Phoenix, Arizona / Thursday, December 25, 2014
© 2014 by JPB Publishing Ltd.
Avenue Weather: Partly cloudy with possible late afternoon showers. High 65 / Low 35
Joan De Arc mourns passing of Wallace
(BP) - A supreme giant of local television entertainment history passed away over the summer, leaving behind a matchless legacy of fun memories here on Joan De Arc Avenue.
Wallace Snead of the Wallace and Ladmo Show, also known as Wallace, Wall Boy, Mr. Grudgemeyer and Bill Thompson, died in July of natural causes. He was 82.
Born in New York City on December 18, 1931, Bill Thompson grew up in nearby Bronxville, a member of a wealthy family with strong ties to Arizona. In 1952, he dropped out of DePauw University, where he was studying art and acting, and moved to Phoenix, where he married and started a family. Two years later, his character of Wallace Snead debuted on the Golddust Charlie Show on KPHO-TV, and the rest is celebrated Phoenix history.
The Wallace and Ladmo Show won nine Emmys during its epic 35-year run, which ended only when Wallace himself pulled the plug in 1989. At the time he simply said, “Whatever we set out to do, we’ve done it.” Did they ever.
Generations of Joan De Arc kids grew up watching the Wallace program, tuning in daily after school until the early ‘70s, when the program switched to mornings before school. This was an era when a mere handful of television channels were available for viewing, making Wallace and Ladmo a near-universal experience among Valley children.
Wallace’s life and career were celebrated in August with a lavish and emotional gathering at the Tempe Cine Capri Theatre. Everybody got a Ladmo Bag.
Analysis: It’s (It was) Wallace
By J. Bueker
The show was utterly without precedent or parallel. There was nothing else like it anywhere, ever. Long-time Phoenicians are fond of asserting that “Wallace and Ladmo” is impossible to explain to people who weren’t here to experience it, and there is considerable validity to this conceit. The concept of Ladmo alone defies any conventional explication, and when you throw a Gerald or Grudgemeyer into the mix, the result becomes positively transcendent.
Sure, they found some of their inspiration in the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and the amusing parade of characters on Fred Allen’s radio show. But what Wallace and Ladmo presented to the world had no meaningful antecedent at all, because they drew and synthesized their material from the unique world they observed around them. Current events, local personalities, the goofiness of popular culture, the eccentricities of life in Arizona, even their own TV station and sponsors were all fair game for the show’s endlessly inventive satire. Wall Boy’s skits were a beautiful hodgepodge of pop culture references, local inside jokes, wanton destruction of personal property and inexorable silliness, and the man was an exceedingly shrewd judge of what was funny and what was not.
For me, the supreme era of Wallace and Ladmo was in the 1960s, but it is important to note that this amazing show spanned four decades, from the mid-1950s to the very end of the 1980s, so that several lucky generations of Arizona kids got to grow up with the thing.
Wallace started it all when KPHO gave him his own show in 1954, with cameraman Ladimir joining in the fun soon thereafter. Wall and Lad carried on as a twosome for 6 years before Pat McMahon brought his eclectic assortment of characters to the already solid kid’s show in 1960. It was then that “Wallace and Ladmo” entered the realm of the sublime.
Like all great art, the Wallace show had layers of meaning and possible interpretations. This was a deceptively sophisticated enterprise, and it was a kid’s show for crying out loud. The program’s content was equally accessible to both children and their parents, but usually for very different reasons.
At the center of it all was the basic triumvirate: Ladmo, Gerald, and Wallace. The good guy, the bad guy, and the straight man. The show would spin off many other characters and premises over the years, but it was the interactions of this fundamental trio that would provide the enduring foundation of the program.
Ladmo was the happy-go-lucky man child, the kids’ champion who supplied their point of view on the show. Gerald conversely was beautifully conceived and performed as the quintessential anti-kid: rich, jaded, snobbish and pretentious, he harbored an unrelenting disdain for the very “public school brats” who comprised the heart of the show’s audience. Wallace was the fair-minded mediator between the two, although in later years he invariably sided with his pal Ladmo. It took him a while, but Wall Boy eventually caught on to Gerald’s nefarious nature.
McMahon introduced a continuous stream of endearingly weird characters to the show. There was the feisty septuagenarian Aunt Maud, the remarkably inept superhero Captain Super, the bitterly cynical clown Boffo. These characters empowered Wall and Lad to expand the parameters of their own performing skills, and the show steadily built momentum. Never content with sticking to their formulas, Wallace and the gang were always looking for new avenues of hilarity to crack us up.
The program developed a musical dimension during the ‘60s that was extraordinary. In the midst of the Beatles phenomenon, it occurred to Wall that his show could use its own rock star to add to the roster of McMahon characters, and so that very day they simply dreamed up Hubb Kapp and the Wheels. Contrived purely for laughs, this little brainstorm would lead to a Capitol Records recording contract and appearances on national television. Wallace also had the taste and foresight to bring Mike Condello onboard, a wonderfully talented local musical prodigy. Commodore Condello’s Wallace-themed parodies of Fab Four tunes were beautifully inspired and executed, and his original theme song for the show was letter perfect.
And then there were the cartoons, carefully selected by Wallace himself, and an underrated element of the show’s success. The hilarious Roger Ramjet series was a perfect match for Wallace and Ladmo, with its sardonic anti-establishment humor and adult-oriented wit. Wallace also made good use on the show of the “old-time” movies that he and Lad filmed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s at various parks and golf courses around town.
I personally felt that the famous Ladmo Bag was a downgrade from the Toy Cottage segment of the program. Certainly it was a clever solution for the problem of indecisive postcard winners who couldn't settle on the toy they wanted, but the grocery sack filled with sugary treats and hamburger coupons just seemed to me a cheesy successor to the spontaneous excitement of picking out a cool new toy. Yet of course it was a masterful gimmick -- the Ladmo Bag quickly took its place as the defining iconic artifact of the Wallace show.
Almost all of those thousands of shows from the pre-VCR ‘50s and ‘60s are sadly lost forever, perhaps being enjoyed as we speak by some sentient race in another part of the galaxy. Only a precious few installments were preserved for posterity. But the memories endure.
There’s a long-forgotten character from the Wallace program who only appeared for a few years in the mid-‘60s, but for me perfectly exemplified the spirit of the show. This was the caveman inventor Elmer Blisco (the name alone was sheer genius).
Elmer’s shtick was to come on the show with a new invention each week, about which he was extremely enthusiastic and proud. He would demonstrate the device for Wallace, who would mull it over for a few seconds before suggesting an entirely different and far more appropriate and effective use for the apparatus. Crestfallen, Elmer would slink back to his cave to think up a new invention.
My favorite installment was “the reaching thing.” Elmer showed up on the show one day with a ladder that oddly resembled one that might be found in the maintenance room at a TV station. He called this new invention the reaching thing and proceeded to lift it from the bottom and clumsily try to snag something off the top shelf of the Toy Cottage. Wallace praised the new invention but then proposed an even better possible method for using it. Just stand the thing up and walk up the steps. Then you can reach the desired object with your own hands. Brilliant!
I guess the guys thought this all got old after a while and discontinued the bit. But the Elmer Blisco skit had everything going for it: imagination, wit, irony, pathos, visual sophistication, physical humor, even an educational component. This was the essence of what Wallace wanted to do with his life, and it effortlessly surpasses any other kids show you would care to name. In fact, I might argue it surpasses most TV shows of any kind.
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