Page last updated at 08:14 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 09:14 UK

Happy Days for birthday boy Balls

by Jackie Storer
BBC News

Most first birthday parties are a mix of balloons, sandwiches, cooing parents and lots of noise.

This one was quite similar.... except the birthday boy was a 41-year-old Cabinet Minister - and his guest of honour was in serious danger of upstaging him.

Henry Winkler has a laugh with Schools Secretary Ed Balls
"The Fonz" is trying to help youngsters with learning difficulties

To celebrate his department's first anniversary, Schools Secretary Ed Balls decided to hold a party at his nearest primary school.

To the teachers, parents and most of the media present, he might have been the birthday boy - but he was certainly not the coolest guy in the room.

That title belonged to Henry "the Fonz" Winkler, whose arrival at St Matthew's Church of England School in the heart of Westminster brought more than a ripple of excitement.

He was of course the star 30 years or so ago of Happy Days, the series where the Fonz strutted his all-American stuff with a leather jacket and a jaunty quiff.

Silvery hair

Even the children, who were taking part in balloon twisting, face painting and a guess the vegetable competition seemed to know who he was.

Some had seen re-runs of Happy Days - probably with reminiscing mums and dads - but most knew him from his starring role in the more recent Disney adventure, Holes.

Now there are teachers who understand the child who learns differently - I wish I'd had those teachers. My teacher was the worst teacher on the planet
Henry Winkler

The man who turned up with little fanfare looked a little different from Arthur Fonzarelli - that black hair is now silvery grey and he was formally dressed in grey slacks, a dark jacket and tie.

But the 100-watt smile was still there. Within minutes he was working the playground, ruffling kids' hair, laughing, asking them questions and making them feel they were the most important people at the party.

So what did this actor, who is now in his early sixties, have in common with any of these youngsters present at the first birthday bash?

Strength of character

It turns out that Winkler is dyslexic and when not acting on the big screen, he has written a series of Hank Zipzer children's novels, which are based on his experiences growing up with an undiagnosed condition.

He is also a supporter of the UK's 2008 National Year of Reading and is seen as a great ambassador for the government's bid to do more improve education for children with special needs.

The cast of Happy Days
The Fonz, centre, in Happy Days
"Each child has a different set of problems - my brain doesn't like spelling. I can't do maths and reading is very difficult for me - still is," he said, as he greeted each reporter like an old friend.

"Now there are teachers who understand the child who learns differently - I wish I'd had those teachers. My teacher was the worst teacher on the planet.

"I used to think I would like to take the dyslexia, carve it out of my brain and throw it into the garbage.

"Then I thought maybe it was the dyslexia that made me the person I am today."

He said learning scripts had always been a "big problem" but he had discovered ways of working around it.

"I just had to work that little bit harder. Luckily I could memorise very quickly, so I would do that and then improvise the rest," he said.

"If a director said anything about it I would say I was giving him the sense of the character."

Rainbow cake

He added: "I think in some ways now things have changed 180 degrees, but in other ways we are still in the dark ages with dyslexia. But there are teachers now who understand that some children learn differently.

"So I have taken all of those experiences and put them into this book with my partner Lin."

For 11-year-old Karl Foster, who wants to be a wrestler, the visit was "very exciting because I really want to meet him".

Connor Nkuni, 11, a would-be Arsenal footballer, said: "I've seen the film Holes - I'm quite happy that I'm meeting a star."

And as for birthday boy Ed Balls, he quite clearly loved the entertainer and he did get to blow out the candle on a rainbow logo cake.

As he put it: "Lots of teachers will remember Henry being the Fonz 25 years ago - and now we have the Fonz helping us out with children with learning difficulties."

Which, I guess you could say, is pretty coolamundo.

For those who remember Happy Days... if Ed Balls was a character in it who would he be? Send us your suggestions

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