Mom Advice: Make Them Laugh Hard

Legendary writer and director Garry Marshall continues to be inspired by his mother's passion for entertainment.

Jody HewgillPlaywright Bertolt Brecht, known for The Threepenny Opera, once said, “From the start is has been the theatre’s business to entertain people. . . it needs no other passport than fun.” My mother would have agreed. She didn’t know Brecht, but she always said the goal should be to entertain people, and make them laugh hard.

Born in 1910 my mother, Marjorie Ward Marshall, was the first director I ever met. Wearing an apron and teaching tap in the basement of our Grand Concourse apartment building, she was a Bronx housewife and dance teacher you didn’t want to mess with. Even from a young age she was an entertainer who thought performing was not just a hobby or even a profession but a way of living that was as essential as breathing or eating. She was a five-foot-six-inch slacks-wearing perky blonde with a dancer’s body and a comedian’s mouth.

Mom was always “on” from her hyper-cajoling of her dance students to her late-night intensity when she would type out songs, dance routines, and skits for her dance recital. I would be in my bed and still hear her typewriter as I went to sleep at night. Her typing sounded like rain. Always working, she would go to Broadway shows, steal the routines, and come back and type them out for her students to perform. I knew right from the beginning that if I could make my mom laugh, then I could make her love me.

When I grew up and moved to Hollywood as an adult, I would later create 14 prime-time TV shows (including Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley) and direct 17 movies (including Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries and Valentine’s Day). During my five decades in show business, I never forgot my mother’s advice to find the humor in anything. I never wanted to change the world. I wanted to entertain the world and not put people to sleep. If my mom had been born at a different time in history she might have become a stage actress or a performer herself. Instead, she groomed my two sisters, Penny Marshall and Ronny Marshall, and I to work in the field of entertainment. She remains to this day my inspiration and creative compass.

She commanded a kind of power and respect from her basement as a director that even Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese would find enviable. I will never stop carrying on my mother’s message, and I will never stop missing her. In fact, as a tribute to my mother I built The Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center at my alma mater, Northwestern University. Whenever I visit the building it helps remind me that to entertain people and make them laugh is what my own career has been all about.

Garry Marshall’s new memoir My Happy Days in Hollywood will be released April 24, 2012, by Random House’s Crown Archetype division.

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