A Fitting Tribute to Penny Marshall, always our Laverne

Penny Marshall, forever earning a place in the hearts of Milwaukeeans for her role as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley,” died on December 17, 2018. At Milwaukee Food & City Tours, we frequently have guests from around the world ask us about Laverne & Shirley. We love sharing stories about where Laverne & Shirley worked (Shotz Brewery) and visit their main squeeze, The Bronze Fonz, too. And no moment is more fun than talking about the real meaning behind “schlemiel schlimazel” and then singing the opening theme song together!

The Milwaukee County Historical Society displayed a fitting and touching tribute to Penny Marshall by putting her name in letters overlooking the Milwaukee River. These were the very same letters that used to be on Milwaukee’s City Hall and featured so famously in the opening credits of “Laverne & Shirley. “

 Tribute to Penny Marshall at the Milwaukee County Historical Society
Tribute to Penny Marshall at the Milwaukee County Historical Society

As excerpted from the Milwaukee County Historical Society:

Milwaukee’s City Hall was designed by architect Henry Koch in the Flemish Renaissance style and was dedicated December 23, 1895.

Made of over 8 million bricks, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world when it was completed. In 1906, a lighted message system was added to the south side of the tower facing the intersections of Wells, Water, and Market Streets. It was installed by City Electrician David McKeith and consisted of wood letters that were forty-two inches tall, painted white to stand out against the terra cotta building, and lit with fifteen twenty-five watt bulbs. Behind the sign was a catwalk so that workers could easily change the letters.

Messages were rotated depending on events taking place in Milwaukee. It generally read “WELCOME” and often included organizations that were holding conventions in the city. Other messages included congratulations for sports teams, support for soldiers fighting in World War I and II, national and local anniversaries and celebrations, and various other things of note. The letters developed a widespread reputation and were even featured in the opening credits of the Laverne & Shirley television show.

 Milwaukee’s City Hall adorned with messages
Milwaukee’s City Hall adorned with messages

In 1988, Mayor John O. Norquist and the Historic Preservation Commission dismantled the framework and stopped using the letters, citing the increased costs of maintenance.

City Hall gave the letters to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) where they were put in storage.

In 2012, MIAD chose to give the letters to the Milwaukee County Historical Society. MCHS now has over one hundred of the original letters, some of which will be restored and made operational.