Actress Marion Ross grew up in Waconia, Willmar and Albert Lea 

Few people realize that longtime actress Marion Ross enjoyed many Happy Days while growing up in several Minnesota communities.

Marion Ross, who played Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days for 10 years, lived in Willmar, Waconia and Albert Lea growing up. Contributed photo

In a recent interview with Ross, who retired from acting in 2018, the personable star recalled her time spent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes as “a positive experience” prior to heading to California to begin a long and illustrious acting career.

“I had a wonderful and memorable childhood in Minnesota,” said Ross, who is best known for playing Mrs. Cunningham on the television sitcom Happy Days that ran from 1974-84. “I remember how much I loved the snow. I was very energetic, and I always wanted to be the one to go out and shovel the snow. And I remember how much I loved walking across the frozen lakes in the towns that we lived in.”

While reminiscing about her time spent as a child in Minnesota, Ross mentioned seeing weather reports on television about the inclement stretch of cold, wind and snow her native state had endured this winter.

“Now I know why we left,” she laughed.

Ross was born in Watertown, Minn., in 1928, although her parents, Gordon and Ellen Ross, never lived there. The family actually lived in nearby Waconia at that time.

“Marion was born in Cottage Hospital in Watertown,” said Marlene Magnuson, who worked for the Carver County Historical Society located in Waconia for 18 years. “There wasn’t a hospital in Waconia at that time, and Watertown was well known then as a medical town.”

Marion was the middle sibling of the three Ross children. Her older sister, Alicia, was born in 1925 in Watertown; younger brother, Gordon Jr., was born in 1930.

Gordon Ross, who grew up in South Dakota, was the manager of a power company in Waconia. Ellen, who grew up in Saskatchewan, was a school teacher. The Ross’ rented a home on Lake Street in Waconia.

Marion Ross and her siblings when she lived in Willmar in 1934, left top right: Gordon Jr., Marion and Alicia. Contributed photo

The family eventually left Waconia and ventured to Willmar in 1933 when Marion was 5 years old. Her father worked for the power company in Willmar and they rented a home on Third Street. The family remained in Willmar until moving to Albert Lea in 1936.

“I didn’t have much schooling (in Willmar),” said Ross, who turned 90 years old last October. “When I was in third grade in Albert Lea, most of the kids could read a lot better than I could.”

Marion’s name on her birth certificate was spelled Marian. Confident she would see her name in lights one day, she eventually had the “a” in her first name replaced with an “o.”

“I just thought that spelling would look much better in print if I wanted to be an actress,” she laughed via telephone from her home in Encinitas, Calif.

Marion was bit by the acting bug when she was around 13 years old and living in Albert Lea.

“I was never in any school plays or anything like that when I was in Minnesota,” she said. “But I used to go to the library in Albert Lea and look through a Who’s Who book, and I always wondered how some of the people in the book became so popular. So, I decided that I wanted to be an actress and become someone famous, too.” 

Upon completion of her sophomore year at Albert Lea High School, the Ross family moved to Minneapolis so Marion could enroll in the MacPhail Center for the Arts, while also attending her junior year of high school in Minneapolis.

“I had seen an ad for MacPhail in a theater arts magazine,” Ross explained. “So my parents moved again so I could go there.”

After residing in Minneapolis for just one school year, it was obvious that Marion had what it took to make it as an actress, so the Ross family again packed up and headed west to California.

“I actually wanted to go to New York,” she laughed. “But as it turns out, moving to California worked out well for me.”

After graduating from high school in California, Marion enrolled in performing arts at San Diego State, where she was named the program’s Most Outstanding Performer.

The Happy Days crew. Public domain image

By age 23, Ross had signed her first contract with Paramount, which launched an illustrious acting career on stage and screen, playing everything from the happy and bubbly “Mrs. C” on Happy Days to the mean-spirited “Trix” on Gilmore Girls, to the sweet and soothing voice of Spongebob Squarepants’ grandmother.

“One time, my assistant and I met a group of fans, and we starting talking to them,” Ross recalled. “One woman had a little boy who had no idea who I was and was ignoring me. So I bent down and said to him ‘Did you know that I am Spongebob’s grandmother?’ And the little boy got all excited and started to pull his pants down to show me that he was wearing Spongebob underwear. It was so cute.”

Ross has also performed alongside some of the big names of Hollywood, such as Ginger Rogers and William Holden in Forever Female (1953), Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (1954), Clark Gable in Teacher’s Pet (1958), and Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in Operation Petticoat (1959).

When asked what her favorite role was in her career, Ross surprisingly listed Brooklyn Bridge, a short-lived CBS television series about a Jewish family living in Brooklyn that ran from 1991-93. Ross played, Sophie Berger, a Jewish grandmother.

“I really wanted that role,” she noted. “But I wasn’t Jewish and didn’t have a Jewish accent. So I would go to a delicatessen and listen to the ladies talk in there so I could learn the accent. And when I got the role on TV, I was so happy that I cried.”

Ross received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001 with many of the cast members from Happy Days in attendance.

Ross, a widow, resides in California on two acres of land that includes orange trees. She named her place “Happy Days Farm.”

“I was able to get this beautiful place because of the salary I made on Happy Days,” she said. “So it’s only natural that I named it Happy Days Farm.”

Ross’ son, Jim Meskimen, is a talented comedian/actor/impressionist. He appeared as the Whoville police officer in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey. And, more recently, he appeared as a controversial radio host on S.W.A.T.

Marion’s daughter, Ellen (named after her grandmother) Plummer, has been a writer and producer on such television shows as Friends and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Marion Ross talks to some children at a recent book signing in Albert Lea. Ross lived in Albert Lea in her high school years. Photos compliments of Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune

Ross recently launched her new book entitled: My Days: Happy and Otherwise, which chronicles her life in Hollywood. She returned to Minnesota this past September to sign copies of the book in Albert Lea at the public library, the same place where she sat and read the Who’s Who book as a teenager.

Many of the Happy Days cast members shared their memories of working with Ross.

“Each one of them wrote a chapter in the book,” she noted. “We still are all good friends and stay in touch.”

Albert Lea city officials voted to change the name of the Albert Lea Civic Theatre to the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center in 2008. That center now includes a life-size cardboard cutout of Ross, along with memorabilia and photos of her life and her acting career.

“It was so nice to come back to Minnesota,” she said. “The people are so gracious and friendly.”

And during her brief stay in Minnesota, Marion and her assistant traveled just over three hours from Albert Lea to Willmar to visit the gravesite of her sister, who died in 2017 and is buried at Fairview Cemetery on the west edge of town.

“I don’t think anyone knew we were there or who I was,” she said. “It was just a private moment.”

Although she is no longer acting, Ross has been keeping busy with interviews, book signings and cast reunions (Happy Days is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year).

“Did you know that I’m 90 years old?” Ross asked with a giggle. “I keep saying it over and over because I still can’t believe it.”

She maintains her high energy even into her ninth decade. Her memory is sharp, and her iconic voice is still eloquent and soothing to listen to.

“She’s a sweetheart,” said her publicist Harlan Boll. “She takes time for everyone.”

Ross has set up a foundation scholarship program at her alma mater, San Diego State, to assist would-be actors and actresses in pursuing their dream, much like she did.

Even her son insisted that a visit with Marion will leave a lasting impression.

“Everyone enjoys visiting with her,” he said. “She recalls her childhood very well. And she genuinely likes people.”

And people genuinely like her.