Thursday, July 24, 2014

Remembering "Wallace"

A community is a place where you have something in common with other people.  You don't have to be exactly the same as everyone else.  It's enough that you know the same people and share things with them at some level.  Perhaps it's a place, a building, an experience; perhaps it's a joke that everyone gets.  A shared point of reference, and, if you're truly blessed, a common source of pride. 

If you grew up in the Phoenix area any time between the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, the thing you had in common with virtually every other kid (and much of the adult population) was that you watched Wallace and Ladmo on television.

Awhile back, I found a copy of Arizona Days and Ways magazine at an estate sale in Phoenix.  It was a supplement to the Arizona Republic, the morning newspaper in Phoenix.  The date was February 11, 1962.  The front cover had been torn off at some point, but all the articles and ads were still in place.

As I flipped through the ads, my eye fell on a small photograph within a full-page ad for KPHO, the local independent television station in Phoenix in 1962: 

The photo was of the hosts of Phoenix's after-school kids' show.  At the time the program was called It's Wallace? 

And there in the photograph were the three young men who performed on the show: Bill Thompson (better known as Wallace), Pat McMahon (playing the character "Aunt Maud" in the photo), and Ladimir Kwiatkowski, better known as Ladmo.

Bill Thompson died on July 23, 2014.  He was 82.  Ladmo passed away (far too soon) in 1994.  Pat, God bless him, is still alive and still on the air in Phoenix as a news/talk host.  

The program started out like a lot of other kids' TV shows in the 1950s.  Families had TV sets.  Kids liked to watch cartoons, and in a lot of TV stations, the on-air blocks of cartoons had a "live" host.  KPHO already had a kids' show called Gold Dust Charlie, where Thompson played a character, and It's Wallace? was a spin-off. Thompson's character hosted the cartoons.

Phoenix-area kids used to hurry home from school in the afternoon to watch Wallace.  The cartoons were a compelling reason to do so.  Notably, among so many others, they ran Roger Ramjet.  (If you don't rememeber Roger Ramjet, you need to familiarize yourself with him.  YouTube can help.)  I seem to also remember a beautifully animated series of Russian fairytales that later resurfaced as Stories from My Childhood.  For several years running, at the very end of the show on Christmas Eve, they would show Bedtime for Sniffles, a classic 1940 Warner Bros. tale of a little mouse who tries to stay awake to see Santa Claus.

In between cartoons there were comedy skits -- the real reason we watched the show.  Over time, Thompson's character Wallace Snead was joined by others, most notably Ladmo (Kwiatkowski was a camera operator at the station) and McMahon, in a variety of characters.  Columnist Jon Talton, who grew up in Phoenix and Scottsdale, observed in a 2011 blog post:

The regular cast featured Bill Thompson as Wallace, Lad Kwiatkowski as Ladmo and my friend Pat McMahon. Wallace, or Wall-Boy as Ladmo called him, was the host and butt of much humor. Ladmo was the everyman or everykid, full of fun and mischief. McMahon played a host of characters, many of which gave the show its bite. Among them was Gerald the brat, the nephew of the TV station's general manager; Aunt Maud, the doddering, bad driver old coot from Sun City; biker Bobby Joe Trouble; Captain Super, a parody of assorted super heroes, and Boffo the Clown, who hated children.

No one was safe from the show, which parodied local politicians, senior citizens, kids' show characters and rock bands (with Hub Kapp and the Wheels).  Wallace would play Mister Grudgemeyer, occupying a bench at Encanto Park with his short fuse, and here would come Ladmo, innocently sitting next to him and eating potato chips or celery with such noise as to cause the Wallace character to do a meltdown. If you were young in the '60s in Phoenix, it was a joy to see all this. (Or young at heart: My grandmother loved it, too). Ladmo invariably got the better of Gerald.... Captain Super couldn't lift much. Marshall Good was a bitter, has-been cowboy actor. We were all in on the joke, and much of the humor was very sharp and sophisticated.

People who didn't grow up in Phoenix while Wallace was on the air, won't be able to understand why it was so important.  Richard Ruelas, who also wrote a definitive book on Wallace, said in an article in the Arizona Republic:

The television program, which aired in various incarnations from 1954 to 1989, was historic and beloved. It was an anomaly among children's shows nationwide in its longevity and content....
...The program had no parallel, leaving those who grew up with the show with the curse of having to explain it to Valley newcomers who arrived after it was off the air.
In 1992, the Arizona Historical Society recognized the show's costumed cast the same day it honored U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. The timing made perfect sense to longtime Arizonans, though outsiders may have wondered why a kids show earned equal footing with such luminaries.
Thompson ensured the show's skits did not talk down to kids or try to send any messages about doing homework or listening to their parents. He wanted the show to be funny.... 

When PBS aired a series on the Pioneers of Television, the program that got a great deal of attention in the episode on Local Kids' TV was Wallace and Ladmo.  No one from Arizona who knew about Wallace was surprised; during its 35-year run, the series won nine Emmy Awards.

Your parents knew that it was safe to let these offbeat characters into the home -- in fact, if your parents were home at the time they probably watched the show with you, and laughed at the sophisticated "improv" comedy that was way over your head.  

So much of the humor on Wallace and Ladmo was nuanced and layered, as it is in the very best old Warner Bros. cartoons.  Little kids laughed, teenagers laughed, adults laughed, all for different reasons.  The important thing was that we were all there together, laughing.  

Bill Thompson's legacy is that his TV show brought us all together, in a safe place full of the joy of the shared experience.  We were, in that place and at that time, a community.

Here's a link to Talton's post about Wallace and Ladmo:

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