Here is a true story about Bill Thompson, known for decades from Seligman to Scottsdale as Wallace of The Wallace and Ladmo Show: I ran into him in the lobby of the Herberger Theater Center about 10 years ago, and before I had a chance to introduce myself as someone who had interviewed him for my newspaper column several years before, he patted me on the back, shook my hand, and said, "Hey, I thought you said you were going to come over to the house to look at my soldiers!"
See also: The Last Days of Ladmo
The soldiers in question were the miniature toy soldiers Thompson voraciously collected. The warm greeting and the fact that he remembered one of the hundreds of newspapermen who'd interviewed him over a long career in local television were pure Wall-Boy, as he was known by generations of local kids. I remembered his invitation to come look at his vast collection of hand-painted tin and lead soldiers, but I'd thought he was just being polite. But Thompson, who died yesterday at age 82, wasn't that kind of guy. If he said, "Come on over!" he meant it.
He created, produced, and starred in Wallace and Ladmo, a local children's program that ran on then-independent KPHO for more than 35 years, from 1954 to 1989. (Viewers were known as "Wallace Watchers.") Where most kiddie shows pandered to its audience, Wallace, in its various incarnations, offered sketch comedy for children and parents alike. Political satire, sly commentary on civil rights, spoofs of surf music and the hippie scene -- Wallace and Ladmo was closer in spirit to Saturday Night Live than to Captain Kangaroo. If you grew up in Phoenix in the '50s, '60s, '70s, or '80s, you watched Wallace and Ladmo -- and you were changed by it.
Thompson taught generations of kids about the joys of sarcasm and the pleasure of pushing a pie into the face of some asshole. His co-stars were Vladimir Kwaitkowski, who played Ladmo, an ingratiating man-child and Wallace's sidekick, and Pat McMahon, who played everybody else, most memorably Boffo, a party clown who hated children, and Gerald, the bratty foil to Ladmo's Everyboy. The trio brought to life comic misfits that Thompson himself created, but refused to take any credit for. (McMahon's characters, Thompson confided in me, "were all based on the frailties of human nature. There was something desperately wrong with each of them.")
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For 35 years, Wall-Boy and his pals raised the bar on children's shows with camp and lampoon and something that kids needed but weren't getting from pretty much anyone else: Respect. "We never talked down to the kids," McMahon told me once. "That was the secret to our success."
That, and Bill Thompson. Today, Wallace Watchers all over town are heaving a sigh, laughing about their favorite Mr. Grudgemeyer skit, and feeling pretty darn lucky that we got to spend some time with Wallace every day, not so very long ago.