By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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McMahon still gets choked up when he remembers the day the very last Ladmo Bag was given out. "It was at Ladmo's funeral," he says through tears, "which by the way was the funniest funeral in the history of all public rituals." Pallbearers wore Ladmo tee shirts, and McMahon gave away a Ladmo Bag to a pregnant lady.
"So the last Ladmo Bag went to a kid who wasn't born yet," McMahon recalls, "which was somehow very fitting." It was, as his on-screen character Gerald used to say, "all very Ladmo."
Kelmo was shattered by Ladmo's death. "I grieved for a whole week," she admits. "The day he died was a really hard day. The fact that I had met him several times helped me get through it. I still wonder: What if I had never met Ladmo before he died? I can't imagine."
Although she's looking forward to another Ladmo play, Kelmo's wary of reliving her hero's demise. "I'm having a hard time making myself buy tickets to a show about Ladmo's death," she confides. "I'm going, but it's going to be hard."
The desperation Ladmo felt following the cancellation of the show is what many believe led him to what has become known in Ladmo circles as "The Great Ladmo Cookie Caper," and the story that Tyler is telling in The Last Wallace & Ladmo Show. Tyler has made a name for himself as a playwright who plumbs Arizona's recent past for hidden dramas: In addition to the earlier Wallace & Ladmo play, his previous productions include Goldwater: Mr. Conservative and the long-running political spoof Guv: The Musical.
The premise of his new script reads like a setup for an old Wallace & Ladmo sketch: Poor, put-upon Ladmo wants to sell cookies, and some meanie won't let him. This time the bad guy wasn't Mr. Grudgemeyer, or Pat McMahon in a red velvet jumper and a Gerald wig, but rather the big bad TV station that was preventing Ladmo from peddling his sweets.
In 1991, the Great American Consortium, the cookie company with which Ladmo had signed before Wallace left the air, claimed it had lost millions in income because Meredith Corporation, KPHO's parent company, wouldn't allow Ladmo to hawk its baked goods on the show during its final season. Consortium sued KPHO for restriction of trade and $17 million in lost revenue, but it was the cast members who found themselves on opposite sides of the courtroom battle. Ladmo was called to testify on behalf of the cookie makers; his former on-screen pals, meanwhile, would be brought in to bear witness for KPHO.
"We called it Cookiegate," recalls KPHO news director Sharon Kelley, who helmed Wallace & Ladmo's last nine seasons. "It was such a silly thing, and it became a tremendous mess. Friendships were destroyed, and there were huge misunderstandings about the lawsuit that continue to this day."
Among those misunderstandings is the notion that Ladmo sued KPHO, when in fact it was the cookie company that had filed suit.
"It was just that Meredith didn't want to be in the cookie business," Kelley says. "We went to Ladmo and said, We don't want to sell cookies, but you can do it. You can use the Ladmo name. Good luck, we're rooting for you.'" In return for its largess, KPHO was slapped with a lawsuit.
"What happened was that the cookie company realized they weren't going to make any money once Ladmo wasn't on TV every day," says Tyler, who has obscured the name of the now-defunct cookie maker in his play (where they're known as The Great American Cookie Company). "KPHO had already refused to let Ladmo promote the cookies on the show while it was on the air, and now they had a pitchman with no show. So the cookie guys decided to sue for lost revenue."
"The cookie people were asking for a ridiculous amount of money," Kelley says. "The truth is, they were hoping we would settle out of court."
Instead, Meredith hired a lawyer, and Ladmo took the stand.
"I couldn't believe that the judge let this come into any courtroom," Tyler says, shaking his head. "The idea that a startup company could claim to have lost $17 million in revenue was a big laugh."
And for sure, there are moments in the trial transcript that are pure Ladmo. At one point during his testimony, the comic turned to the judge, Honorable Stephen Gerst, and asked, "Do you like your job? It must be fascinating!" The judge replied, "[It provides] a real variety of circumstances." Ladmo then laughed and said, "Did you ever think you'd have Ladmo and Wallace here? Gosh! I never thought I'd be in court, scout's honor!" The judge's response is not included in the trial transcript. Shortly thereafter, a Ladmo Bag was admitted into evidence.
"It was very surreal, and Ladmo definitely got star treatment in that courtroom, because of who he was," Tyler recalls. "I mean, he perjured himself and got away with it. He gave testimony that contradicted his original deposition, and he got away with it because he was Ladmo."