Shirley Feeney, played by Cindy Williams, stole my heart, writes Marshall Ward
She was my first crush. And it was a serious one – I thought about her every day.
I was eight-years-old and she was 32. Her name was Cindy, but I knew her as Shirley.
Laverne & Shirley was one of my favourite TV sitcoms when I was a kid, and I can still see myself leaping to my feet in anticipation at the start of each episode as Laverne and Shirley would skip down the street, arm in arm, reciting the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”
Then there was the iconic theme song: “We’re gonna do it! Give us any chance, we’ll take it. Give us any rule, we’ll break it. We’re gonna make our dreams come true. Doin’ it our way.”
And while I loved the character of Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall), with her self-confidence and an embroidered letter “L” on all her tops, it was Shirley Feeney, played by Cindy Williams, who stole my heart. There was just something so adorable about Shirley, wearing a handkerchief around her neck and holding tight her beloved stuffed plush cat name Boo Boo Kitty.
Like many others, I was saddened to hear that Cindy Williams died on Jan. 25 at age 75.
I’ve been reflecting on a lengthy conversation I had with Cindy Williams over the phone for a story I wrote in the Waterloo Chronicle back in 2009. Williams not only answered my questions generously, but also seemed genuinely interested in my perspectives on the evolution of the American sitcom. I was overjoyed as she shared her own insight.
“The joke was always on ourselves – not on someone else,” said Williams of Laverne & Shirley, who worked in a Milwaukee brewery and shared a basement apartment.
“Unless we said something bad about Lenny and Squiggy, and then we’d repent,” she said with a laugh. “We’d say, ‘You know, we shouldn’t have said that about them – they’re not really like that’ and then they’d burst through the door and be exactly like that – and that was the fun! People trying to be a little Godly, then falling just a little short, and that’s always much more fun than cynical people.”
I told Williams that much of the comedy I saw on television in the ‘90s was of a more cynical nature. She agreed, “Shows in the ‘70s like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley were upbeat. There were censors in those days that wouldn’t allow you to do or say certain things, so we had to get around it in creative ways and I believed, and so did Penny, that it became funnier.”
Williams then broke into her Shirley Feeney role for a moment, to my delight, saying under her breath, “You know what we’re talking about.”
She added, “In one episode we had a clothesline running in our living room and Penny and I were hanging our slips and the censors said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And Penny and I said, ‘What – we can’t hang our slips?’ That’s how far we’ve come.”
Though I was too shy to tell Williams about my childhood crush on Shirley Feeney, I implied that her character likely captured the hearts of more than a few young boys.
“I think that’s wonderful,” she said. “Shirley was so wholesome and blue collar, fully clothed from head-to-toe in ‘50s garbs, a beer smock on and a handkerchief around her neck.”
Yes, that was my first crush described to a T.