Lad Kwiatkowski, Pat McMahon and Bill Thompson.
I went to the Muppets movie over the weekend. It was all right. I never watched Sesame Street and the heyday of the Muppets television show was when I didn't even own a TV. In any event, I am a lost demographic to such benign stuff. I grew up in Phoenix, where we had Wallace and Ladmo.
Most children watched a clown show in their cities and towns. Not us. We were brought up on the very adult humor of the Wallace show, which ran from 1954 to 1989 on KPHO. The names changed, from It's Wallace? to Wallace & Company to the Wallace and Ladmo Show. What didn't change was the show's biting humor, satire and irony, along with classic slapstick and cartoons. For the rest of our lives all we could do was feel sorry for the children who were stunted by clown shows.
The regular cast featured Bill Thompson as Wallace, Lad Kwiatkowski as Ladmo and my friend Pat McMahon. Wallace, or Wall-Boy as Ladmo called him, was the host and butt of much humor. Ladmo was the everyman or everykid, full of fun and mischief. McMahon played a host of characters, many of which gave the show its bite. Among them was Gerald the brat, the nephew of the TV station's general manager; Aunt Maud, the doddering, bad driver old coot from Sun City; biker Bobby Joe Trouble; Captain Super, a parody of assorted super heroes, and Boffo the Clown, who hated children.
My friend Richard Ruelas is the best historian of the program, including with his book Thanks for Tuning In. So I'm giving my impressions of the era, not a definitive history. What few people knew was that Thompson was the brains behind the show and in many ways a broadcasting pioneer. Thompson (one of whose daughters was a classmate of mine at Kenilworth), came from privilege — the heir to a copper mining fortune (the Boyce Thompson Arboretum came from his kin). Although he used his memories from that gilded upbringing for the Gerald character, Thompson turned his back on the family money, left New York for the West and made his own way in television. Although the late Kwiatkowski was beloved and Ladmo Bags were treasures (I never got one), Thompson was the creative and business genius that brought the show forward, kept it thriving with not only kids but teens and adults, and made it a national first in many ways. Kwiatkowski was plucked from being a cameraman to become Ladmo, and his relationship with Thompson became frayed toward the end of the run.
My Wallace and Ladmo was in the 1960s, when Arizona held one-fifth of today's population and Phoenix was still recognizable as a very special garden city, surrounded by citrus groves, farm fields, the Japanese Gardens and then the pristine desert. KPHO was in a two-story building on First Avenue that has been restored. It sat right behind the Westward Ho Hotel, which was still a splendid first-class hotel (and has not been restored; talk about Phoenix's lost opportunities in microcosm). I was never fortunate enough to be in the studio audience for the show. But I hung around the station, which in those days was independent. Employees would give me and my buddies old commercials, which were on small reels, as well as precious NASA Facts films. I learned to splice film in the editing room. All this was in a bike-ride's distance from home. Phoenix was that kind of town in those days.
Ladmo died in 1994. Thompson, as far as I know, is still with us. A few years ago, Ruelas introduced me to him in Durant's. Now this was a living legend. He was cordial, but behind his smile I could see that bitter edge that he beautifully channeled to give Phoenix one of its most precious gifts. I could only imagine what the show would do with the cast of fools, poltroons, hustlers and elected criminals that pass for real life in today's Arizona.
Just rolled in from Minnesota and think Arizona has no history beyond your lookalike subdivision and "lifestyle center"? Check out the Phoenix 101 archive and then go back to home to Eden Prairie.