Someone sent me a Ladmo Bag. It arrived just as I was sitting down to my monthly poker game with a pair of bitter characters I've known since high school. Our game usually dissolves quickly into mean-spirited hollering and insults, but on this day, prompted by the arrival of this brown-paper, goody-filled talisman of our shared childhood, my friends and I spent the afternoon wolfing Twinkies and gushing over cartoony memories. Our usual spiteful antagonism was forgotten, replaced by good-natured debates over who was funnier, Marshall Good or Boffo the Clown.
We were, of course, recalling The Wallace & Ladmo Show, a kiddy program and KPHO-TV staple from 1954 to 1989. A publicist had sent over the Ladmo Bag (a facsimile of the grocery sack full of sugar-and-lard-laden snacks handed out daily during the show's 35-year run) as a gimmick to promote Ben Tyler's new play, the none-too-cleverly titled The Wallace & Ladmo Show. This sentimental love fest focuses on the phenomenon of Hub Kapp and the Wheels, the show's preeminent rock band, fronted by local legend Pat McMahon in the fall of 1964. The bogus band went on to some national acclaim (a deal with Capitol Records, appearances on The Steve Allen Show and The Hollywood Palace), and McMahon was marked for stardom by show-biz types who expected him to ditch his pals and head for Tinseltown.
Anyone who's lived here for more than a week knows the windup: McMahon's inescapable celebrity is testimony to his wise decision to stay put. And former Wallace & Ladmo writer Tyler isn't composing for anyone other than us yokels, folks who get misty-eyed over references to Mr. Grudgemeyer and old promos for Legend City. Tyler has made a career of recapping local history (his past hits include Goldwater: Mr. Conservative and the long-running political spoof Guv: The Musical), and he knows we'll gladly drive for an hour to tiny Cave Creek, just as our parents schlepped us all the way to Kingman or Holbrook to watch a Wallace stage show several decades before. He knows that we'll holler with glee at the mention of the Dairy Queen in Seligman or a well-placed reference to Waffos; that we'll gladly swap a compelling stage story for a wisecrack from Gerald or another dead-puppy story from Aunt Maude.
In short, Tyler knows his audience: We are several generations of folks who sent Wal-boy and Ladmo our best work, coloring neatly and staying in the lines, in exchange for an invitation to join them on their garish TV set where we -- prepubescent talk-show guests with nothing more to plug than our age and our public school affiliation -- took away a shopping bag full of shills and a fistful of autographs.
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Decades later, hundreds of us assembled again in another Phoenix border town to resume our roles as Ladmo fanatics. On opening night, we wandered the pre-show lobby, buying tee shirts with neckties painted on them, surrounded by posters proclaiming the good work of the Boys and Girls Club of America. Once inside, we booed Gerald and clamored for Ladmo Bags (several were given away during the show) and lined up to have our programs autographed by McMahon and Thompson, who were in the audience on opening night. (Ladmo passed on in 1995.)
We howled at what we saw onstage, which wrapped a well-executed parade of cameos by our favorite Wallace weirdos around a backstage show-biz story. Each bit was punctuated by creaky cartoon clips and old cereal commercials, flashed on a giant screen overhead, and busted up by swell renditions of old Hub Kapp songs performed by a crack rock band. Equal parts hoary homage and boffo backstage reunion (Tyler wrote the script in collaboration with McMahon and Bill "Wallace" Thompson, and former cast member Cathy Dresbach directed), The Wallace & Ladmo Show is an entertaining, laugh-a-minute program that works as well as any of the several television tributes to the program.
If the show is flawed, it's only in that its success hinges on memories both sonic (that jangly theme song, that whiny reading of the line "Balloons! Balloons!") and visual (the backdrop with the gazebo painted on it, the door with the big star in its center) and that resonate only with folks who grew up on the stuff. Which probably means that recent transplants from Poughkeepsie won't fully appreciate Wes Martin's dead-on Wallace impersonation, or the fact that Hamilton Mitchell is Ladmo. Bob Sorenson's turn as Pat McMahon has the broadest appeal, and gives him the opportunity to reprise most of McMahon's best creations.
And that's what we came for, in the end: to watch Sorenson as McMahon as Aunt Maude make Ladmo cry; to see what Wallace and Ladmo were like offstage (pretty much the same as they were onstage, according to Tyler's script); to hear Hub Kapp and the Wheels do "Boney Maronie" one last time. And if the tertiary tale of an actor passing up his chance at the brass ring for a spot on a local kiddy show seemed unlikely, it made perfect sense later, in the lobby: There, McMahon was surrounded by strangers, all of them proclaiming their love and gratitude. As Gerald used to say, it was "all very Ladmo."