News & Notes

Mom, Penny Marshall and Me: A Love Story

By Erin Essenmacher

I can’t remember how old I was the first time I watched an episode, I just remember that Laverne DiFazio was a staple of my childhood. I was just a baby when Laverne and Shirley debuted in 1976, but over time, preserved in re-runs, my sister Annie and I would gobble up every episode, memorizing the theme song and making up our own dances, complete with the iconic arm in arm skip. We were in awe of their magical combo of fragile and fierce, badass and vulnerable, hustle and hope. Mostly, we loved their bond. Their “girls against the world” aesthetic that worked because they had each other. They would bicker and wail, and they would show up for each other and love each other fiercely. The show was the first time that representations of working class girls drove the narrative on TV – the anti- Mary Tyler Moore. We didn’t understand the significance then, but we knew we could identify with them: scrappy, imperfect and human.

In hindsight, it’s not that surprising that we would gravitate to a show about women who come together to form their own little girl gang family. My own childhood identity was defined in part by a similar kind of feminist mafia. Growing up raised by a single mom who worked secretarial jobs and rough construction to put herself back through school, relying on food stamps and free lunch and a whole lot of hustle and scrape to make ends meet, the girls against the world misadventures storyline was the plotline of our lives. Sure, our latest flavor of beater car would break down, leaving us stranded by the side of the road, but it was all part of the adventure. My mom made sure of it. One evening she was trying to answer our question of “what’s for dinner?” facing an empty fridge and nearly bare pantry. She found a jar in the back of the cabinet, scraped together the last few spoonfuls of peanut butter, made little sandwiches with the rest of a half a sleeve of saltines and put them on a few of the random paper doilies she had laying around and voila! Instant tea party fit for two pint-size princesses. When life is an adventure, you keep paper doilies on hand for this very reason – in case a spontaneous tea party breaks out.

By the time Laverne and Shirley came into our lives in a meaningful way, mom had graduated, was finishing up an internship at the United Auto Workers Union and was using her journalism degree to make media that advocated for social justice, a living wage, and dignity on the job. We were starting to do a little better ourselves; no more government issued cheese and no more food stamps. We still drove around in used cars with the mirror held on by duct tape, but they broke down far less often. I still remember what a big deal it was when the form for free and reduced school lunch came in the mail and mom made a whole ceremony around lighting it on fire in the front yard. “Thank you for all you have given us…we release you.”

Mom got a job and became a bonafide writer and producer with the International Association of Machinists, and we moved from our native Michigan, to Maryland. As Annie and I found new friends at school, mom found this little group called Women in Film and Video – a whole cadre of other fierce, smart, creative women making magic though media. She joined the steering committee for Women Make Movies, becoming one of the masterminds behind WIFV’s film festival that showcased female filmmakers. She joined the WIFV board and helped plan the Women of Vision gala. Mostly she made wonderful friends, women who became part of the mosaic of my adolescence and who showed us by example, the power of community.

Along the way, Laverne DiFazio grew up, too. Penny Marshall parlayed her experience directing a few episodes of Laverne and Shirley into a successful career as a Hollywood film director at a time when pathetically few women were represented in the director’s chair on major studio productions. (It’s pathetic that 30 years later this is still the case, but that is for another post.)

Her work won Oscar nominations. BIG became the first woman-directed film to gross more than $100 million. But for this emerging feminist, it was the iconic baseball movie A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, released the year before I graduated high school, that most spoke to me. The film combined Penny Marshall, my dad’s love and near encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and a strong dose of that familiar, scrappy girl gang – a perfect cocktail of the things that shaped my childhood.

It seems almost prophetic, in hindsight, that it would be WIFV and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN that would together, be the impetus for getting to meet Penny Marshall in person.

By the time I was in my 20’s, I was starting my own media career (the apple not falling far from the tree and all that) and WIFV played an integral role. Rosemary Reed, a local media maven who had been part of that mosaic of women in my mom’s orbit, offered me my first production job. WIFV’s events helped me build my skills and my rolodex, ultimately helping me launch a successful freelance business. As my career was gearing up, my mom was in the twilight of hers. Multiple Sclerosis, which she had battled since her early 20’s, forced her into an early retirement. She moved to Florida where she could focus on sunshine and healing. Before she left, WIFV honored her with their Women of Vision Award, recognizing her dogged work to use media to advocate for social justice. It was a beautiful capstone to both her career and the role the women of WIFV had played in supporting her along the way.

I left DC just before I turned 30, looking to try my luck in San Francisco, and then later New York. I produced a successful independent film and as I was gearing up for the big theatrical premier, my mom died suddenly.

Life stopped. I moved back to DC to manage her estate, and to be with my sister who then was five months pregnant with her first baby. And once again, WIFV was there. So many of mom’s old friends, many I hadn’t seen in years, came for the funeral, full of stories and love and light. I ended up staying in DC, and I thought maybe it was time for me to give back to the organization that had given so much to me and to my family. I joined the WIFV board, and the next year was elected president.

The year I became president, we led a successful grassroots campaign to help get A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN inducted into the National Film Registry. We celebrated by hosting a special screening at the Avalon, featuring a few of the original players. Penny Marshall agreed to come and we used the opportunity to honor her with our Women of Vision award – the same award my mom received nearly 15 years before.

Penny was totally herself – down to earth, sassy and did not stand on ceremony. She has received dozens of awards and accolades for her work – deservedly so – and recognition from the local DC chapter of Women in Film and Video Women of Vision Award probably just seemed like one more on the list. But I knew she was joining the ranks of trailblazers like Ruby Dee, Tyne Daly, Sharon Stone, Kathy Bates and Patty Duke, and my biggest shero of all, Linda Ross. I knew that even with our little non-profit budget we took great pride in the award and what it symbolized and that even on our tight budget we sprung for the top of the line. She accepted the award and thanked us, with sincerity, but in her own very Penny Marshall way, by saying “Thank you for this plexi-glass thingy,” I couldn’t help myself. I took the mic afterward, channeled my very best Laverne DiFazio and said “That’s not plexiglass. That’s crystal, baby.”

Penny laughed and the movie rolled. I walked her outside and, at her invitation, joined her and a childhood friend she hadn’t seen in decades who had travelled down from Maryland to see her. Later she would wow on the panel, talking about the film and baseball and girl power with former players Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Helen “Gig” Smith. But those moments in between the film and the discussion, felt like sacred space. There, on the sidewalk outside the Avalon theater on Connecticut Avenue Penny Marshall was not a hotshot director or former TV idol. She was just a girl from the Bronx, wearing one her favorite baseball jerseys, smoking and taking the time to catch up with an old friend. I could not help but marvel at life, at the universe, and how there are no accidents. I thought of my mom, of all that of the love, sweat and tears that led up to this moment, about how very proud she would be. And on that on the sidewalk outside the Avalon theater on Connecticut Avenue, I swear I could see her there, giving me her signature fist pump, and smiling.


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