Fonz statue upholds ‘Happy Days’ image

Two reminders: What you see in the mirror is a distortion of reality, and growing up doesn’t mean throwing away the past.

Milwaukee this month adds an iconic structure to its downtown – an $85,000 bronze, life-sized statue of “Happy Days” television character Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as the Fonz, long portrayed by Henry Winkler.

A few people have raised a stink about the project, saying it’s time to shake off the city’s blue-collar image. If there’s money in need of being spent, why not canonize a civil rights activist or founding father?

Lighten up, Concerned Citizens. Having multiple personalities is desirable and smart strategy, in this case.

Adding a new reason to visit Milwaukee – or any city – is a good thing. No destination thrives when the work of luring tourists is deemed complete. Why make repeat visits if you feel like you’ve seen and done it all?

Dave Fantle of VISIT Milwaukee, which promotes the area, considers Fonzie “timeless cool – someone who connects with all generations.” Production of “Happy Days” ended in 1984, after 11 seasons, but episodes remain in syndication.

“You’re honoring one of the good guys,” Dave argues, “someone who advocates for kids and is public about his own challenges with dyslexia.”

He jokes that the Fonz enriches the I-94 celebrity statue circuit. Add it to the Mary Tyler Moore hat-throwing sculpture in downtown Minneapolis, and the Bob Newhart bronze at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Media inquiries about Milwaukee’s project have come from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Attending the dedication will be the president of the International Happy Days Fan Club, who lives in Italy.

How do dispassionate outsiders view our part of the planet? Sonja Johnson and John Gulig witness this daily, in their work as Wisconsin Welcome Center managers.

Among Sonja’s recent visitors, at her office in Hudson, were 31 tree farmers from Finland, here to observe farm practices in Wisconsin. Interest in such comparisons is not unusual, so Wausau’s Van Der Geest Dairy – one of the state’s largest, and it welcomes tourists – is a typical referral.

Asian visitors often inquire about Baraboo’s International Crane Foundation, central Wisconsin ginseng farms and author Laura Ingalls Wilder sites (in and near Pepin).

Of Sonja’s 751 international visitors in July, 657 were Canadian – many with an interest in Wisconsin Dells and waterparks.

“You may think that foreign visitors are looking for their own nationality here, but what they want is to see something entirely different,” says John, whose Pleasant Prairie office is near Kenosha and the Illinois border.

Many come after flying into Chicago or Minneapolis for other reasons. Some visit Wisconsin so they can say they’ve been in one more state than planned.

Excitement about the Harley-Davidson Museum emerged months before the attraction’s opening in July, says state tourism promoter David Spiegelberg, and the international acclaim of architect Santiago Calatrava heightens global interest in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Access to Native American culture – through museums, powwows and casinos – is another significant draw.

Many of John Gulig’s 300-plus foreign visitors in July arrived with no itinerary but a desire to see how Americans live, the crafts they make, the countryside they call home. About 70 were from Canada, 40 from Germany and 20 from the United Kingdom.

The two European areas have long been targeted markets, says Sarah Klavas of the state Department of Tourism. Consider this introduction to Brits, made at www.greatlakesnorthamerica.co.uk by Great Lakes North America, a seven-state tourism consortium:

“Wisconsin is a classic mix of European cultures. Bordered on the north by Lake Superior, Lake Michigan to the east and on the west by the great Mississippi River, Wisconsin provides a diversity of seasonal recreation as well as Native and American culture …”

The 250-mile Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River, “is a treasure in countless ways – rich in history, ecology, small-town character, recreation and simply, natural beauty. … Charming small towns along the river are nestled into majestic bluffs where one can enjoy day or overnight cruises on a paddlewheel boat or just take in the scenery, bird migrations and fall color.”

We are the “land of the gathering of the waters,” but a challenge is getting foreign tourists into Wisconsin easily. The only nonstop international flights link Milwaukee with Toronto and Cancun.

Cast members from “Happy Days” and the sitcom spin-off “Laverne and Shirley” will visit Milwaukee for the Aug. 19 dedication the Fonzie statue on the east side of the Milwaukee River, just south of Wells Street. This Riverwalk event is private, because of space limits, but other events are open to the public.

Henry Winkler will show up at a free frozen custard party, sponsored by Culver’s, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Peck Pavilion, 929 N. Water St. A parade of celebrities from the TV shows will ride in vintage vehicles along Wisconsin Avenue, starting at 5:45 p.m. on the intersection with North Water Street.

The parade juts onto Blue Mound Road and over to Miller Park, where Fonzie baseball cards will be distributed before the Milwaukee Brewers game. Expect Potsie (Anson Williams) to sing the national anthem.

Others expected to attend are Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham), Tom Bosley (Mr. Cunningham), Erin Moran (Joanie), Don Most (Ralph Malph), Penny Marshall (Laverne), Cindy Williams (Shirley), Garry Marshall (“Laverne and Shirley” producer) and Bob Boyett (“Happy Days” producer).

For more: www.bronzethefonz.com, www.happydaysfanclub.com. The statue, which depicts the 5-foot-6 actor in a two-thumbs-up pose, was created by Gerald Sawyer of Lake Mills.