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A League Of Her Own: Penny Marshall Remembered

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The first letter I learned to read in cursive was the letter L.

I learned it from seeing it weekly on Laverne DeFazio’s shirts. The short loop on the top, the longer loop on the bottom.

And when I was learning cursive, I had no problems writing that upper case L, either.

Laverne, of course, was played by Penny Marshall on Laverne and Shirley. Marshall had been on several sitcoms before; as Mary’s neighbor when Mary moved into a new apartment on The┬áMary Tyler Moore Show, and as Oscar’s secretary Myrna on The Odd Couple. The Odd Couple was produced by her brother, Garry Marshall and when he hit big with Happy Days, he decided on a spinoff. The spinoff’s premise was simple: take two girls from the wrong side of the tracks and have them date Richie and Fonzie. Laverne, of course, would be Penny Marshall. And Shirley was played by Cindy Williams who had appeared with Ron Howard in American Graffiti.

The rest is spinoff history!

The girls lived on Knapp Street in Milwaukee, where they were bottlecappers at the Shotz brewing company and sometimes they waitressed at the Pizza Bowl which Laverne’s father Frank owned. The girls were poor, only having a high school education. Yet they never stopped believing and dreaming of better days: Shirley wanted a doctor husband, two children, and a dog named Dave. Laverne? It wasn’t so clear what Laverne wanted. She wanted something better for herself but wasn’t sure how to get it. But she also knew nobody better mess with her or anyone she loved.

Every show started off with Laverne and Shirley walking on the street, arm in arm, chanting this:

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight

Schlemiel! Schlimazel!

Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

I had no idea what it meant and I didn’t care what it meant. It felt like a chant, a way of telling the universe nothing was going to get them down. As the song would then say, they were going to make it their way.

And they did.

In later years Marshall and Williams would complain about the scripts. It’s true; the stories seemed simplistic. Marshall would later say the show’s fans would write to her in crayon. The girls would get themselves into a jam, then get themselves out of a jam. They helped Mrs. Babbish’s daughter, or they would have to yet again put together the Shotz Brewery talent show (which would have Lenny and Squiggy singing the sublime “Night after Night”).

What I loved about the show was the girls’ fearlessness. They tried new things and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

But they never stopped trying.

In 1980 the show moved location to Los Angeles. The latter seasons had Williams and Marshall spending less time onscreen and more on the secondary cast. Rumors were Marshall and Williams were fighting. In 1983, Williams was fired because of a dispute of when to stop working (the schedule had the pregnant Williams working past her due date) so it was Marshall working alone. Of course, this was the proverbial one hand clapping. It didn’t work, and the show was canceled that year. Marshall was ready for bigger and better things. She wanted to direct. She’d already directed four episodes of Laverne and Shirley, and now it was time for movies.

The first movie she did was Jumping Jack Flash with Whoopi Goldberg. While the reviews were mixed, it was a modest success at the box office. There was nothing modest about her next project: A thirteen-year-old boy who makes a wish that he wants to be big. The movie was Big and the star would be Tom Hanks.

The movie was a massive hit.

She followed it up with Awakenings, starring Robert De Nero and Robin Williams based on the book by Oliver Sacks. Yes, Mork and Laverne worked together in a movie! While the movie was nominated for several Oscars, Marshall wasn’t nominated for Best Director. This still makes me mad. Was it because she was a woman? Or that she played such an iconic character on a sitcom? It’s moot now, but still mystifying.

A League of Her Own was her baseball movie, reuniting her with Tom Hanks as a washed up coach assigned to a women’s baseball team during World War II. The movie also starred Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell. It also had Eddie Mekka (Laverne and Shirley’s Carmine) dancing with Madonna, and David L. Landers (Squiggy) announcing the games.

The movie was a box office hit, but again, no nomination for Marshall.

Marshall directed several more films, then worked again in television doing voice-overs and directing and she wrote her memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.

The past years had huge challenges: she had lung cancer and diabetes, then her brother Garry and best friend Carrie Fisher both died within months of each other in 2016.

Even though she’s gone, Penny Marshall’s work reminds us she was a force of nature. She was fearless, she was trailblazing and she did what she set out to do.

It’s as simple as that.