As the TV matriarch of the Cunningham clan in the sitcom “Happy Days,” Marion Ross was in more than 250 episodes during the hit’s 11-season run from 1974 to 1984. But one episode has special significance for the actress this time of year.
In “The First Thanksgiving,” broadcast two days before the November holiday in 1978, her character (also named Marion) led the cast in a departure from the show’s usual Milwaukee-based setting.
She narrates a flashback story set in the Plymouth Colony, with the cast doubling as historical characters, to remind her family that sharing and giving thanks are the traditions behind the annual festivities.
“Tom (Bosley) and I were dressed up as pilgrims and I had on a lovely outfit with a white bonnet,” recalled Ross from her home in Woodland Hills, California. “Then Fonzie (Henry Winkler) comes in wearing traditional clothes, but with his leather jacket over them!”
It was classic “Happy Days” humor: Fonzie on a wooden motorbike; later, when he invites Indians into the pilgrims’ compound, he’s punished and restrained in the stocks but breaks free with a characteristic Fonzie move (“He broke the stock-hey, a first stockbroker!” quips Anson Williams’ Potsie character).
Ross’s own family roots trace back to Minnesota, where she remembers Thanksgivings as being “rather brisk.”
“I was a middle child and the rambunctious one, so I would run out and shovel the snow off the walkway,” she recalled. Thanksgiving included a large extended family seated at tables stretching into the living room. “I remember by the time I was about 10 having the traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pies, and also rutabagas. Guests would say ‘Rutabagas? We feed those to the pigs!’ But we liked them mashed with salt and pepper.”
Ross says it was more than the harsh Minnesota climate that toughened her for a career in the brutal entertainment business. “I was raised not only with that ‘You can do anything’ attitude, but also “You must do it.’ So I was always determined to get into acting.”
Marion was 16 when the family headed west to settle in San Diego. Now a seasoned Californian, family Thanksgiving traditions include playing bocce ball with a few friends. And in the spirit of the season, the family often invites a guest who might otherwise be alone -- somewhat akin to the “Happy Days” Thanksgiving episode where Fonzie convinces the pilgrims to welcome the local Indians.
“In the end, they join our family for the meal,” explained Ross. She turned 91 in October, and published her autobiography “My Days: Happy and Otherwise” last year.
The pilgrim episode concluded by returning to Milwaukee. Marion serves the meal to her attentive family, adding: “This is a day to count your blessings. Everyone has something to be thankful for.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.