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The Bronze Fonz

A Profile of Milwaukee's Bronze Fonz

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The Bronze Fonz
Image by Carrie Trousil

Visiting the Bronze Fonz

Where: Milwaukee Riverwalk at East Wells Street - Map it!

The Bronze Fonz is a piece of public art located on Milwaukee's downtown Riverwalk just south of Wells Street on the eastern bank of the Milwaukee River. The sculpture is a likeness of actor Henry Winkler, who played Arthur Fonzarelli, or "the Fonz," on popular sitcom Happy Days, which aired from 1974-1984. The show was set in 1950s Milwaukee.

The Bronze Fonz sculpture is notable in that it's a polarizing figure among Milwaukee residets: they often either love it, or they hate it. When seeing it first time, people are also often struck by the fact that it seems very small, and that it looks slightly demonic. Perhaps it's because the Bronze Fonz's clothes are colored, yet all of his skin remains bronze. It's also extremely shiny. All things considered, for lovers of kitsch, it's a must-see when visiting Milwaukee.

The Bronze Fonz was created by Gerald P. Sawyer, an artist based in Lake Mills, a city about 50 miles west of the city. It was commissioned by Milwaukee's local tourism bureau, Visit Milwaukee, which raised $85,000 to make the Bronze Fonz project come to life. It was ultimately unveiled with much fanfare -- both positive and negative -- in 2008. In attendance at the event were show characters Potsie (Anson Williams), Ralph (Don Most), Mrs. Cunningham (Marion Ross), Mr. Cunningham (Tom Bosley), Joanie (Erin Moran), Laverne (Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams.

Leading up to this installation, there was a public outcry against the piece, spearheaded by then-head of the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network, Mike Brenner, who claimed he would close his art gallery if the statue were erected in its originally proposed location. Eventually, the sculpture was given the green-light, and although it now stands in a different location than originally proposed, Brenner did indeed close his art gallery.

Today, the Bronze Fonz is fodder for photographs, and online image searches turn up hundreds, if not thousands of photos of the sculpture, some of which get pretty weird. It doesn't hurt that it's situated very close to Water Street, a busy stretch aligned with bars popular with college kids and young professionals trying to blow of steam on the weekends. And what says relaxed more than giving the thumbs up next to a tiny bronze man and shouting: "aaaay!"

Fun Fact: internet slang term "jumping the shark" is based on a water-skiing exploit of the Fonz during an episode of Happy Days.

Fun Fact: Various sources put Henry Winkler (the actor who played the Fonz), at between 5 ft. 5 in. and 5 ft. 6 1/2 in. Even with this in mind, the Bronze Fonz seems eerily small.

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