1. Theatrical criticism
“A toe-tapping vaguely good time” is exactly how I would describe “Happy Days: The Musical,” now playing for a brief run at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, before moving on to wow audiences in Schenectady and Ashtabula. You’re likely to enjoy the show, providing you can avoid asking the following question: “What has happened to this planet, that someone thinks they can squeeze another buck out of television’s most mediocre sitcom ever, by putting it on stage and charging serious money for tickets?”
The exercise of revivifying a disposed-with TV franchise as a live theatrical event is now an established off-Broadway genre, and a proven means of peddling ducats to audiences who turn nostalgic over the mention of cult classics such as The Brady Bunch or Saturday Night Live. (Although, the concept likely wasn’t that different when George Reeves and Noell Neill first took their Superman act out on the country fair circuit.)
Then, again: You can’t call the viewers of the “Happy Days” TV series a cult, and it may not be entirely correct to label them viewers, either. Consumers, more like it. There once was a Happy Days industry in North America, the same way there were once other industries, i.e., automotive, fruit canning, shoemaking, etc. Time was when you could buy Happy Days pyjamas, license-plate frames, lunchpails, or other ephemera — or simply amuse yourself by reciting the clever lines spoken by the series’ actors, such as: “Aayyeee,” “I still got it,” and two dozen similarly witty selections.
The tale of how this series entered our consciousness is well known: pilot episode set in Eisenhower Era is shot during the earliest ’70s, unimpressed network execs scream ixnay, portions are aired as a segment of “Love American Style,” director George Lucas (pre-Star Wars) views the discarded bits and casts unemployed Happy Days actor Ron Howard in a similar role in his about-to-be-lensed teen pic, “American Graffiti.” Lucasfilm does boffo box office, network says, let’s give that ’50s comedy a shot, public eats it up, show has seven-year run and endless reruns, series creator Garry Marshall becomes filthy-stinking-rich spinning off media consumables such as “Joanie Loves Chachi.”
If the “Happy Days” TV program seemed to last your entire life, perhaps it did; perhaps it has. On the other hand, the musical version’s two hours pass quickly and something close to enjoyably. The book and story come courtesy of Mr. Marshall, and are what you will expect from the fellow who drew laughs from the catchphrase “Sit on it.” By which I mean, the intent is not ambitious. The music, appropriately by ’70s-relic Paul “We’ve Only Just Begun” Williams, is okay, and incorporates familiar snatches of the original sitcom theme, penned by Tin Pan Alley denizen Norman Gimbel.
We know far too much about Paul Williams — his life, his career, his game-show appearances, his round glasses and shag-haircut — but what do we really know about Mr. Gimbel? To begin with, we know that he kept busy creating ditties for ’70s sitcoms, including Mr. Marshall’s stablemate “Laverne & Shirley.” This was by no means his claim to fame. He was a formidable hombre who wrote the English language lyrics to Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema,” and partnered with Michel Legrand on “I Will Wait For You.” With collaborator Charles Fox, he wrote “Killing Me Softly with His Song” for Roberta Flack, and Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name.” It’s assumed by many that Flack and Croce, both highly regarded songwriters, penned those respective hits — but, not so; it was the team of Gimbel and Fox. Sort of makes you wonder why some imaginative impresario didn’t stage a work around the memorable songs of that under-recognized pair, rather than taking the easy route to repackaging schlock entertainment. That in mind, you picture Mr. Marshall late at night, refilling Heinz bottles in Arnold’s drive-in, using some cheap generic catsup bought in bulk, thinking he’s getting away with something. Even imagining him in this task, he is unlikely to be humming anything from his new musical, but it’s safe to think he’d be whistling while he works, keeping tune to “I Got a Name,” coming over the Wurlitzer wall-boxes.
Thing is, we’ve all got names, do we not? Only since the advent of the Internet, however, have we been able to locate and identify others who share our individual names: Googlegängers, in the web vernacular. A new web site, http://howmanyofme.com, offers assistance in this regard. Since I believe Norman Gimbel is now enjoying his golden years, I used this site to determine how many other Normal Gimbels I’d need to sort through, in the event I wish to contact him about this Music-of-Gimbel-and-Fox Broadway musical concept that occurred to me two paragraphs back. The site tells me there are currently two Norman Gimbels in America, information which I’ve filed away. The same source tells me there is but one Jim Croce extant. He’s not the celebrated JC, who for all I know may off playing gigs with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Still, it’s all kind of interesting. There are 37 Garry Marshalls and four Richie Cunninghams.
As for your correspondent, we now know that there are 111,607 people in the U.S. with the first name Mitchell, which is statistically the 491st most popular first name. Noting that`s the precise equivalent of the entire population of the Federated States of Micronesia, I cry out to the proud 111,607: “Dudes! We cracked the Top 500! Let’s all fill the University of Michigan Stadium to capacity, and celebrate.” We also learn that there are 51,981 people in the U.S. with the last name Shannon, enough to qualify as the 675th most popular surname, and equal to the entire population of Elkhart, Indiana. With all the credibility provided by a reference I’d never even heard of until 10 minutes ago, the web site informs me with oracular certainty: “There are 19 people in the U.S. named Mitchell Shannon.”
I’m aware that there are, additionally, at least two of us up here in Canada. There’s the fellow who is now tapping his keyboard, and there is or was some chap with the same name out in British Columbia, who once sent me a nice letter and recalled our meeting at a motorcycle rally sometime somewhere. I swear until I’m blue-faced that I’ve never been near the guy, and you’d figure I might remember if I had. Well, one of us must be wrong about the other one; that’s all.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken the earliest steps in learning what I can about the other dozen-and-a-half-plus-one individuals who share my name. I’d previously come across a web link to one, a substance-abuse counselor around my age who lived in Ogdensburg, N.Y. That town is just over the river from Belleville, Ont., and twice this past summer I found myself out driving around in his vicinity. It didn’t occur to me for a second to contact my closest Googlegänger, although we’re nearby enough to practically be homies. Must be my Canadian reticence, or else I had other things on my mind.
I saw something once about a Mitchell Shannon who is an attorney in Alabama. Imagine that. Barely seems possible.
I’m also aware of a Mitch Shannon in the Denver suburbs, who is a realtor who owns the www.mitchshannon.com domain. I wonder if he knows about Mitch Shannon, another real estate guy in Lodi, Calif. California Realtor Mitch has a sideline of blending garlic powder, paprika, salt, onion powder, red pepper, black pepper, basil and other stuff, into a bottled concoction he calls Mitch’s Oh Yeah! Original Spice Blend. A local Lodi newspaper offers the following quote from some friend of the entrepreneur, who is a winery-owner: “I love it. Ol’ Mitch got me hooked.” Oh, yeah? Actually, I’ve always wanted to own a winery. Failing which, I’d settle for having a friend who owns a winery, who refers to me as Ol’ Mitch, or occasionally Good Ol’ Mitch, and doesn’t get angry when I hang around his tasting room, offering the opinion that last year’s cabernet was far superior to this year’s batch.
Ol’ Mitch’s condiment blend sounds familiar, as though it could be very close to Tony Cachere’s New Orleanian product, but I suppose I should send him an order and put it to the test. What’s holding me back is that I’m not sure I want to provide Mitch Shannon with Mitch Shannon’s credit card information. This has security risk written all over it. But I can’t help but think he needs a Canadian distributor for his spice line. Perhaps an exchange would work well. I may need to buy some property around Lodi, which would provide a fitting base from which to practice the chords of the John Fogerty song, “Oh, lord, stuck in Lodi again.”
Perhaps, if all 19, or 20, or 21 of us who share my first and last names, in the correct order, were to gather in one location, it would be for the solemn purpose of spending a weekend mocking those two lame-o Brits and their dreadful sock-puppets. If we do convene, I’d want to kick off the convention by recognizing the learned and honorable delegate from Alabama, who would address the delegation as follows: “Mah name is Maytch Shannon. And who maht you-all be?”