A series of statues commemorating famous TV characters was an idea championed by cable channel TV Land, starting in 2000 with the erection of the Ralph Kramden figure outside the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. However, by the time Milwaukee decided to honor The Fonz, TV Land had changed its marketing strategy and was no longer funding civic sitcom statuary.
So in 2007, local booster groups decided that they would raise the $85,000 themselves and "Bronze the Fonz." TV shirts and thumbs up cookies were sold, and a public relations campaign began.
Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli was originally a bit player in the sitcom Happy Days, set in Milwaukee during the 1950s. The Fonz was a tough greaser hood, menacing if you crossed him. He originally wore a zip-up golf jacket, because network executives feared a leather jacket would make him look like a criminal. But Fonzie quickly became the show's star, and was given more airtime, more humanity, started wearing leather jackets, and eventually moved in with the main characters, The Cunningham Family. Happy Days ran from 1974-1984, and Fonzie's trademark thumbs-up gesture and catch-sound, "Aayyyy!" became a generation's lingua franca. One of his leather jackets made its way to the Smithsonian even before the show went off the air.
Despite the statue's requisite detractors (including one screed published in Salon.com) the project was completed quickly and, on August 19, 2008, The Fonz was unveiled along the RiverWalk in downtown Milwaukee. Henry Winkler, who portrayed Fonzie, attended the unveiling, along with the two actresses who played Laverne and Shirley (a Happy Days spin-off also set in Milwaukee).
The statue is life-size and shows the Fonz giving two thumbs up. Sculptor Gerald Sawyer made the the Fonz completely gold-tinted, like a giant Oscar statue, but the at the last minute the city asked for a black leather jacket, white t-shirt, and blue jeans. That's why Bronze Fonz has skin the color of C3PO. And the blue oxide didn't hold, so Fonzie has teal-colored jeans. Sawyer did manage to put the initials of Winkler and his wife in the veins in the hands, "like the David in Italy," according to a local news report.
When we visited there was a steady stream of people visiting the statue -- which is not easy to see from the street -- waiting their turn to pose with it. When you get up close, the statue is smaller than you imagined it would be, but Winkler himself is just five-foot-six.
We are all for more TV character statues. They're fun, popular, and tourists recognize who they are and connect with them much better than they do to obscure civil war generals or letter carriers (the statue of Milwaukee letter carriers only two blocks from Fonzie had no visitors when we were there).
If we had one suggestion to make it would be to add a shark fin sculpture jutting from the river behind The Fonz. In a 1977 episode, Fonzie, still wearing his leather jacket, jumps over a shark while on water skis, and the phrase "jump the shark" has since become a universal term for any desperate attempt to reclaim former glory or television ratings.