s getting to know the Cunninghams. Beginning September of 1984, Happy Days entertained fans for more than a decade, producing 255 episodes. When the show began, it was set in 1955, and when it went off the air eleven seasons later, it was 1965.

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Garry Marshall developed the pilot which first aired on Love American Style in 1972 as “Love and the Television Set.” The network wasn’t interested in turning the pilot into a show when it first came up. However, once George Lucas released American Graffiti in 1973, also starring Ron Howard, ABC took another look at the period show. The first two seasons, the show focused more on Richie Cunningham as he interacted with his friends and family. Jerry Paris (Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) directed 237 of the episodes. Happy Days was described as relentlessly ordinary. The plots revolved around the same types of problems most teens experienced in the fifties: dating, wanting to be popular, peer pressure, and similar experiences.

Richie’s family includes his father Howard (Tom Bosley) who owns a hardware store, and his mother Marion (Marion Ross). Howard is a family man and is also loyal to his lodge. Marion is content to stay at home, except for a brief stint when she gets a job as a waitress at Arnold’s. The cast also includes his younger sister Joanie (Erin Moran) and an older brother Chuck.

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Chuck would not be around long. At the end of the series, Tom Bosley says “he had the joy of raising two wonderful kids and watching them and their friends grow up into wonderful adults.” Poor Chuck. His existence wasn’t even acknowledged in the finale. When a character just disappears without an explanation, it is often referred to as the “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.”

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Richie’s friends include Potsie Weber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most). Potsie, whose real name is Warren, was a singer. When Richie went into the Army so did Ralph. A famous catchphrase from the show was Ralph’s uttering “I still got it!” after he told a joke. Richie’s girlfriend is Lori Beth Allen (Lynda Goodfriend). She and Richie marry later in the series. The friends hung out at Arnold’s and got to know Arnold (Pat Morita) well. They listen to a lot of music at the restaurant; Richie’s favorite song was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. One fun fact about the drive-in was that the restrooms were labeled “Guys and Dolls.” Eventually, Arnold sells the restaurant to Al (Al Molinaro).

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The pilot included Ross, Howard, and Williams in their later roles. Harold Gould played the part of Howard and Susan Neher was Joanie. When the show got the go-ahead, Gould was involved in a play abroad and declined, so the role was given to Bosley.

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Robby Benson and Donny Most were both under consideration for the role of Richie. They had appeared in a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups together. When Howard was given the role, the role of Ralph was created for Most.

There are several references during the show made about Ron Howard’s past acting roles. One of these occurred when the family is leaving a theater where they watched The Music Man in 1962. Marion comments that she thought the little boy in the movie looked just like Richie when he was little. Howard did in fact play the role of Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man in 1962 when he was eight years old.

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There were two primary sets for the show: The Cunningham residence and Arnold’s Drive-In. The real exterior of the house was in Los Angeles. However, Arnold’s found its inspiration in The Milky Way Drive-In located on Port Washington Road in Glendale, WI, more recently Kopp’s Frozen Custard.

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The ratings began to decline during the second season, so Garry Marshall made Fonzie (Henry Winkler) more involved in the show. Fonzie moved into the apartment above the Cunninghams’ garage. Eventually he and Richie become best friends, and Fonzie is a basically a member of the family. Marion is the only person who is allowed to call him Arthur. Fonzie was also fond of Joanie and nicknamed her “Shortcake.” His best-known catchphrase was “Heyyyy!” By 1976 the show was number one.

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In season four, Arnold sells his restaurant to Al (Al Molinaro). That same year, Fonzie’s cousin Chachi (Scott Baio) comes to town. He would eventually fall in love with Joanie. After season nine, Ron Howard left the show, and Howard’s nephew Roger (Ted McGinley) joins the cast as the new phy-ed teacher at the high school.

In season ten, Joanie and Chachi also leave the show; Moran and Baio starred in the spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi, but when the new show failed, both characters returned to Happy Days. Richie’s leaving was explained by him joining the Army. In season 11 he returns briefly to learn his parents have obtained an interview for him with the Milwaukee Journal. Not wanting to hurt their feelings, he eventually admits his wish is to go to California and try his hand at screenwriting.

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Some of the best-known guest stars include sports star Hank Aaron, singer Frankie Avalon, western star Lorne Greene, Brady kids Maureen McCormick and Christopher Knight, legends Tom Hanks and Danny Thomas, and blonde beauties Morgan Fairchild, Charlene Tilton, and Cheryl Ladd.

The show’s theme song was a new version of an old standard, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. The theme was so popular it reached #39 in 1974; in real life, in 1955, the song had been a number one hit.  Beginning in season three, a newer song, “Happy Days” was featured at the beginning of the show.

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Amazingly, the show would be the source for a variety of spinoffs including Laverne & Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, Blansky’s Beauties, and Out of the Blue.

Once so many of the main characters began leaving the show, the writing was on the wall. “Jumping the shark” is an expression that was coined when The Fonz actually jumped a shark. It’s a symbol for when a show grasps at straws to increase the ratings. Rarely is that type of exaggeration successful and it was not for Happy Days.

The show was so popular it never left its Tuesday night line-up. It aired at 8 pm EST for the first ten seasons and switched to 8:30 for its final season. However, the show had lost its magic, and the cancellation was inevitable. In fact, the show probably should have ended a season earlier. In addition to actors wanting to move on to new projects, the sixties were a very different time period than the fifties. The warm and fuzzy family themes that carried the show through the fifties and early sixties could not continue as the series had to survive the hippy era and the Vietnam War.

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Although the show was a team effort, there is no denying that Winkler’s portrayal of the Fonz was the most popular character of the decade and one of the most iconic in television history. After the show was cancelled, his leather jacket was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution for the National Museum of American History. A bronze statue of the Fonz was erected in Milwaukee in 2008 along the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

This character warrants a closer look. One of the people who auditioned for the role of Fonzie was Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. He was a lot taller than the other cast members, so he was bypassed while they looked for a shorter actor which ended in Winkler’s hiring. Fonzie’s real name is Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli. His grandmother raised him and his nickname was Skippy. His hero is The Lone Ranger, and he carries a picture of him in his wallet.

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Winkler said he based some of Fonzie’s movements and speech after Sylvester Stallone whom he had worked with in The Lords of Flatbush. The Fonz loved motorcycles, but Winkler decidedly did not, so most scenes were shot with the bike attached to a platform which was pulled by a truck, so Winkler never had to ride it. The cycle was the same model Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape in 1963.

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This show had a slew of catchphrases, and one of them came from The Fonz whenever he was trying to get someone to answer a question correctly.  When they said the right answer, his response was “correctamundo.”

Fonzie was adored by many kids, especially kids who needed some extra help or attention. Marshall was asked if the show could do something to help kids realize how important reading was. On one of the episodes, The Fonz went to the library and checked out a book, saying “Everybody is allowed to read.” That week, library card registrations increased by 500%. During one day of filming, a call came to Paramount Studios. It was from a teenage boy who was contemplating suicide. He wanted to talk to Fonzie. Winkler picked up the call and gave the boy hope, convincing him not to take his life.

The only negative thing about Fonzie was the result he had on Winkler’s future acting career.  It took a long time before he could shake that image and be considered for other types of acting roles.

Photo: happydays.wikia.com

In 2019, the cast reunited to celebrate the life of Garry Marshall who passed away in 2016. In an article by Gina Vivinetto in Today on November 14, 2019, Donny Most discussed the cast. “We were so good at what we did because we respected each other and loved each other.” He went on to say “we made it look easy and it wasn’t.”

In another article during that same event written by Zach Seemayer November 17, 2019], Williams and Howard both talked about the mentoring they received from Marshall. Williams said, “He really cared about us. More than as actors. He really inspired us to learn because he said [we might] wanna wear many hats.” Howard also learned from his mentor, saying “Garry was a natural teacher and he loved collecting theories and axioms about life but also making a show. They were all hilarious but they all rang true and they were great lessons.”

Both Howard and Winkler told writer Stephanie Nolasco of Fox News how they felt about each other and their time on Happy Days. Winkler had a hard time dealing with his sudden fame, and Howard was able to provide some grounding for him. Winkler described this time, “It’s unnatural—the human condition does not prepare you for stardom. That’s just the way it is. So, you have to hold on to yourself and then you’ve got friends like Ron who doesn’t take it all seriously. I learned from him; he was my teacher. And Garry Marshall never took bad behavior from anybody. He was a father figure. He was very funny and very idiosyncratic, and then he was very strict.”

UNITED STATES – JULY 10: HAPPY DAYS – Gallery – Season Two – 7/10/75 Fonzie (Henry Winkler) Richie (Ron Howard) Potsie (Anson WIlliams) and Ralph (Donny Most) (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Winkler also discussed his friendship with Howard. “I think people gravitate to the Fonzie/Richie relationship because Ron and I are ten years apart. He was 19 and I was 27. We had a connection that you cannot describe in real life, and it was similar off-camera. He gave me my first mitt; I’d never played baseball before. He’s my brother.”

Howard echoed the sentiments. “We were fast friends from the beginning. It continues all these years later. It was exciting for me to work with Henry because he was really a trained actor who attended Yale Drama School; just a trained New York actor. And, I’d grown up sort of through the Hollywood television system, so for me to work with this guy who was so thoughtful, so creative, and yet so hilarious, was really an opportunity for me to learn and grow and we just clicked, you know.”

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 11: HAPPY DAYS – “Get a Job” 2/25/75 Ron Howard, Henry Winkler (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

The entire cast spent a lot of time together and participated in softball events. Marshall put the league together with casts from other television shows partly to help keep actors out of trouble and away from drugs. Winkler described the cast being “very much like a family. I love them, I talk to them, I email them, and I see them.”

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For eleven years Happy Days provided all of us with lovely memories of the Cunningham family and their friends. It is one of the best sitcoms of the 1970s and has held up beautifully in syndication. Life in the fifties was a fun and heart-warming time (at least on television), but all good things must come to an end, and Happy Days was no exception. The good news is we can get immersed back into the Cunninghams’ lives whenever we want to. Eleven seasons provides for a lot of binge watching. Better make some extra popcorn.

Love and the Funny Show

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There was something magical about the Friday evening television schedule from 1971-1973.  Anyone who was born in the late 1950s or early 1960s can remember sitting down in front of the television at 7 pm (central time) for the Brady Bunch and staying put through The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.  Sitting through an entire evening of shows was almost unheard of back then, but we binge watched every Friday night. While the boys were divided between Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge, every girl of that age had was in love with Keith Partridge.  Watching an episode of The Partridge Family today makes me feel 10 again. For the next five weeks, I’m taking a look at each of the shows that made this schedule so enjoyable.

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Today we begin with Love, American Style. This show was an iconic 1970s show. Like Laugh In, the clothing, furnishings, and vocabulary do not make it timeless. But it was a lot of fun. This fast-paced anthology show featured two to four mini episodes each week, and between them were quick skits, often featuring a brass bed. Each smaller episode is titled “Love and the _______.”

A troupe of players was featured on each show for the in-between skits. These regulars included William Callaway, Buzz Cooper, Phyllis Davis, Mary Grover, James Hampton, Stuart Margolin, Lynn Marta, Barbara Minkus, and Tracy Reed. Margolin went on to a regular role in The Rockford Files; Tracy Reed was featured in McCloud and Knot’s Landing; Phyllis Davis was part of the cast of Vega$ and Magnum PI, and James Hampton will be familiar if you watched The Doris Day Show or F-Troop. Both Reed and Davis were featured on Love Boat episodes which had a similar format to Love, American Style.

The show had a memorable and catchy theme song. Written by Arnold Margolin, the first year it was performed by The Cowsills.  You will see a lot of overlap between these five Friday night shows, and music is one of those cross-overs. The Partridge Family was based on the life of The Cowsills.

During the second and subsequent years that Love, American Style was on the air, the theme song was performed by the Ron Hicklin Group. The Ron Hicklin Group could be heard in a variety of motion pictures and commercials, and they also appeared on recordings with stars such as Paul Revere and the Raiders and Cher. John and Tom Bahler, brothers who sang under The Charles Fox Singers were also part of this group. The group provided television theme song recordings including Batman, That Girl, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. They also did the singing for The Partridge Family theme and songs performed on the show as well as the Brady Bunch kids. Ron retired in the early 2000s, and Tom does a variety of things. He is also known for writing Bobby Sherman’s hit, “Julie Do You Love Me?”. John married Janet Lennon, one of the Lennon sisters who performed on The Lawrence Welk Show. He currently lives in Branson and conducts the “new” Lawrence Welk orchestra.

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The snappy melody was set to the following words:

Love, Love, Love

Love, American Style,
Truer than the Red, White and Blue.
Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

And on a star-spangled night my love,

My love come to me.
You can rest you head on my shoulder.
Out by the dawn’s early light, my love
I will defend your right to try.

Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

Paramount Television developed the show. The executive producer of the show was Arnold Margolin, Stuart’s brother. There were 53 different directors during the four-year run. The series received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1970 and 1971; Best Music Composition in 1971, 1972, and 1973, winning in 1973; and winning the Emmy in 1970 for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

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Many people wrote for the show, but Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson received the most credits. One of the writers, Peggy Elliott, was interviewed by the Huffington Post in May of 2013, and she talked about her time writing for the show.

“But the show I loved writing the most, was Love, American Style. For every other show, I was writing for characters created out of someone else’s head. Sure, we could create the occasional guest-star role, and we had been told to make every role, no matter how small, a real person. ‘Think of the actor who’s playing that delivery boy,’ I can hear Billy Persky, the co-creator or That Girl, say: ‘This is a big break for him — it’s the biggest role he’s had so far. Give him something to work with.’

But with Love, American Style, every character was our very own; every situation came out of our heads. Each segment of the hour the show ran each week was a one-act play created entirely by us. Added to the attraction was the fact that we could say and do things that were taboo on every other TV show in the early ‘70s. Arnold Margolin, co-creator of the show with Jim Parker, told me recently that the creative side of the network wanted the show to be more daring, while the censors kept their red pencils ready. There was a full-time position on the show just to run interference.

We must have put both sides through the hoops with one episode we wrote: ‘Love and The Hand-Maiden.’ A young guy was dating a centerfold model. As their relationship developed, he discovered that she had no problem with shedding her clothes, but she always kept her hands covered — with artful poses in magazines, and with gloves in real life. He became obsessed with seeing her hands and came up with one ruse after another to get her to take off her gloves. We had a ball writing it, with one double-entendre after another.”

If you were a star of any kind in the early 1970s, you most likely were on Love, American Style.  The show produced 108 episodes, and those shows featured 1112 different actors. Some of the famous names showing up in the credits include Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Arte Johnson, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Regis Philbin, Burt Reynolds, Sonny and Cher, Flip Wilson, and Jo Anne Worley. Karen Valentine from Room 222, Ann B Davis and Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch, and both Jack Klugman and Tony Randall from The Odd Couple show up along the way.

Brad Duke wrote a biography about Harrison Ford and he said Ford had fond memories of appearing on Love, American Style. “He recalled that he had been given little time to prepare his wardrobe for the role of a philosophical hippie in the November 1969 episode, “Love and the Former Marriage.” He appeared on set with long hair and a beard thinking they were appropriate for the role. He was surprised when he was told he needed a haircut and trim than given a navy blue dress shirt and vinyl burgundy jeans with a large belt. They even had a scarf with a little ring to put around my neck. And I thought, someone has made a mistake here. So, rather than argue with the wardrobe people, I put on the clothes and went to find the producer. I walked on the set and he was pointed out.  I tapped his shoulder and when he turned around he had on the same clothes I did. He was a hippie producer I guess. At least the check went through, and I got paid.”

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The best way to get a good understanding of what the show was like is to look at a couple of the episodes.

January 23, 1970: Love and the Big Night

Starring Ann Elder, Buddy Lester, Frank Maxwell, Julie Newmar, and Tony Randall, this episode was often listed as a favorite. Randall is a married businessman who escorts his voluptuous secretary (Newmar) to her apartment after a late night at the office. Eager to get home to his wife, Randall hurriedly tries to open a stubborn jar of mayonnaise and winds up covered with mayo. Newmar cleans his suit, but while it’s drying, it’s stolen. After a series of amusing mishaps, Randall finally gets back to his own apartment and creeps into bed with his wife–only to find out she’s not there.

February 25, 1972: Love and the Television Set

It starred Harold Gould, Marion Ross, Ron Howard, and Anson Williams. Reading this list of names might give you a hint about what happened to this episode after it aired. Garry Marshall had written a pilot about a 1950s family that did not sell.  He turned it into an episode for Love, American Style. George Lucas caught the episode and was impressed with Ron Howard and offered him a role in his new movie American Graffiti about 1950s teens. The movie was so popular, that the network decided to put Marshall’s pilot in the fall line-up as Happy Days. Harold Gould’s role was given to Tom Bosley for the series. When Love, American Style went into syndication, this episode was retitled “Love and the Happy Days.”

October 22, 1970: Love and the Bashful Groom

This is the episode I recall when I think of the series. When I watched it originally, I was staying overnight at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother was shocked at the “vulgarity.” It really seems quite tame today, but back then it probably was unexpected. She would approve of Tom Bahler marrying Janet Lennon though because I watched Lawrence Welk with her and my grandfather whenever I was at their house.

In this episode, Paul Petersen, Christopher Stone, Meredith MacRae, Jeff Donnell, and Dick Wilson are featured. Harold (Petersen) and Linda (MacRae) are getting married. He learns that she grew up in a nudist colony and is not comfortable being naked for his wedding.  After a soul-searching talk with his best friend, and realizing he loves Linda enough to be uncomfortable, he decides to go through with the ceremony.  He gets to the church a bit late and walks in, only to see that everyone else is dressed in their Sunday best. His bride informs him that they always dress up for weddings. One of the congregation members says something like “Let’s not make him uncomfortable,” and they all begin to undress.  Of course, you see nothing improper, only clothes flying. This was probably not the best episode to “expose” my grandmother to as a first glimpse of the show.

The show lasted for four years and was cancelled in 1973. In 1985, a reboot was created, but it was on in the mornings and only lasted a few months.  The show was on at the same time as everyone’s favorite game show, The Price is Right. For the 1998 fall season, a pilot was created for prime time, but it was never ordered. While doing my research for this blog, I noticed that there was a Love, American Style project in production, so we may see it resurface again.  I’m not sure I would want to watch a 2019 or 2020 version of the show though. It was such a product of its time, and I fear what a current version would be like after seeing the reboot of Match Game which has been airing the past year or so.

Let’s all write to Antenna TV and Me TV to see if they will make the original 1971 television schedule happen, and we can watch these original shows again, reliving the excitement we experienced the first time around.

Next week we get to know The Odd Couple.