Aug 3, 2022
Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American pop culture will recognize that ditty from LaVerne & Shirley, the iconic 1970s TV sitcom featuring the day-to-day drama of two working girls in a Milwaukee brewery. Such fare was what entertained us in the era of three networks, so much so that it became the most-watched American television program during the height of its run.
Why was it so popular?
That is the first question I asked Cindy Williams, who co-starred as Shirley Feeney alongside Penny Marshall’s Laverne deFazio. Williams is appearing in her one-woman show “Me, Myself & Shirley” at Steve W. Shepherd Theater on Sept 2-4.
“The show was crafted for the audience,” she said. “We did this show, we wrote the show, and put the show up based on how we could entertain the audience. The audience was the show. Our intent was to make the audience laugh.”
They accomplished that with a simple, yet often-underused technique.
“We knew if we entertained ourselves and made ourselves laugh out loud during rehearsal, it was going to make the studio audience laugh out loud when they came in to see the show. Then that would translate to the television audience.”
They filmed the show, as they say, in front of a live studio audience, using three cameras, which made it feel more like a stage performance than a TV program.
“It was like doing a play in front of 200 people, so it had that element of theater. Only there were cameras in between. But we would rehearse it like a play.”
Williams will be sharing other behind-the-scenes stories about Laverne & Shirley at her live stage show. But casual fans may not realize that the California actress’s career encompassed much more than a successful sit-com. Prior to being cast as Shirley, Williams had started a career in film, appearing in such classics as American Graffiti and The Conversation with Gene Hackett. In a not uncommon scenario, her TV success squelched further film roles.
“I remember going up for this big role while I was doing Laverne & Shirley,” Williams said. “I was up for the lead. I went in and met with the director and producer. They called me and they said we’d love to use you, but you are too synonymous with Shirley. That was heartbreaking. All of a sudden, I’m just known as Shirley.”
But she had no regrets.
“If I have regrets, it is about other parts, not about Laverne & Shirley,” she said. “If I had to do all over again, I do the same thing. It made me happy, and it made others happy. It was just a real blessing.”
After six years on the show, Williams stepped back from Hollywood, starting a family. She dabbled with a couple of pilots, but soon moved back to her first and true love, theater. She acted in regional productions and did a turn on Broadway.
Asked how she would mentor a young actor entering the field today, she gave two answers.
“I would say, let’s get up on the stage right now. If I taught acting, that’s how I would teach it. My mama said, ‘keep moving, Cindy.’ That is my advice for actors. You gotta get up every morning, put on the rhinoceros suit, and take the hits.”
She also would include financial advice.
“The Screen Actors Guild should have a course talking about taking care of the money you are going to make. I wasn’t smart. I made a huge amount of money and had a great life, but I still have to keep working.”
Now she is taking her own advice, keeping moving, working to make “Me, Myself, and Shirley” a success.
“You will laugh out loud. It is all a lot of fun, there is nothing serious about it. What would be the point of that? Sure, we need a serious side, but that is not entertaining. Like Penny and I used to say, when we’re having fun, the audience is having fun. We are going to have a great time!”
During the interview, Williams dropped a bit of news. She is close to finishing a children’s book about Boo Boo Kitty, the Adventures of a Cotton-Stuffed Cat. Keen fans of Laverne & Shirley will recognize Boo Boo as the name she gave her stuffed cat on the show, improvised, by the way, after she forgot her line.
She is shooting for a release in October. To borrow a line from 1970s television: Stay Tuned!
Me, Myself, and Shirley
Fredericksburg Theater Company
Sept. 2 & 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 4 at 2:00 p.m.