For eleven seasons, Marion Ross was head of one of America’s favorite television households. Now meet the lovable real-life woman behind the Happy Days mom . . .
Before she was affectionately known to millions as “Mrs. C.,” Marion Ross began her career as a Paramount starlet who went on to appear in nearly every major TV series of the 1950s and 1960s—including Love, American Style, in which she donned an apron that would cinch her career. Soon after came the fateful phone call from producer Garry Marshall that made her an “overnight” success, and changed her life . . .
In this warm and candid memoir, filled with loving recollections from the award-winning Happy Days team—from break-out star Henry Winkler to Cunningham “wild child” Erin Moran—Ross shares what it was like to be a starry-eyed young girl with dreams in poor, rural Minnesota, and the resilience, sacrifices, and determination it took to make them come true. She recalls her early years in the business, being in the company of such luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Noel Coward, yet always feeling the Hollywood outsider—a painful invisibility that mirrored her own childhood. She reveals the absolute joys of playing a wife and mother on TV, and the struggles of maintaining those roles in real life. But among Ross’s most heart-rending recollections are those of finally finding a soulmate—another secret hope of hers made true well beyond her expectations.
Funny, poignant, and revealing—and featuring Garry Marshall’s final illuminating interview—as well as a touching foreword from her “TV son” Ron Howard, and a conversation with her real-life son and daughter, Marion Ross’s story is one of inspiration, persistence, and gratitude. It’s also a glowing tribute to all those who fulfilled her dreams—and in turn, gave us some of the happiest days of our own lives.
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About the Author
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I was a strong child, both physically and in terms of will. I was athletic, was a good swimmer, and had a fiercely determined mind-set of how the world should work and the way things should be. I was also the holder of a secret — a big secret. My secret was a dream, one that has been shared by many young girls — to become a famous actress — although to me, being the determined and strong-willed person I was, it was far more than a girlish dream. It was my destiny.
While my pragmatic streak always saw me harbor my secret as a prophetic destiny, I would, at times, also allow myself to be entertained by the "dreamy" aspect of it. Those moments would usually come in my second-floor bedroom or the basement of the small Albert Lea, Minnesota, wood-framed home I shared with my parents, my older sister, Alicia, and my younger brother, Gordon. It was in those rooms, when no one was around, that I would envision my hair and makeup being done, walking out on a stage and, beyond the glare of the footlights, seeing members of the audience riveted to my every move. I remember those thoughts as being so vivid, and of me being so confident, that once they became a reality, I knew exactly how to handle each moment with ease. From taking my bows to receiving well-wishers in my dressing room, signing autographs, and then being whisked off in a big shiny limousine to my beautiful home, I just always knew that I would know how to do those things.
Why I had such an unwavering confidence of these things, and even a detailed understanding of how I would handle them, I guess can be explained only in how fiercely I was able to imagine things — to imagine a world of glittering excitement that was as far from our little Midwestern agricultural city as, well, as far as Albert Lea is from Broadway to the east and from Hollywood to the west.
It was that secret dream of my future as a famous actress that filled every cell of my body with anticipatory excitement over how things would one day be. It was a future of which I was so assured — one that I had such an unwavering knowledge would come to be — that I was able to thoroughly enjoy my childhood, without any concern for how things would eventually play out.
My childhood was a happy one, filled with many simple pleasures, which I began recording in a 1940 diary that, along with slippers and a scarf, I received as a Christmas present in 1939. Among the documented things that filled the days of my twelve-year-old, sixth-grade life were ice-skating or swimming at Fountain Lake, which was just a few blocks from our house, and going to movies, such as North West Mounted Police, with Gary Cooper; Santa Fe Trail and Virginia City, with Errol Flynn; and The Old Maid, with Bette Davis, which, according to my recording of January 4, "I enjoyed and cried."
Other "monumental" moments of those days that I felt it was important to document in my diary were working as a junior lifeguard; buying movie magazines and Cokes; my father coming home one evening with a "nifty waffle iron," and surviving crushes that vacillated between Milton, Tom, Jim and a few other neighborhood boys, who at one point all so disgusted me that I resolved in writing to "never like a boy again."
Those written recordings of my early teenage days, which continued on for a few more years, always included three key players: Alicia and my two best friends, Margaret Larson, whom we all called Muggs, and JoAnn Youngstrom, who was known as Mert. The four of us would explore the lake in a little boat or canoe we would rent from Mr. Murtaugh's Boat Rentals, or we would roam the halls of Carnegie Library, the local public library, where I would seek out books on famous actors and actresses, hoping to learn about the path that had led them to stardom so I would know what I needed to do to follow in their footsteps.
Every one of my adventures during those days included either Alicia, Muggs or Mert, and while I loved all three of them dearly, at times Alicia and Muggs got on my nerves. Unlike me, Alicia was very careful with her toys and particular about what she wore and how her clothes were neatly hung or put away. Alicia's persnickety ways, which I perceived as being her way of showing me up with a superior attitude, infuriated me, and the last thing I needed was for her to ever get wind of my secret dream, for which I knew she would unmercifully tease me. From time to time, always in short-lived resolutions, I would also have to keep things from Muggs. In a March 1942 diary entry I wrote: "Tonight I hereby resolve never to tell Muggs any of my private affairs. All she does is mouth it off."
My little dustups with Alicia and Muggs never lasted long, and during times in which my better angels took over, I gave both of them a pass for their infuriating behavior. That was, perhaps, due to my understanding that I, too, could be equally annoying. In one of my diary entries in which I again resolved to exclude Muggs from my "private affairs," due to her "mouthing off," I also wrote: "And another thing, I am going to quit picking on everyone. Mouthing off is one of my specialties, too."
While I was so good at not keeping my mouth shut that I considered it to be a "specialty," there was always one thing I never mouthed off about: my secret dream. And, while I was always thoroughly convinced I was keeping the biggest secret under our roof, there was an even bigger one playing out, right under my nose, which I was not aware of. No one was keeping this secret from me. In reality, it was no secret at all. It was right there, out in the open for all the world to see: the fact that we were poor.
Our house on High Street, where I would dream my secret dreams, had a good-sized yard. All the houses in our neighborhood had been built on quarter-acre lots, so everyone had big yards and wonderful vegetable gardens. From the time I was very young, I was always aware that there were those who had riches far beyond ours and that there were houses far grander than ours, but those wealthy folk and magnificent mansions were simply a part of my secret dream of destiny, and the thought that we were "poor" never entered my head. And yet we were, which just made us fit in with everyone else in our neighborhood.
I was born in October of 1928, and just as I celebrated my first birthday, the Great Depression hit. It was, of course, a time of tremendous financial struggle for so many Americans that lasted well into the following decade, and it ended with the beginning of another horrible chapter in history: World War II.
I had just recently turned thirteen when Germany invaded Poland, and while the United States remained neutral until that fateful December day in 1941, we were all aware that our country was supplying our allies with money and materials to fight the war. During those early days of the war, we rented out the three second-floor bedrooms of our home to make ends meet. Because of that, my parents slept in the one bedroom we had on the main floor, my brother slept in the living room, and my sister and I slept in the basement. Now, when I say we slept in the basement, some may envision this cozy finished "family room" type of a thing. That would be wrong! It was a basement — a real basement — with a coal-burning stove, a washing machine and a very small unfinished bathroom.
Not only were Alicia and I relegated to the basement, but we also had to share the same double bed, where the verbal fight for covers would sometimes get so loud, we would engender a parental shout from the floor above, warning us to "Be quiet and get to sleep."
On either side of our bed were constant reminders of how hard my mother worked to keep her family clean and fed. On one side there were shelves where she stored all the jams, jellies and whatever else she canned. On the other side was a small heating contraption with burners. I remember my mother pumping water and then heating it on those burners so she would have hot water for the washer. She always did her laundry early in the morning, which infuriated me, because our sleep would be cut short.
Alicia and I tried to make the best of our shabby basement bedroom accommodations by plastering two solid walls with pictures of movie stars we had cut out of magazines. I have so many memories of looking at the photographs of those stars, wondering what their lives must be like, and secretly dreaming of the day that photos of me would be in a magazine. Of course, I never shared those dreams with Alicia, who would have teased me unmercifully over harboring such audacious thoughts. The other thing I never shared with anyone outside of our house was that I was dreaming those dreams in a basement. I remember, when I was twelve or thirteen, attending the Episcopal summer camp, where after it was lights out, all the girls would lie in bed and talk about how they missed their home bedrooms and describe how they were decorated. I would lie there in completely horrified silence, thinking, Oh my gosh! I can't say that I sleep in the basement ... in the same bed with my sister! But that is what we did for about four years. And yet even that never made me aware of just how bloody poor we were.
Although I grew up in Albert Lea, I was actually born in a Watertown, Minnesota, hospital thirty miles west of Minneapolis and lived a portion of my earliest days in Waconia, which is about thirty-five miles southwest of Minneapolis. My birth certificate listed my given name as "Marian."
As a young girl, I never gave any thought to the spelling of my name, but when I turned twelve, I was given a little Episcopalian prayer book that had my name embossed on the cover in gold letters. I would look at my name on the cover of that book and, as part of my secret dream, would imagine how it would look on a theatrical program and, more importantly, in lights on a theater's marquee. The more I looked at my name on that book, the more something bothered me. It just didn't look right to me, and finally, it hit me: my name would look so much better if I changed the spelling to "Marion." For some reason, I felt that by changing the a to an o, my name had a more pleasing appearance. That was extremely important to me, because I knew that I was destined to one day step into the real-life role of my secret dream — that I was going to be someone special and needed a name that would look good on a marquee.
The middle name on my birth certificate was "Ellen," a name, and a spelling, I was so proud of and fine with that years later I would pass it on to my daughter. I was proud of the name Ellen because it was my mother's name. My mother, Ellen Alicia Hamilton, was a Canadian, born in northern Saskatchewan, in the little wheat farming town of Tisdale, which is about 170 miles north of Regina. She was a pretty woman with blue eyes and dark hair. She was also a wonderful storyteller and frequently told tales of her parents, Irish immigrants who relocated to Canada after the Crimean War.
My mother's family was quite well educated, and they were all great fiddle players. They had originally come from Dublin and were proud of the educations they had received. Following the Crimean War, the boys in the family, who had served as soldiers, packed up their parents, siblings, wives and children and left Ireland, first for America, with their final destination being Canada. The lure of Canada was due to the country's willingness to provide a parcel of land to soldiers who had served in the Crimean War.
From what I recall, the Hamilton clan's trek to Canada was not an easy one. They somehow made it to Iowa in covered wagons, where they spent their first winter away from Ireland in a small house. As soon as the first signs of spring appeared, the men then left the women and children behind and headed north to search for their next stop. I can recall being in awe as my mother recounted the story of how the men returned for them, loaded them and whatever meager belongings they had into covered wagons, and took them to their next stopping-off point. Exactly where that was — Minnesota, perhaps, or maybe one of the Dakotas — is uncertain. The one thing my mother did remember is that when they got settled, they all took up their fiddles and played music, and everyone danced, kicking up the dust from the dirt floor of the small shelter the men had built.
While much of the story of the Hamiltons blazing their way toward Canada has been lost to the ages, from what I have pieced together, by the time they crossed the Canadian border and settled, the men had become scalawags and scoundrels of sorts. They were educated but knew nothing of farming. What they were good at was talking — telling stories and jokes. As for the Hamilton women, they also had no farming skills, so they used their education and became teachers.
My mother, who had studied English and the works of the great writers, poets and playwrights, could sit and quote Shakespeare for hours (something she continued to do for the remainder of her life). She became a young teacher with her own horse and sleigh and moved in with a fine family. Every day she would go off to a tiny school where many of the children were what was referred to back in those nonpolitically correct days as "half-breeds," half Native American and half European or Canadian.
It was a rough life, but one my mother embraced with her adventurous, can- do spirit. She was a woman who appreciated humor, had an infectious laugh, and was fiercely ambitious and driven. She had an innate passion to get somewhere in life — to become somebody — and she loved adventure. When she was just twenty-two, she used some of the money she had set aside from teaching to travel to Europe. This would not have been a typical move for a young single woman of the time, but my mother was never a typical woman.
She embarked on that trip with the desire to visit the battlegrounds and graveyards where the soldiers of World War I had fought and been buried. I have a picture that was taken during that trip of her standing on the deck of a ship. It is a photograph that, to me, says so much about the kind of woman she was and how she raised me. It is a photo of a young woman oozing with blind ambition who believed she could do anything and was always in search of her next adventure.
Long after she returned from that trip, met and married my father, and had children, she still kept the travel trunk she had used during that trip. Inside the trunk was a little beaded dress, picture books from Europe, and a program from an operatic performance she had attended in Paris. That trip was clearly a highlight of her life, and she reveled in reminiscing about it so much that I thought, as a child, I would never hear the end of it.
My paternal grandfather, Alexander Duncan Ross, was of Scottish heritage. When he was a young man in Scotland, there were big signs posted throughout the cities that read COME TO AMERICA AND WORK. There were not a lot of good prospects for a young Scottish lad in his homeland at the time, and America was in desperate need of workers. With the promise of work and a better life, he decided to leave his country and come to America to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. There was just one problem: he wasn't a big, tough guy, by any means, which was the kind of men they were looking for to do the backbreaking work of setting railroad ties and rails into place and then hammering them together with spikes. Quickly realizing that this was work for those of a more burly constitution, he ended up becoming a jeweler — a profession far better suited for Alexander Ross, who may not have been a specimen of great physical strength but certainly cut a striking image, with his bald head and finely trimmed mustache.
His son, my father, Gordon Wright Ross, inherited his father's thin build, even thinner hair, and Scotch Presbyterian gentlemanly manners. He had served overseas as an officer in the Army Signal Corps during World War I, and when he returned home after the war, he decided to leave his family home in South Dakota and begin a new life in Canada. Buying into a parcel of Canadian wheatland, he soon thereafter met a feisty and ambitious young schoolteacher who was ten years his junior and had recently returned from an exciting adventure abroad — the aforementioned Ellen Alicia Hamilton.
Excerpted from "My Days"
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Table of Contents
Foreword Ron Howard ix
My Prologue 1
Chapter 1 My Beginnings 5
Chapter 2 My Family 11
Chapter 3 My Inspirations 24
Chapter 4 My Secret Becomes Known 31
Chapter 5 My New Life in California 37
Chapter 6 My Marriage 46
Chapter 7 My Move to Hollywood 52
Chapter 8 My Studio Contract 64
Chapter 9 My Days Between two Worlds 70
Chapter 10 My Days of Successes and Struggles 84
Chapter 11 My Real-Life Role as Mom 112
Chapter 12 My luckiest Airplane Ride 140
Chapter 13 My "Lovely" Big Break 152
Chapter 14 My Dream Becomes a Happy Reality 159
Chapter 15 My Happy Days 172
Chapter 16 My Boss Garry 187
Chapter 17 My TV Son Ron 198
Chapter 18 My TV Daughter Erin 207
Chapter 19 My Dear Henry 215
Chapter 20 My Funny Donny 223
Chapter 21 My wonderful Friend Anson 231
Chapter 22 My Neighbor Scott 239
Chapter 23 My Real-Life Children 249
Chapter 24 My Right-Hand Woman Gwen 267
Chapter 25 My Happiest Days 274
Chapter 26 My Days (Which Just May Never End) at the Happy Days Farm 289
My Epilogue and Acknowledgments 300