An unexpected friendship
By THOMAS HIATT
Fans of classic television will remember loud, bossy, and antagonistic “Big Rosie” Greenbaum from Laverne & Shirley. During her stint on that show, her popularity matched Fonzie, Richie, Lenny, Squiggy, and anyone else associated with the Happy Days universe.
The actress who portrayed her, Carole Ita White (pronounced “eeta”), is the exact opposite of her alter ego. Far from the insults and threats tossed out by the character, Carole’s soothing voice is punctuated with such words as “Honey” and “Sweetie.”
I inadvertently befriended this vibrant woman while gathering information about her father, the late actor Jesse White, who portrayed the forever lonely Maytag Repairman from 1967 through 1988, for a documentary my brother and me are producing.
Our story began when I read the script to my writers’ group. They suggested I find a family member to gain some deeper insight into his background. I found out through my research that his daughter had a Facebook account. I trepidatiously sent a friend request with a short message explaining my intentions.
Carole responded less than a week later, surprising me by agreeing to an interview and telling me how touched she felt that someone would take the time to honor her father. She gave me her personal email and cell phone number.
A week after I emailed her, Carole called. We talked for a good half hour with most of the time taken up with my fielding questions from her about me: How many kids did I have? What is it like living in Morris, MN? What do I do for a living? And so on. She also mentioned that she had acting friends from Minneapolis.
Born in New York City in 1949, she moved to Southern California at six months old as a result of Jesse White getting his first big break acting in the 1950 film Harvey.
Although she would sometimes be on set for her father’s many TV appearances, her only childhood acting role was a part in her synagogue’s Sunday school Hanukkah play where she portrayed “Luella The Latke,” along with a very young Ricky (Richard) Dreyfuss, who was playing “Thomas The Shamus.”
As Carole grew up, her father warned her of the perils of making a living as an actor. Her sister, Janet (named after Janet Leigh of Psycho fame), avoided the limelight altogether, choosing instead to become a homemaker. “She is the smart one,” joked Carole. “And she has three kids who are very sane.”
Carole graciously visited with me via Zoom in late June for over an hour. And, again, she had as much curiosity about me as I did about her. She recounted the evolution of her defining role.
“My actual first television role was on The Carol Burnett Show,” she said. (In those days, Burnett and her staff attended comedy clubs and picked six or seven aspiring comedians to perform improvisation on her show.) “So, I got Evil Roy Slade (her first film appearance as “Homely Girl In Bank” in 1972), I got The Carol Burnett Show. I got my first equity play entitled Enter Laughing, written by Carl Reiner. I got all three of these jobs within one month. And I’m thinking it’s a rocket to stardom. Unfortunately, you work and then you don’t work.” She gestured her hands side to side. “Then you work and you don’t work. So I’ve been a cocktail waitress. I’ve worked at the complaint department of a heating company. I’ve had a lot of jobs in-between acting roles.”
“I had worked for Garry Marshall on The Odd Couple show,” she continued, “The first Odd Couple I did was with Monty Hall where he is playing poker with Oscar and Felix. And I knock on the door and say, ‘Please, Monty. Pick me. Pick me!’ I had worked with Monty Hall in that one role, and the singer Jaye P. Morgan had done a couple of Odd Couple roles and I played her secretary -- that’s how I got the Big Rosie role. Garry knew me, and Garry used to come down to Harvey’s Workshop (a training ground for aspiring actors). His sister Penny was in the workshop, too, as was John Ritter, and Al Molinaro from Happy Days. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on MASH was also there. Robin Williams came into this group later. So many greats. So, all of a sudden I get an audition for “Tough Girl In Pool Hall” on this show called Laverne & Shirley, and they came on in mid-season. And I was to play this tough girl in the pool hall. Laverne and Shirley get a date, finally. This date takes them to this pool hall where this tough girl... moi... and Penny get into this: ‘Girl, I’m gonna pull that L right off of your chest!’ Then Penny said, ‘Sweetheart, you do that, I’ll send your teeth to Peoria!’ They liked it that Penny had someone to fight with. And she and Shirley could band together against this common enemy. So, that was mid-season and for the fall season, they decide to bring me back as Big Rosie Greenbaum: Bimbo with The Bucks! The interesting thing was when I showed up to do it, they made me sign on for seven years. Who am I to complain? It’s my big break!”
“I get there for my costume fitting and since this was my big break, I had lost like 20 pounds between the summer and the fall. They wanted me to wear a fat suit and I started to cry!"
“I told them,‘I can’t wear it! This is my big break! Please, I beg you. It’s Rosie’s attitude that’s big!’ So they relented and I got to be svelte. And I got to do my first show where two of our weirdos are missing -- Lenny and Squiggy run away to be in the circus, and Big Rosie comes in.
“So, I’m in this show. It’s number one and number two in the ratings, along with Happy Days. Tuesday nights it was soooo popular, Penny and me, Cindy, Lenny, and Squiggy. We couldn’t go outside without people mobbing us! I did Good Morning Boston. I did Good Morning Philadelphia! I got to be on The 10,000 Dollar Pyramid! It was so much fun!”
But the fun was short lived.
“And then the show went in a different direction and there went Rosie! And it broke my heart because I loved this character. I think I did 9 or 10 episodes. I got a lot of fan mail! Here in West Hollywood I would meet guys and they would do Big Rosie for me. I’d see someone who’d sat ‘Hey, it’s Rosie! Hey Bimbo!’ They’d do my lines. It was really funny. She made an impression. She was one of my favorite characters to play!”
Her last appearance on the show happened in 1982.
Of her recent acting activity, she said, “COVID put it to sleep for two and a half years, and it’s just getting started again, thank goodness. It’s been difficult and isolating.”
“I’m in two writers’ groups. And I also have taken up painting. So I’ve had a creative outlet, thank Goodness. And I did some plays over Zoom. In one group, the teacher gives us prompts. And we’ll write 10 minutes, 12 minutes. And if the group is not too big, we’ll share it with everyone. Or she’ll break us into groups of two and three people. The other is for people who write books, write screenplays, have ideas for short plays. They bring it to class and except for me, who brings my own material. If I had written a script, for example, I’d call you, I’d call him, I’d call her to read the parts so I can just hear it.”
Of the cast of Laverne & Shirley, she said., “I was friendly with David Lander (Squiggy) before he passed away. I went to High School with his wife. And once in a while, I’ll see Cindy (Williams) around. Poor Penny, has gone to heaven already. And Eddie Mekka is gone, Phil Foster gone, Betty Garrett gone, Gary Marshall gone. Penny’s sister, Ronnie, I talk to sometimes. Her daughter, Tracy Reiner, I talk to sometimes.” She still encounters Michael McKean (Lenny) on occasion. “But like I say, you work with people and then the job is over.”
Ms. White concluded our interview by stating how much she enjoyed reminiscing, and left an open invitation to further discussions, perhaps even a visit.
“Big Rosie” Greenbaum, indeed, has a big attitude. The actress who played her has an equally big heart.