Bill Thompson aka Wallace

Vladimer Kwaitkowski as Ladmo, Pat McMahon as Gerald, and Bill Thompson as Wallace were the Wallace & Ladmo shown in this 1970's promotional photo. (Photo: Arizona Republic Archive)
Vladimer Kwaitkowski as Ladmo, Pat McMahon as Gerald, and Bill Thompson as Wallace were the Wallace & Ladmo shown in this 1970’s promotional photo. (Photo: Arizona Republic Archive)

By Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic, July 24, 2014

Bill “Wallace” Thompson, who created, produced and co-starred in “The Wallace and Ladmo Show,” a children’s program infused with offbeat humor that endeared it to generations of Arizonans during its more than 35-year run, died Wednesday. He was 82.

The television program, which aired in various incarnations from 1954 to 1989, was historic and beloved. It was an anomaly among children’s shows nationwide in its longevity and content.

Thompson often took little public credit for the show, although he worked tirelessly on it. He created the odd assortment of characters. He wrote scripts by hand. He even kept track of which Bugs Bunny and Popeye cartoons aired so they wouldn’t be repeated too often.

While most children’s shows were content to air cartoons and push products, “The Wallace and Ladmo Show” frequently featured topical political satire that sailed over tykes’ heads. Its cast of social misfits — a blowhard superhero, an out-of-work cowboy, a clown who hated kids, a spoiled brat who would taunt viewers — would never be seen on “Captain Kangaroo” or “Sesame Street.”

Thompson’s is a quintessential Arizona story. He came to the desert to follow a dream of making people laugh. He created an institution that was as unique as it was beloved by all, from children to adults, from parents to politicians. It also shaped — or warped — the sense of humor of countless Arizonans, a sentiment expressed in a fan letter sent to Thompson by director Steven Spielberg, who grew up watching the show.

Its popularity was surprising, even in a time TV was the only screen people watched. “Wallace and Ladmo” consistently beat the national news programs “Good Morning America” and “Today” when it aired weekday mornings during the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond ratings, it built devotion in viewers across the central and northern portions of Arizona.

Wallace and Ladmo commanded crowds of thousands during their stage shows around Phoenix. Entire towns would turn out when they visited Arizona’s rural areas, their shows remembered for decades.

The program had no parallel, leaving those who grew up with the show with the curse of having to explain it to Valley newcomers who arrived after it was off the air.

In 1992, the Arizona Historical Society recognized the show’s costumed cast the same day it honored U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. The timing made perfect sense to longtime Arizonans, though outsiders may have wondered why a kids show earned equal footing with such luminaries.

Thompson ensured the show’s skits did not talk down to kids or try to send any messages about doing homework or listening to their parents. He wanted the show to be funny. He mocked sponsors’ products, famously drop-kicking a Moon Pie to see how far it would go. He mocked station management. He parodied pop culture. He referenced national news events.

Thompson was known on- and off-the-air as Wallace, the consummate straight man. He would often call himself “the one with the derby,” referring to his costume. Ladimir Kwiatkowski played Ladmo, the tall, skinny one who had a top hat (he died in 1994). Pat McMahon played myriad characters, morphing into them so well that children often didn’t know that one man was behind them.

“I lost a brother,” McMahon said Wednesday. In a marker of the show’s lasting impact, McMahon said, a guest on his daily television show on KAZT-TV, Channel 7, Wednesday brought up his memories of attending a Wallace and Ladmo stage show in Show Low. The man was still upset that he never won a Ladmo Bag.

The Ladmo Bag was one of the most popular elements of the show

It was a paper sack filled with sugary snacks provided by sponsors. It was awarded to a child sitting in the “lucky seat” on a map Wallace held. The Ladmo Bag became a highly coveted item and a part of the state’s vocabulary. More than two decades after the show left the air, the sack meals at Maricopa County’s jails were still called Ladmo Bags.

The show also gave the state a signature theme song, composed by Mike Condello, a fan who became the show’s music director as a teen. The flute-driven melody with its chorus of psychedelic laughter — “ho ho, ha ha, hee hee, ha ha” — was an instantly recognizable cue.

The television show was called various names throughout its life. It was finally named “The Wallace and Ladmo Show” in the 1970s but was unofficially known by that name through much of its existence. It started out as a live afternoon program but switched to a taped morning show during its final two decades.

The program became a routine stop for celebrities who came through town. The guest list mirrored the stars of the decades and included Liberace, Art Linkletter, George Carlin and Don Rickles, Muhammad Ali stopped by several times in the 1970s, once playfully knocking out Wallace on the set.

“The Wallace and Ladmo Show” also was where politicians — city council members to congressional representatives — proved their sense of humor. Goldwater regularly appeared in skits, once protesting Ladmo’s plan to build a hamburger restaurant at the top of Camelback Mountain.

The show provided creative inspiration for young Arizonans. Musician Alice Cooper appeared with his teenage band, the Spiders. Spielberg, who was then living in the Valley, aired a student movie on the show.

Thompson sent Spielberg a copy of a “Wallace and Ladmo” retrospective book in 1994. Spielberg responded he was “starstruck” to hear from Thompson and asked whether it was OK to refer to Thompson as Wallace.

“Your show inspired me, made me laugh, made me think, and even raised my level of expectations whenever I looked around at things that could make me laugh,” Spielberg’s letter said.

Thompson was so involved in the day-to-day production of the show that he never quite grasped its effect until it had ended. The following decades saw several waves of nostalgia. There were plays, books, CDs and DVDs related to the show. There were fan conventions, celebrations and even museum exhibitions saluting Wallace and Ladmo.

“When a show first goes off the air, there is a half-life for a couple of years,” Thompson said to The Arizona Republic in 2003. “I never would’ve believed there’d still be an interest 10, almost 15 years later.”

Outside of the show, Thompson was a Civil War buff who collected and painted toy soldiers. He also took part in re-enactments. His hobby was an integral part of the show as it inspired “Cannonball Junction,” a short film created in Papago Park about a fierce battle to procure coffee for a general.

The comedy was more akin to such late-night shows as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” If there were any lessons to be learned, they were to avoid being pompous, arrogant or a mooch. Laughs were found in mocking all of those traits.

Thompson credited his mother, Marie, for giving him his biting sense of humor. He was born in New York City and grew up in the tony suburb of Bronxville, N.Y. His father, William, was a stockbroker. It was a privileged childhood, rife with country clubs and the occasional yacht ride down the Hudson River.

Thompson fell in love with Arizona during his frequent visits to visit family members who owned lucrative mines in the state. Thompson’s grandfather built an estate in east Phoenix in 1924 called Rancho Joaquina. It was the first home in the city with an elevator. Thompson’s great uncle, the mining magnate William Boyce Thompson, created an arboretum in Superior around the same time.

Had Thompson followed his destined career path, it would have taken him into into the world of business. But his passion was making people laugh.

In 1952, he dropped out of DePauw University, married his high-school sweetheart, loaded his belongings in a 1932 Pontiac and drove to Phoenix.

Thompson tried to land a job at Channel 5 (KPHO), the city’s only television station at the time, but was denied. Instead he operated a fruit and vegetable stand. He also managed the paperboys for The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette.

Thompson talked his way into a job at Channel 5 in December 1953, splitting his day between the studio crew and painting sets in the art department.

KPHO produced a kids show featuring Goldust Charlie, a prospector played by Ken Kennedy.Thompson pitched Kennedy on adding him as a cast member, vowing to write his own material and create a character. Wallace Snead, Charlie’s nephew, appeared in April 1954.

A few months later, the station secured Krazy Kat cartoons but couldn’t find a host to introduce them. The job of kids-show host was considered a lowly task that weathermen or sports anchors would reluctantly accept.

Once KPHO announcers turned the job down, management offered the show to Thompson. He took it, and “It’s Wallace?”debuted in January 1955.He played the title character, a guy who was just handed his own TV show.

“It’s Wallace?” became an instant success. By December 1956, the city’s other television stations canceled their children’s programs. Thompson would not face serious competition for young eyeballs until the advent of cable television in the late 1970s.

Within a few months the one-man show, laden with physical comedy, became a two-man show. Thompson prodded Kwiatkowski, a cameraman he had befriended, to step out and act in a skit. The chemistry between the two was obvious, and Ladmo joined the act.

McMahon, then a weatherman at KPHO, became part of the cast in 1960. Thompson created such characters as Captain Super, Marshall Good, Boffo the Clown and Gerald. McMahon made them come alive.

The most infamous character on the show was Gerald. He was the nephew of whoever happened to be the general manager of the television station at the time, an example of nepotism as its worst. Gerald wore a red velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy-inspired costume and called viewers “tract-home twerps.” and would say he needed to get inoculated to visit Glendale.

Thompson wrote the character, in part, by mining his own privileged childhood. He also based it on professional wrestling, casting Gerald as the villain who would get the crowd worked up.

Characters kept pace with the times. In the hippie culture of 1960s, Thompson created Nuru the Guru. During the motorcycle craze of the 1970s, he introduced Bobby Jo Trouble, a biker who also had an affection for bunnies.

Most famously, during Beatlemania, Thompson created Hub Kapp and the Wheels. Hub Kapp’s single outsold the Beatles in Phoenix, leading to the band’s brief signing to Capitol Records, despite McMahon constantly reminding record executives it was all a kids-show skit.

The show survived a 1973 government mandate that killed off most other cities’ kiddie shows. The Federal Communications Commission passed a rule that said children’s program hosts could not do commercials during their shows. Since product pitching was the reason most stations had an Engineer John or Ranger Hal or Cousin Cupcake, most decided to run cartoons with no host. Among the few survivors nationwide were Bozo the Clown in Chicago and “The Wallace and Ladmo Show” in Phoenix.

“The Wallace and Ladmo Show” became such an institution that it marked its anniversary every five years. Mayors and governors issued proclamations marking the occasions, usually as sketches on the show. Citing a tight budget, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt asked the cast, on its 30th anniversary, if they could just cross out the 25 on the proclamation he had issued five years earlier and write the new number over it. (Though “It’s Wallace?” began in 1955, the show’s creation is generally viewed as the 1954 creation of the character Wallace Snead.)

On the show’s 35th anniversary in 1989, the cast taped a segment with Goldwater, who was another one of Gerald’s many uncles. Wallace asked Goldwater whether they should stay on the air. Goldwater said he would decide using the same method he employed while in the U.S. Senate. He fished a coin from his pocket, flipped it, caught it and slapped it on the back of his hand. “Stay on,” he said.

But Thompson announced his retirement in November 1989. “Whatever we set out to do, we’ve done it,” he said at the time. The last show aired Dec. 29, 1989. It ended with Ladmo handing Wallace a Ladmo Bag.

Thompson is survived by his wife, Katie; daughters Carrie Thompson Bal and Annie Lowry; sons Tony Thompson, David Thompson and Dennis Minnich; brother Tony Thompson; 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.