As the TV matriarch of the Cunningham clan in the sitcom “Happy Days,” Marion Ross appeared in over 250 episodes during the hit series 11-season run from 1974 to 1984. But one episode has special significance for the actress this time of year.
In ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ broadcast two days before November in 1978, Ross’s character (also named Marion) leads the cast in a departure from the show’s usual Milwaukee-based setting. She narrates a flashback story set in the Plymouth Colony, with the cast doubling as historical characters, to remind her family that sharing and giving thanks are the traditions behind the annual festivities.
“Tom (Bosley) and I were dressed up as pilgrims and I had on a lovely outfit with a white bonnet,” recalled Ross from her home in Woodland Hills, California. “Then Fonzie (Henry Winkler) comes in wearing traditional clothes, but with his leather jacket over them!”
It was classic ‘Happy Days’ humor: Fonzie on a wooden motorbike; later, when he invites Indians into the pilgrims’ compound, he’s punished and restrained in the stocks but breaks free with a characteristic Fonzie move.
Ross’ own family roots trace back to Minnesota where she remembers Thanksgivings as being “rather brisk.”
“I was a middle child and the rambunctious one, so I would run out and shovel the snow off the walkway,” she recalled. Thanksgiving included a large extended family seated at tables stretching into the living room. “I remember by the time I was about ten having the traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pies, and also rutabagas. Guests would say ‘Rutabagas? We feed those to the pigs!’ But we liked them mashed with salt and pepper.”
“In the end, they join our family for the meal,” explained Ross, who turned 91 in October, and published her autobiography “My Days: Happy and Otherwise” last year.
The pilgrim episode concludes by returning to then present-day Milwaukee. Marion serves the meal to her attentive family, adding: “This is a day to count your blessings – everyone has something to be thankful for.”