The Last Days of Ladmo

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

Still, some are concerned about Tyler uncovering these dark days in Ladmotown. The playwright reports that Ladmo's wife Patsy worries that her late husband will appear stupid or mean, and Thompson fears that audiences will lose sympathy for Ladmo once they see the play.

"I trust Ben," Thompson says. "He's very protective of the show and of the three characters. But there were some excesses in the script that I hope will be toned down, some things I hope he'll soften, for Lad's sake."

Thompson's list of concerns includes the excessive amount of hugging in the play's first act ("Bill told me that they didn't hug that much off camera," Tyler says, laughing, "so now whenever I see him I make sure I hug him, first thing") and some of the dialogue that Tyler attributes to Thompson in Act Two.

Longtime fan Kelly Ludlum, 42, still has a tape of the Wallace episode in which she, at age 29, got a Ladmo Bag. "I don't want to spiritualize it, but you can't really look at winning a Ladmo Bag objectively," she says.
Kevin Scanlon
Longtime fan Kelly Ludlum, 42, still has a tape of the Wallace episode in which she, at age 29, got a Ladmo Bag. "I don't want to spiritualize it, but you can't really look at winning a Ladmo Bag objectively," she says.

When asked about his concerns directly, Thompson gives no further response and defers to Tyler.

"There are some things that Wal told me he never shared directly with Ladmo, that for dramatic effect I have Wallace saying out loud in the play," Tyler explains. "Things like how he thought it was wrong to take KPHO to court, or that the station passed on doing a Ladmo-only show because they didn't think that Ladmo would be a great producer. Wal never had the heart to tell Ladmo that in real life."

McMahon, however, is more to the point about his own apprehensions. "I might not have made this particular chapter of our lives into a play. And if it had been anyone other than Ben, I would have objected strongly. I'm concerned that people will think Ladmo was being dumb."

McMahon's greater concern is the play's revelation that, after the court case, Ladmo didn't speak to Thompson or McMahon for the rest of his life. He's afraid that people will think that he and Thompson were ignoring Ladmo, or that they didn't care. "The truth is, he didn't want to see us. He thought we'd been unfaithful, when in fact we were answering a summons to appear in court. If I stopped trying to convince Lad to see me, it was mostly because I was afraid he would reject me. I didn't want to face the idea that he thought of me as someone who had done something to harm him."

Despite their wrecked friendship, both Thompson and McMahon attempted to contact Ladmo when, in 1994, he was hospitalized with the cancer that would eventually kill him. But Ladmo still refused to see his old TV pals.

"Wallace went down to the hospital anyway, but Ladmo wouldn't let him in," Tyler recalls. "Finally, Ladmo's wife called one day and said, Screw the cookies, Ladmo is dying. You boys get down here.'"

While Tyler's play includes a tearful deathbed reunion of Wallace, Ladmo and McMahon, Thompson remembers it differently. "We weren't all there at the same time. Pat had gone home, and I was there with Ladmo, and he opened his eyes and said, Hey, Wal!' And five hours later he was dead."

"It was certainly more dramatic to write the scene with both buddies there at Ladmo's deathbed," Tyler says. "Either way, it's an ironic ending."

Perhaps more ironic is the fact that Tyler was not able to cast Hamilton Mitchell, who played Ladmo in the first Wallace play, in the new sequel, because Mitchell is now battling the same lymphatic cancer that killed the real Ladmo. In the new production, Ladmo is played by Shakespearean actor Randy Messersmith, and Ben Brittain replaces Bob Sorenson, who's working off-Broadway, as Pat McMahon.

Tyler is confident that Ladmo would be pleased to be portrayed by a classically trained actor, and that the truth about Cookiegate is being revealed. "He'd be delighted that we're telling this story. And as far as me profiting from telling that story, I hope I do! Ladmo would have pointed out that life is about making a living doing what you want."

What Tyler wants is to continue writing plays about Phoenix's occasionally colorful past. Next up: a dramatic script about 1960s Romper Room hostess Miss Sherry, who was fired by the local NBC affiliate when it was discovered she'd had an abortion.

But first, there's the Ladmo sequel, with its new line of tie-ins, including Wallace, Ladmo and Gerald bobblehead dolls and a Ladmo cookie jar. And fans will no doubt be ecstatic to know that Ladmo Bags will be given out at each performance of Tyler's new play.

"Ben's written a true story that seems very unreal to people who knew Ladmo," McMahon says. "And the part where Ladmo discovers that he's terminally ill after the trial, and then the deathbed reunion . . . well, if this were fiction, you'd write that ending off as too sappy to be real."

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