Happy Days are Here Again in A Plumm Summer
A conversation with Henry Winkler
In 1966 the F.B.I. was called in to investigate, of all things, a puppet-napping of the star of a children’s television show in Great Falls, MT.
David Brinkley is said to have reported at the time, “Justas coast-to-coast networks threaten to make local children’s programming a thing of the past, we get this report from Billings, Montana. Froggy Doo has been kidnapped. That’s right folks, Froggy Doo, local TV legend and certified puppet, disappeared during a live show in front of hundreds of young fans. And if that’s not strange enough, J. Edgar Hoover himself has sent two agents to Montana to investigate the disappearance of Billing’s favorite frog. I kid you not”.
On April 25 Froggy Doo’s story is coming to theaters in A Plumm Summer directed and co-written by newcomer Caroline Zelder. A Plumm Summer is a low-budget independent film about family relationships with a surprisingly strong cast.
A Plumm Summer
As the heat of the summer bears down on the Montana landscape, the father of a small family, Mick Plumm (Daniel Baldwin; Backdraft; The Squid and the Whale) must face the impact of his alcoholism and failure to hold a job on his marriage (his wife is played by Lisa Guererro, Sunset Beach) and family.
His 5-year old son Rocky (Owen Pearce) has a sunny disposition, but his 13-year old son, Elliott (Chris J. Kelly) is convinced that his dad doesn’t even know he exists. Just when the summer seems too long and boring, the news that Froggy Doo is stolen hits the news. The boys and their friends join together to investigate the mystery of his disappearance.
One of America’s favorite stars, Henry Winkler (Happy Days; An American Christmas Carol; Holes; Click) plays Happy Herb, the host of the children’s show. In addition to finding Froggy Doo, Herb must heal a relationship of his own. A Plumm Summer is all about family members seeing each other, recognizing the gift of each person and being open to reconciliation and grace.
A Conversation with Henry Winkler
I had the opportunity to interview Henry Winkler last week via phone; me from my office in Culver City, CA and Henry on his cell phone driving to work. Henry was born in New York in 1945 and is a Golden Globe Award-winning American actor, director, producer, and author. Henry is perhaps best known for his role as “The Fonz” on Happy Days (1974 – 1984).
RP: What did you like best about making A Plumm Summer?
HW: Working with children; telling a children’s story. Ever since I was in high school I have worked with children; I was a counselor in an after school program in Manhattan. I realized then that I got along better with children than adults – and this was a film about the world of children. Then there was the fly-fishing for trout in Montana.
RP: From your voice it sounds as though you consider fly-fishing almost a spiritual experience.
HW: It is completely zen; a washing machine for your brain. You cannot concentrate on anything else. It’s just you the fish and the running stream. You are literally drained of yourself. I was dreaming of bringing the entire Middle East to go fly fishing. It creates so much peace.
RP: If it is not too personal, can you describe your inner, spiritual life?
HW: I like my religion: I am Jewish. I like the tenacity shown in Jewish history. And I have often thought that since we are created in God’s image when we talk to God and ask him for something we are talking to the highest and best parts of ourselves as well. They say that God only helps those who help themselves. Then there is a saying that inspires me: “If you will it, it is not a dream.” This phrase is the grease for the axel that turns the earth around; this is one of the cornerstones of being alive on this earth, in this universe. It is a truth as opposed to a good thought.
When I was younger I went to Synagogue to have my one on one chats with God. I used to knock on the wood of the chair in front of me because I thought there were so many people talking to him at the same that I needed to knock to get his attention. And you know what? My life is blessed. All of the complaining that I do? In actuality I have no complaints.
RP: What one quality do you think is necessary for young people who want to become part of the entertainment industry?
HW: What’s that one quality? I would reduce the entire journey, and it is a journey, to two words they would be preparation and tenacity. If you completely integrate these two words they will get you where you want to go. One out of five children has a learning challenge but no one way, shape, or form correlates to how brilliant that child, that person is, if they prepare well for what they want to do and are tenacious about achieving their goals.
RP: How important is character in the entertainment industry and in life?
HW: This is a great question. I think that character is one of the main ingredients in the choices that a person makes in life. There is an acting axiom that you write in your notebook on the first day of acting class: in your choice is your talent. What you choose to do with your life in this industry will give you either a short term view of your life and career or longevity.
RP: Where are you now in the arc of your career?
No matter what I have done in my particular industry, I am always at the beginning. I never kid myself that what I have done matters to the powers that be. It always feels like I am at the beginning. I feel energy and excitement, but it takes a lot of that energy to push that rock [of a new project] up the mountain one more time.
RP: How would you describe the relationship between the entertainment industry and the family?
HW: In general, I don’t think the media understands the family. The real truth is that if the media trusted the family with the truth instead of moving away from the emotionality of living they would connect better with the audience. The industry always seems to want to dumb down productions but I have seen that children want to be taken on an inner journey. There are exceptions. Take a crazy film like Super Bad – there was an inner truth and a journey and this softens the film’s [distasteful] language. At their heart the characters were real, identifiable people and we cared about them; they grew as people and changed.
RP: You seem to get children.
HW: We underestimate the child. We are afraid that the child won’t get it, the truth of the story, and will become what he sees. But I know from my own children that they do imitate what they see in the culture but their souls do not become that. My son didn’t become a gangster because he put on the accoutrement of rap – the baggy pants, and all. His soul is in tact. You have to trust that your child is listening to the best of you. Underneath the baggy clothing is the best of that child.
RP: I have read that you are dyslexic and that school was hard for you. How did you get the idea to write a series of books about a character that has learning challenges?
HW: I grew up thinking I was stupid so I turned down the idea of writing the Hank Zipzer books the first time by my agent mentioned it. But the second time he brought up the idea of writing [with Lin Oliver] about the adventures and trials of Hank Zipzer many months later, I told myself: I knew this kid, this character; I was this character.
RP: What are the books about?
HW: They are about this kid at school and they tell about the frustration and the comedy of what Hank faces. They are for grades 3-6. But above all, the books are funny before anything else.
RP: What has been the response to the books?
HW: The reaction to the books has been more than I ever imagined. I get letters form parents, librarians, teachers, and children from all over the world (the books have been translated into three languages since Niagara Falls, or Does It? in 2003.) I got one letter from a kid that said, “I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my body.” Another: “How did you know me so well?” And another: “Not one word, chapter, or paragraph is boring.” Then parents tell me that “My child is a reluctant reader but has now read five of your books”, well, what could be greater than that?
RP: Some people say that peace will be achieved through the arts. Do you agree with this?
HW: The arts in school should never be an after-thought. The only way that you can unlock the child is through the arts. The arts present the only way children will know how to unlock themselves. The U.S. is the only country that completely diminishes art in education. The arts are an essential part of education.
RP: Why should families see A Plumm Summer?
HW: Entertainment is the most magnetic when it is the most humane. There are no special effects in this little movie; instead it is all about the effect of the heart. There are no explosions except the explosion ofthe heart. The relationships between the dad and the eldest son; between the mom and the dad; the bond between the two brothers; the children growing up and learning and having responsibility that summer – and the relationship of my character with his wife is repaired. No matter who you are in the family, there is something for you in this film.
RP: What words of wisdom do you have for the faith audience?
HW: To be aware of whom you are and to be open to others, to move outside of yourself; this will give you the gift of the world.
Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, the TV/film columnist for St. Anthony Messenger, a contributor to The Tidings and a media literacy education specialist.