Ode to 'Wallace'

An 'Arizona Republic' columnist tells the story of a legendary Phoenix children's show

This is a story, or rather a series of stories, involving a character who rode bulls, fought bulls and threw a lot of bull. Collectively, it is the tale of a wide-eyed college dropout who grew up the scion of a wealthy New York family before heading west to reinvent himself. While his relatives found fortune discovering copper in Arizona, Bill Thompson mined his own fortune as creator of Wallace and Ladmo, the most celebrated children's television show in Arizona's history.

When television was just starting out in the early 1950s, every station had a kids' show, considered one of the low-on-the-totem-pole jobs. Most shows were hosted by "cartoon jockeys," station employees with other duties who would put on a kids' show costume when it came time to perform as host. Thompson (Wallace) took a different approach, becoming involved so intensely that he became the show itself--with the help of his partner, Ladimir Kwiatkowski (Ladmo) and other Phoenix Valley media members such as Patrick McMahon.

"What he created in Arizona was unique across the nation," writes author Richard Ruelas, a columnist for The Arizona Republic. "Wallace and Ladmo was a funny, topical, edgy show that entertained not only children, but teens and adults as well. This show stayed on the air for 35 years, long after every other kids' show across the nation got the axe--longer, in fact than most shows in television history." Attesting to its popularity and longevity, when the Arizona Historical Society created its Hall of Fame, the first inductees included Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O'Connor--and Wallace and Ladmo. Movie director Steven Spielberg added to the accolades: "Your show inspired me, made me think and made me laugh."

To truly appreciate this broadcasting story chronicle, it helps to have lived in the Phoenix Valley in the 1960s and been a KPHO-TV watcher familiar with the creative daily antics on live local TV.

The reader's first indication about where the book is headed comes on Page 1 with the line, "This is the story of Bill Thompson (ergo, Wallace), who never took life seriously." Thompson's health (diabetes) and his marriage (divorce) may have failed because of that mantra, but the guiding light in his life--the show--never missed a beat. Meticulously kept records over 35 years reveal that Wallace missed only one program--when he attended his mother's funeral.

"I want to make people laugh," Thompson wrote in seventh grade for a what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up essay. He spent the remainder of his years making that dream come true. Living under the umbrella of "anything for a laugh," he did whatever it took to produce guffaws from grade school to retirement-age audiences. From his senior yearbook designation as class clown to his last public appearance, Thompson was the consummate entertainer, conceptualizing, writing and presenting more than 32,000 sketches for 6,500 Wallace and Ladmo shows. His story ideas were fresh and funny. The Arizona Republic called his show "the most original, popular and durable show probably ever produced in the state." If Thompson thought an idea sounded interesting, he tried it. If it worked, he tried it frequently. The masterpiece of mayhem was a groundbreaker. His show was innovative enough to be compared to other sketch-comedy shows such as SCTV and Saturday Night Live. Like those shows, his was also irreverent toward network sponsors. "Wallace and Ladmo was biting the hand that fed it long before such self-deprecating humor became trendy," wrote the Republic.

When the end finally came, Thompson knew it. Fittingly enough, the man who started it all was the one who made plans to end it all. A month after the show's 35th anniversary, he told station management, "Thirty-five years is enough. Whatever it is we set out to do, we've done it, and I feel it's time for the show to end." The last show aired on Dec. 29, 1989. The studio was filled with reporters asking how Thompson felt looking back on all the years. With characteristic humor tinged with flippancy he replied, "You know, the show wasn't really that good. My kids weren't allowed to watch it. In fact, when I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch it."

Nonetheless, the day after it all ended, the former disk jockey, football player, boxer, fruit stand vendor, bull fighter, and bronc rider returned to the now-dark studio to help move Wallace and Ladmo props, tapes, scripts and costumes to the Arizona Historical Society museum. As he hung up his show costume derby for good, his simple note said it all: "Lots of memories."