Sundaes With Wall-Boy

It's 11 in the morning, and I'm thinking about hot fudge. Surrounded by people who are eating banana splits and brownies à la mode, I've reverted to my own more childish appetites. Here at the Sugar Bowl, nutrition seems like a rotten idea, and -- despite the hour -- something slathered in whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce seems somehow sensible.

Paula, who's waited tables here since 1968, stops by with strong coffee. I point to the Phoenix ephemera nailed to the walls around us, and ask if there's any Wallace & Ladmo memorabilia displayed here. She tells me no. "But Wallace still eats here all the time!"

I know that; that's why I'm here. Wallace -- whose real name is Bill Thompson -- has agreed to meet me for lunch at the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale, to talk about the Wallace & Ladmo exhibit that's just opened at the Arizona Historical Society. Already this week I've interviewed, for various articles in other publications, a nationally renowned playwright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer, and the star of a hugely popular sitcom. None of which fazed me. But I'm psyched about meeting Wallace, whose various kiddy shows (It's Wallace?, The Ladmo Show, and Wallace & Ladmo) aired on KPHO between 1954 and 1989, and are something of an institution for several generations of locals. We grew up watching Wallace and his zany sidekick, Ladmo, chew the rag with a roomful of misfits, most of them created by actor Pat McMahon (whose characters, Bill tells me later, "were all based on the frailties of human nature. There was something desperately wrong with each of them"). For 35 years, Wall-Boy and his pals pitched more than old Warner Bros. cartoons. Between reruns of "Roger Ramjet," the trio introduced sarcasm, nihilism and rock music to our tiny little lives, and none of us has ever been the same.

The Pepto-pink Sugar Bowl, long a local kiddy mainstay, seems like a natural spot to meet the former host of a cartoon show. The pink-tufted vinyl banquettes are the same today as those pictured in the yellowing black-and-white snapshots of kids eating ice cream that line the walls. Those pictures share space with "Family Circus" comics signed by cartoonist Bil Keane to various members of the Huntress family, who opened the Bowl on Christmas Eve of 1958.

The menu features still more Keane comics, most of them depicting visits to the popular eatery by his strip's round-faced characters, alongside lists of the usual diner items: hamburgers and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a lot of desserts, some of them vaguely unsettling. I'm trying to fathom a Raspberry Glacier (Sprite with raspberry sherbet) when Bill arrives and greets me with the same line he opened his show with every day for 35 years: "Nice to see you."

He appears unaware of the stares and affectionate smiles aimed his way. After several decades of being recognized all over town, Bill -- who just turned 70 in December -- is certainly accustomed to being gawked at. These days, the kids who recognize him tend to be a bit longer in the tooth, but Wall-Boy still greets us with the same cheerful wave he offered on the small screen, still brings the same kidlike excitement to a story about the Historical Society exhibit or a description of his tin soldier collection.

He's got about 5,000 of them -- what he calls "a medium-sized collection"; he knows a guy in Paradise Valley who has twice as many -- and he's painted each one himself. Now that he's retired from show biz, Bill has turned his tin soldier jones into a sideline, custom painting the little guys and selling them to other collectors worldwide. He gets about half what other handpainted figures are going for, because gouging people wouldn't be Wallace-like. "Come on over sometime, I'll show you my collection," he tells me, and I know he means it.

That's part of the Wallace mystique: Like an omniscient Santa, he appears to know everyone intimately, even people he's just met. When Paula stops by with ice water and a smile, he tells her, "I don't know if you remember this, you were awfully little at the time, but Ladmo and I used to do shows here." When he assumes we all grew up watching his show, Bill Thompson isn't being arrogant; he's acknowledging his place in our once-smaller lives. At one point he surprises me by saying, "When you came on the show," as if he actually remembers the afternoon in 1972 when I showed up to claim my Ladmo Bag. (Actually, Bill's hedging a pretty safe bet: Conservative estimates suggest that about 60,000 kids appeared on camera to collect a Ladmo Bag during the show's run, so it's not unlikely that I, a fortyish native, was among them.)

Bill is telling me about lead rot, which leads to flaking paint on metal soldiers, when Paula returns to take our order. He wants chicken salad on white; I have the Chickado! (turkey salad with avocado), one of several menu items punctuated with an exclamation point. Most of the other excited dishes -- like the Dieter's Delite! and the Lo Cal! -- are lighter fare; I'm looking for something that comes with a side of spice bread crammed with sweet cream cheese, which several Sugar Bowl specialties do.

While Bill's surprised at the renewed interest in The Wallace & Ladmo Show -- a book, a CD and two stage plays have recently retraced the program's history -- he's downright amazed at the Historical Society's plans to enshrine the show. When Wallace & Ladmo went off the air in 1989, the station donated the sets, costumes and props to the society, whose curators are former Wallace fans and colleagues.

"I guess they want to preserve it so that 100 years from now, if someone needs to know what a kids' show in the 20th century looked like, they've got it all socked away," Bill explains. "I'm one of the artifacts. I just stand there and they dust me off."

Bill likes it when I tell him that, for house-bound preteens, Wallace & Ladmo was a kind of loopy local geography lesson, with references to exotic locales we'd never seen -- places like Humboldt, Seligman and Surprise. But he just laughs at the notion that his particular brand of humor introduced three generations of children to cynicism.

"What a legacy!" he laughs, on his way out the door. "A whole town full of warped kids." Bill Thompson

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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