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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."

It didn't hurt that Ladmo was relentlessly upbeat and wholesome, or that Thompson had a sense of humor about the show itself. When parents wrote in to complain about a particularly sarcastic skit, Thompson invited them to appear on the show as "Crank of the Week" and awarded them a Ladmo Bag, a coveted Wallace prize handed out to lucky kids — referred to on air as Wallace Watchers — each day on the show. Ladmo Bags — hand-lettered grocery sacks full of candy, snack cakes and the occasional free movie pass — were a Holy Grail for fans of the show.

Wallace & Ladmo enjoyed occasional brushes with wider fame. Although its 1971 attempt at national syndication failed, the cast did briefly make it big when its house band, Hub Kapp and the Wheels, was signed to Capitol Records in 1964 and turned up on network programs like The Hollywood Palace and The Steve Allen Show. (The Hub Kapp saga provided the central local-boys-make-good story of Tyler's first play, titled simply The Wallace & Ladmo Show.) And former Valley resident Steven Spielberg, who's still a fan of the show, made childhood appearances on Wallace & Ladmo from time to time to screen his homemade movies.

But for the past 13 years, Wallace & Ladmo's fans have been loving the show in a vacuum. In 1989, after 35 years of pratfalls, skits and cartoon intros, Bill "Wallace" Thompson tossed in his felt derby. KPHO replaced Wallace & Ladmo with Bugs Bunny reruns, and Ladmo became an unemployed institution. After KPHO passed on his pitch for a Ladmo-only show, the actor signed a promotional deal with a grocery store chain and continued to lend his name to a line of Ladmo Cookies. But no one, it seemed, needed a full-time Ladmo.

"It was hard for him to let go of being Ladmo," Tyler says. "It was his livelihood, but he had no place to go be Ladmo after the show went off. He had literally Ladmoed himself into a corner. He died five years later, but his wife told me he started dying the day the show went off."

Ladmo may be gone, but his fans soldier on. Like a lot of middle-aged folks reluctant to set aside their decoder rings, loyal Wallace Watchers have relocated to the Internet. On several different Wallace-related sites, fans post gushy memories punctuated with smiley faces and references to old cartoons and forgotten snack foods. They share tone poems about Ladmo (sample: "Although I never won a Ladmo bag/Full of goodies and all sorts of good stuff/He did show me not to ever give up") and swap detailed dreams of rebuilding Legend City, a long-dead local amusement park where Wallace and company often performed live.

Ladmo fans also gather at occasional public confabs like Wallstock, held earlier this month around the Wallace & Ladmo exhibition at the Arizona Historical Society Museum. There, a hundred-odd Wallace fans watched clips and outtakes from the show, swapped memorabilia and memories, bought Ladmo tee shirts and videos, and chatted with the surviving cast members, who signed autographs and handed out Ladmo Bags.

"When someone creates that amount of joy in your life, you want it to go on forever," swears Rob Cook, ringleader of one of the cyber Ladmo clubs and a veteran Wallace Watcher. Cook refers to Ladmo as "our beautiful Laddie" and says that never having been one of the kids invited to appear on Wallace & Ladmo is his greatest disappointment. The pinnacle of Cook's life was "meeting the great man in the top hat in 1959, at the Wallace & Ladmo Drive-In on Thomas Road. He was a very wonderful man, and I miss him so."

Forty-year-old club prez Williams, who has amassed an astonishing 20,000 photographs of the cast, thinks we need Ladmo now more than ever. "Life is scary, and we need as much of the fun of childhood as we can get in our adult lives."

Williams guesses he spends about five hours a day tracking down Ladmo alumni, notifying fans about cool Wallace items for sale on eBay (where a Wallace beanie recently sold for $175, and a 45 of Ladmo singing "Little Drummer Boy" went for $86), and mailing out official, gender-specific Wallace Watcher membership cards. In his off-hours, he works as a cook and writes science-fiction screenplays.

"Wallace and Ladmo were bigger than life to kids back then, and they still are for me today," Williams confesses. "I have fun doing this, even though my parents think I'm a little nuts."

Williams had a front-row seat at Wallstock, alongside 42-year-old Kelly Ludlum, who dressed as Ladmo for the occasion and answered to her Ladmo-like nickname, Kelmo. "I enjoy being identified with a quality show. People will say, Get a life.' I did have a life; I was an executive secretary. And I watched Wallace & Ladmo every morning before I left for the office."

Kelmo gave up her job to stay home with her kids, and videotaped the last month of the show so they could grow up watching Wallace every day just like Mom did. "I thank God that I was on the show later in life, because I could videotape it and watch it again and again. Ladmo made me feel like queen for a day."

Kelmo's favorite part of that video is the segment where she, at age 29, is awarded her first Ladmo Bag.

"I don't want to spiritualize it, but you can't really look at winning a Ladmo Bag objectively," she says. "It's about making a connection with Ladmo, like he's giving you a part of himself."

"Getting a Ladmo Bag is like winning an Oscar for some people," says Hoza, who's been collecting Ladmo Bag stories for a new book about the show to be published late next year. "I've actually heard from people whose deepest regret in life is not getting a Ladmo Bag. They're serious."

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."

Tyler is referring to Ladmo's changed testimony about his former employer. In his original deposition, the actor indicated that he felt that Meredith Corporation did nothing wrong and hadn't tried to prevent him from promoting Ladmo Cookies. But in the courtroom, attorney Robert H. Oberbillig, who represented Meredith, pointed out that this deposition contradicted Ladmo's testimony against Meredith. To which Ladmo replied, "I don't know what that means."

Oberbillig apparently felt KPHO's case was strong enough that impeaching Phoenix's favorite clown for perjury was unnecessary. (Oberbillig, now a Superior Court judge, could not be reached for this story.) Thompson remembers the Meredith attorney telling him that the only way that the TV station could lose was if the jury sympathized with Ladmo and didn't listen to the testimonies.

To ensure that this didn't happen, Oberbillig called Thompson to the stand to extol the virtues of working for KPHO. "All I knew was that I was subpoenaed to testify against my best friend, and I had to do it. I was at the mercy of the court. It was a bad experience, all the way around."

"It was utterly heartbreaking," Kelley remembers. "But Wallace was under oath, so he had to tell the truth. He got up there and he said something like, I love Ladmo like a brother, but he's wrong.' It was hard for him to say that; it tore him apart. But he really did feel it was wrong for Ladmo to go after Channel 5 when we'd always been good to the guys from that show."

McMahon was also called to testify on behalf of the station, and did his best to appear neutral about the situation. McMahon did allow that KPHO was not unfair in its treatment of its employees, an opinion that Ladmo didn't love.

"Testifying against Ladmo was the toughest thing I've ever done," McMahon says. "I've gone through a divorce that was very tough, and this was even more painful. It's the only time I've ever been heartbroken, the only time I had to make an ethical value judgment that would deeply hurt someone who was close to me. But you get a subpoena, and you have to go."

In the end, the jury reached its conclusion in half an hour: The Great American Consortium had no case against KPHO, which was within its rights when it had declined to promote Ladmo Cookies. Although the famous plaintiff charmed the judge and glad-handed a jury full of his fans, Ladmo had lost. The revelation that KPHO had given Ladmo use of the character bearing his name, and had handed him a $100,000 annuity when Wallace left the air, probably helped tip the scales against him.

"A lot of people were surprised when Lad didn't win," Tyler concedes.

Kelley thinks no one was more surprised than Ladmo himself. "The cookie company was banking on his popularity, and I think they'd convinced him that any jury would side with Ladmo. They took advantage of his childlike naiveté."

Kelley is still bugged by the fact that, to this day, most people think that her TV station sued Ladmo. "Every couple of years I'll read an item in the paper that makes reference to the time Channel 5 sued Ladmo.' It's unfair. Anyway, it wasn't Ladmo but that cookie company he was working for who was suing us. It's an annoying rumor that just won't die. . . . I hope Ben's play will go a long way toward clearing all this up in people's minds."

Tyler's tale may set the Ladmo record straight, but some friends and fans of the show are worried that news of a rift among its players will be enough to damage the memory of their childhood heroes. "It's one thing to talk about a conflict in a courtroom," Hoza says. "But it's especially sad that there was some fallout that affected the friendship beyond that. We don't want to see these guys as flesh-and-blood people. We want to think of them as one big happy family, always."

In Tyler's rewrite of this Ladmoesque farce, it's neither Ladmo nor his former employers who are the Grudgemeyers. Tyler's Ladmo is a clown at loose ends, one half of a pie-in-the-face routine with no audience to play to.

"In my script, the bad guy is the guy who owns the cookie company, who finds Ladmo at a very vulnerable time in his life. It's a story about a guy who put his faith and trust in the wrong person, and the real-life fallout from that."

Tyler says he wrote about the trial with a tremendous amount of sympathy for Ladmo. "Hey, he was an actor who was out of a job, and I've been there: an actor looking for my next paycheck. Also, I grew up watching Wallace and Ladmo and Pat, and even though we became colleagues and friends, I'm still in awe of these guys."

Tyler, who was a Wallace writer during the show's final years, is eager to set the record straight about what really happened between his old friends. "Ladmo wasn't a businessman; he was Ladmo. When you read his testimony, it's easy to see how simply he perceived the whole thing. He wanted to sell cookies, and KPHO seemed to be saying he couldn't. He got mad."

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.

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.

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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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