I can’t remember exactly what year it was because frankly, it probably should just be forgotten. Unfortunately, my brain holds on to the details of the horrifying moment much more clearly than dates. But for the sake of the story, I’m thinking this happened about 10 years ago.
Wil was doing a stage show with his friend, J. Keith van Straaten, down at the Acme Comedy Theatre in Hollywood. It was set up like “The Tonight Show.” J. Keith would start the show by telling some jokes, then he’d sit behind a desk and chat about funny, current topics with Wil, who was his sidekick, seated across from him in a chair. They would then have a guest come out and be interviewed, followed by a performance from a band.
J. Keith would always have really great people be guests on the show. One of my favorites was John Ritter. He was so kind and funny and personable and told really great stories. One night, they were going to have Henry Winkler be the guest. We were all SO excited because we absolutely loved “Arrested Development” and couldn’t wait to meet him. I didn’t take the kids to every show because I think they were around 11 and 13, and the show ran pretty late, but I made an exception this time because hello, it’s Henry Winkler.
Wil went to the theatre early for rehearsal, so I drove down with the kids just before the show started. On the way there, I was telling them about this show called “Happy Days” that Henry Winkler was on that I used to LOVE when I was a kid. I demonstrated how “The Fonz” would do his signature “Aayyyy” move and give the thumbs up. Then I had this horrifying thought that I would make an ass of myself fumbling over what to say to him when I met him, then saying or doing something “The Fonz” would do.
“Mom?” the kids said after I apparently stopped mid-sentence while I lived this potential scenario in my head. “Oh, what? Sorry. I was just thinking…” As I told them my concerns about how my conversation would turn out when I actually met Henry Winkler, they looked mortified. “Mom, do NOT do that.” Ryan said with the look of fear in his teenage eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll play it cool. *aayyyyy*” I joked, giving a thumbs up, inches from his nose.
Henry Winkler turned out to be such a sweet, wonderful guest on the show. He was generous with his stories of working in Hollywood over the years and just being grateful for working on such amazing shows, and loving how much people enjoyed his work. As the show ended, my heart starting racing and my stomach filled with butterflies as I was about to meet “The Fonz.”
The theatre lights came on and the audience made its way out, filtering onto the street. I made my way down to the stage like I did after every show to wait for J. Keith, Wil, and the rest of the guests to come back out on stage to take a group photo together. I stood there nervously clinging to the kids, worrying I was going to somehow screw up the only interaction I would ever get with Henry Winkler.
When they finished with the photos, Mr. Winkler came down the steps of the stage, and straight toward us. He introduced himself, holding his hand out for me to shake, which I did. Trying to appear calm, like I’d met people like him a thousand times, I casually introduced Ryan and Nolan. He shook their hands, asked them how old they were, what grade they were in, and if they enjoyed the show. The kids seemed so calm. How could they be calm? They’re meeting Henry Freaking Winkler?!
Mr. Winkler turned back toward me. Now was the time. I decided I wasn’t going to say anything about “Happy Days” because he’s probably heard that a million times. Calmly and casually, I said “We absolutely LOVE Arrested Development.” While he was graciously thanking me, Nolan interrupted, practically yelling “MOM!” while looking at my hands with wide, terrified eyes. Apparently, while I professing my love of the show he was currently on, both of my hands had met up in front of me, BOTH giving the thumbs up.
I looked down at my hands, then to my children, who had both covered their faces with their own hands in embarrassment. I looked back at Henry Winkler, hands still in the thumbs up position, face cringed in a state of fright. “Oh my god, I can’t believe I just gave you the thumbs up. I JUST GAVE YOU THE THUMBS UP.” I threw my hands to my side, trying to figure out just how long they had been in that position. “It’s ok, dear.” Mr. Winkler said, trying to reassure me. “IT’S NOT OK. I JUST GAVE THE FONZ THE THUMBS UP.” I exclaimed, way too loud for how close he was to me. He laughed, tousling Nolan’s hair, attempting to calm the kids of the horror they just witnessed, and headed backstage to grab his belongings and drive home.
On our own drive home, I just kept repeating “Oh my god. I gave The Fonz two thumbs up. Who does that? WHO DOES THAT.” At first, the kids tried to make me feel better. “It’s ok, Mom. It happens.” After saying it a dozen times, it started to get funny to me, and my horror turned to laughter. “OH GOD. I GAVE THE FONZ THE THUMBS UP”, tears streaming down my face in uncontrollable laughter as I made our way home. “Ok, Mom. We get it.” The kids were not amused.
Since that fateful day, ten something odd years ago, there have been a couple of times where we’ve attended the same event as Mr. Winkler. I’ve seen him across the room, my heart once again races, stomach fills with butterflies. I re-live the conversation and the thumbs up, cringe while laughing way too long at myself, and stay as far away from him as possible.