The Last Days of Ladmo

A new play raises the curtain on the off-screen life of Arizona's favorite TV clown

Wallace & Ladmo enjoyed occasional brushes with wider fame. Although its 1971 attempt at national syndication failed, the cast did briefly make it big when its house band, Hub Kapp and the Wheels, was signed to Capitol Records in 1964 and turned up on network programs like The Hollywood Palace and The Steve Allen Show. (The Hub Kapp saga provided the central local-boys-make-good story of Tyler's first play, titled simply The Wallace & Ladmo Show.) And former Valley resident Steven Spielberg, who's still a fan of the show, made childhood appearances on Wallace & Ladmo from time to time to screen his homemade movies.

But for the past 13 years, Wallace & Ladmo's fans have been loving the show in a vacuum. In 1989, after 35 years of pratfalls, skits and cartoon intros, Bill "Wallace" Thompson tossed in his felt derby. KPHO replaced Wallace & Ladmo with Bugs Bunny reruns, and Ladmo became an unemployed institution. After KPHO passed on his pitch for a Ladmo-only show, the actor signed a promotional deal with a grocery store chain and continued to lend his name to a line of Ladmo Cookies. But no one, it seemed, needed a full-time Ladmo.

"It was hard for him to let go of being Ladmo," Tyler says. "It was his livelihood, but he had no place to go be Ladmo after the show went off. He had literally Ladmoed himself into a corner. He died five years later, but his wife told me he started dying the day the show went off."

Pat McMahon, who played Gerald, still has bitter memories about being called on to testify against Lad in a lawsuit.
Kevin Scanlon
Pat McMahon, who played Gerald, still has bitter memories about being called on to testify against Lad in a lawsuit.
Left photo: Wes Martin (left) bellies up to the real Wallace. Right photo: Helen Hayes (right) plays Wallace cast member Cathy Dresbach.
Kevin Scanlon
Left photo: Wes Martin (left) bellies up to the real Wallace. Right photo: Helen Hayes (right) plays Wallace cast member Cathy Dresbach.

Ladmo may be gone, but his fans soldier on. Like a lot of middle-aged folks reluctant to set aside their decoder rings, loyal Wallace Watchers have relocated to the Internet. On several different Wallace-related sites, fans post gushy memories punctuated with smiley faces and references to old cartoons and forgotten snack foods. They share tone poems about Ladmo (sample: "Although I never won a Ladmo bag/Full of goodies and all sorts of good stuff/He did show me not to ever give up") and swap detailed dreams of rebuilding Legend City, a long-dead local amusement park where Wallace and company often performed live.

Ladmo fans also gather at occasional public confabs like Wallstock, held earlier this month around the Wallace & Ladmo exhibition at the Arizona Historical Society Museum. There, a hundred-odd Wallace fans watched clips and outtakes from the show, swapped memorabilia and memories, bought Ladmo tee shirts and videos, and chatted with the surviving cast members, who signed autographs and handed out Ladmo Bags.

"When someone creates that amount of joy in your life, you want it to go on forever," swears Rob Cook, ringleader of one of the cyber Ladmo clubs and a veteran Wallace Watcher. Cook refers to Ladmo as "our beautiful Laddie" and says that never having been one of the kids invited to appear on Wallace & Ladmo is his greatest disappointment. The pinnacle of Cook's life was "meeting the great man in the top hat in 1959, at the Wallace & Ladmo Drive-In on Thomas Road. He was a very wonderful man, and I miss him so."

Forty-year-old club prez Williams, who has amassed an astonishing 20,000 photographs of the cast, thinks we need Ladmo now more than ever. "Life is scary, and we need as much of the fun of childhood as we can get in our adult lives."

Williams guesses he spends about five hours a day tracking down Ladmo alumni, notifying fans about cool Wallace items for sale on eBay (where a Wallace beanie recently sold for $175, and a 45 of Ladmo singing "Little Drummer Boy" went for $86), and mailing out official, gender-specific Wallace Watcher membership cards. In his off-hours, he works as a cook and writes science-fiction screenplays.

"Wallace and Ladmo were bigger than life to kids back then, and they still are for me today," Williams confesses. "I have fun doing this, even though my parents think I'm a little nuts."

Williams had a front-row seat at Wallstock, alongside 42-year-old Kelly Ludlum, who dressed as Ladmo for the occasion and answered to her Ladmo-like nickname, Kelmo. "I enjoy being identified with a quality show. People will say, Get a life.' I did have a life; I was an executive secretary. And I watched Wallace & Ladmo every morning before I left for the office."

Kelmo gave up her job to stay home with her kids, and videotaped the last month of the show so they could grow up watching Wallace every day just like Mom did. "I thank God that I was on the show later in life, because I could videotape it and watch it again and again. Ladmo made me feel like queen for a day."

Kelmo's favorite part of that video is the segment where she, at age 29, is awarded her first Ladmo Bag.

"I don't want to spiritualize it, but you can't really look at winning a Ladmo Bag objectively," she says. "It's about making a connection with Ladmo, like he's giving you a part of himself."

"Getting a Ladmo Bag is like winning an Oscar for some people," says Hoza, who's been collecting Ladmo Bag stories for a new book about the show to be published late next year. "I've actually heard from people whose deepest regret in life is not getting a Ladmo Bag. They're serious."

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