The Last Days of Ladmo

Twenty miles north of Kearny, Arizona, a pistachio tree grows. Strangers turn up from time to time to trim its branches, or to snip away the weeds growing near its trunk. Some leave notes or handwritten poems that, like the tree, are dedicated to the memory of Ladmo, the late, lamented star of The Wallace & Ladmo Show, the renowned local kiddy program that ran on then-independent KPHO-TV from 1954 to 1989.

Ladmo. It's a word that means nothing west of Blythe, but it's usually greeted with rhapsodies from anyone who's lived in Arizona for more than a little while. Here, the former kids' show star, who died from lymphatic cancer in 1994, is an unofficial head of state. Ladmo is our mascot, a privately canonized clown prince. He's Saint Ladmo, bigger than Barry Goldwater, more influential than Jane Hull, more revered than Dan Majerle. In our town, one Ladmo trumps a house full of Alice Coopers any day.

The proof is everywhere: Besides the pistachio tree, Ladmo has a public park, a stage at the state fairgrounds, and a chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America named after him. And very soon at Encanto Park, Ladmo will be memorialized in a life-size bronze statue, commissioned by the City of Phoenix, of himself and his co-stars, Bill "Wallace" Thompson and Pat McMahon. There's also a pair of Ladmo-related books and a new weekly TV show of Wallace & Ladmo clips in the works, as well as a stage play — the second in a trilogy — by former Wallace & Ladmo TV writer Ben Tyler.

It's that play, The Last Wallace & Ladmo Show, that could end the romance with Phoenix's favorite clown. Based on the actor's later years and scheduled to open this Friday at Peoria's tiny Theater Works, the production will reveal the real Ladmo to the public — including his diehard fans, the long-faithful, mostly middle-aged admirers who've kept the Ladmo flame burning for decades. And revelations of the actor's very un-Ladmo-like behavior — a lawsuit against the company that handed him his celebrity, a rumor of perjury in a court of law, and less-than-friendly relations with his co-stars — have his friends worried that Tyler is telling too much.

Others are convinced that nothing can sway the cult of Ladmo. "Ladmo is invincible," according to McMahon, who today hosts a talk show on AZ-TV. "He even overcame children's television, which, no matter what town you're in, is always the worst. It's always some guy forced by a station manager to put a sock on the end of his hand to sell a product. Wallace & Ladmo made fun of those shows. We'd go on and Wallace would say, Okay, the producer says we can't make fun of the sponsors anymore, folks, so why don't you just go out and buy these corn flakes because, what the heck, you gotta eat something, right?' And everyone would be on the floor."

One Ladmo booster is more emphatic in defending his lifelong hero. "He is our Ladmo!" crows Chris Williams, head of one of the largest Ladmo fan clubs around. "He belongs to Arizona — him and Wallace and Pat. They're our history."

The laughter lasted 35 years, longer than any other daily program in television history. The show, which debuted as It's Wallace? in 1954 and eventually became Wallace & Ladmo, was a kicky hybrid of Howdy Doody and Ernie Kovacs — a kiddy show that goofed on kiddy shows. Thompson wrote and directed the program and appeared as Wallace (and occasionally as grouchy Mr. Grudgemeyer), and Ladimir "Ladmo" Kwiatkowski was his sidekick, a sort of Everykid in the tall, lanky body of an adult. Former weatherman Pat McMahon played everyone else: Boffo, a drunken clown; Captain Super, a milksop superhero; Aunt Maud, a mean-spirited biddy; and a host of others. McMahon's primary character, Gerald, was a bratty kid who hated other children, especially über-child Ladmo. Presumably aimed at preteens, the skits (which were wedged between Popeye and Roger Ramjet cartoons) featured material that was suspiciously adult.

"You'd watch the show as a kid because the guys were funny and you liked the cartoons," says Steve Hoza, curator of the Arizona Historical Society Museum, home to a massive Wallace & Ladmo exhibition and the show's vast archives. "When you got older, you realized that those catchy songs they were singing were about communism, or Captain Super would be making jokes about world politics, or whatever. It was a show you never really grew out of."

McMahon isn't interested in analyzing why Wallace & Ladmo became a local institution. "There's nothing more emotionally stunting than discussing what makes something funny," he says. "I suppose some of the show's appeal was that it was outrageous before there was outrage on every channel. Kids liked that we didn't talk down to them, and parents liked the fact that some of the material was aimed at them."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela