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From left: Larry "Top Hat" Chebowski, Marleah Anderson, Katy Thompson, Bill "Wallace" Thompson and Sandy Gibbons.

The big room at Bobby Q's. Organizer Chebowski dumped a previous restaurant as a meeting place after they failed to prepare a cake for Wallace on his birthday and another when they couldn’t guarantee the services of a regular waitress.

Katy Thompson, "Mrs. Wallace" for 40 years and the driving force behind getting the guest of honor to the Friday luncheons.

Longtime friends (from left) Sandy Gibbons, Dewey Hopper and Larry Chebowski.

Larry "Top Hat" Chebowski (on unicycle, at Legend City) says Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski (right) was influenced by his sartorial style.

Dressed in the colors of the Arizona flag, Bob Roloff, aka "Arizona Duuude," travels the state as "Arizona's #1 Fan," representing at casino parties and parades across the state. Some of those at the table seem to be forever auditioning for the Wallace and Ladmo Show.

Published by: Lovin' Life After 50, August 2013

They meet every week, at the same old restaurant.

Every Friday at around 11 a.m., they begin slipping through the sliding back door at Bobby Q’s and taking their seats around a big square of tables set up on the dance floor.

Some come with jokes, or a guitar, or a book they’ve written. Many are recognizable faces from local broadcasting history. There’s ‘70s weatherman Dewey Hopper in the corner, repeating what sounds like a bawdy joke about a nurse. Sandy Gibbons from the old “Dialing for Dollars” show is making the rounds, shaking hands. And is that Dolan Ellis in the cowboy hat?

“There’s so many years of experience and media savvy sitting around here,” says Jonathan Abel, himself a former KTAR news director and voice-over artist for radio and TV commercials who knows many in the room from their behind-the-scenes work in Arizona broadcasting.

“There’s writers and publishers, actors and stunt people. There’s wanna-bes, used-to-bes. There’s several geniuses floating around here, too.”

A few are only loosely connected to the industry, like Tom Ethington, a home improvement contractor who once chaired some fundraiser telethons featuring then-stars Hopper and Gibbons.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, anybody who was on local TV was a celebrity,” Ethington says. “People who, in another state, would have been just newscasters. To us, they were like movie stars.”

A few faces around the tables actually made it to the movies. Linda Rae Jurgens had some choice screen time with Tom Cruise in “Top Gun;” her mustachioed husband, Ron Garland, has been a go-to gunslinger type for decades in TV movies and commercials.

Most of them say they come for the camaraderie. Some, toting business cards and headshots, claim they come to these gatherings to “network.”

But really, there’s only one thing that could draw such a big group of extroverted old-timers, some who drive in from Tucson and Prescott, to a weekly lunch in the heat of the Phoenix summer.

“Him,” says Ethington, nodding his head in the direction of the man slowly making his way to the head of the table, with a little help from his wife. “He’s the reason they all come.”

It’s Wallace

“Him” is Bill Thompson—“Wallace,” to generations of Arizonans who grew up watching the local legend on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show,” which ran on then-independent KPHO-TV for an incredible 35 years, beginning with its humble 1954 debut as “It’s Wallace?” through the show’s local-celebrity-studded, tearful finale in 1989. By the end, “Wallace and Ladmo” was seen all over Arizona, and could even be tuned in from a few neighboring towns in northern Mexico and eastern California.

“I don’t think I’ve ever called him anything but Wallace, or Wall-boy,” says Steve Hoza, a longtime local museum archivist who curates the official exhibition of Wallace and Ladmo memorabilia and also runs the biggest fan website dedicated to the show, WallaceWatchers.com. “I’ve known Wallace 26 years now, and I’m still just in awe of him, of his tremendous talent.” About a decade ago, Wallace personally gave Hoza the legal rights to manage the Wallace and Ladmo name and merchandise, an honor the überfan says he sometimes still feels unworthy of. “I go over to his house now to have him sign something, and it’s still the same feeling, after all these years.”

Katie Thompson, the woman who’s been married to Bill since 1974 and is, by all accounts, the driving force that keeps him coming to these luncheons, week after week, has become used to those awestruck reactions.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “They’ve been off the air since 1989, but we’ll go someplace to eat and we can hear people talking at the next table: ‘Look, It’s Wallace!’ And smiles just immediately light up everyone’s faces. It’s wonderful, it really is. And he loves everybody.”

Every Friday, Wallace takes his same seat at the table, with Katie on his right and on his left, his close friend Gibbons, a fellow KPHO alum who would fill in on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show” whenever regular Pat McMahon (who occasionally shows up at the luncheons) was on vacation.

Next to them sits Larry Chebowski, a former street clown who used to entertain as an unicyclist at Legend City, where Wallace and Ladmo regularly performed. In his trademark top hat, the lanky Chebowski, who today runs an entertainment booking company and says he still rides the unicycle at age 72, can bear an unsettling resemblance to Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski, Wallace’s beloved comedic partner, who died of lung cancer on March 2, 1994.

Chebowski insists the effect is unintentional, and can pull up old photos on his ever-present iPad that show him wearing the top hat as far back as the ‘50s, before Ladmo made the look his own.

“I bowled with Ladmo when he was a cameraman at Channel 5, before he teamed up with Wallace,” says Chebowski. “And I always wore the top hat when I bowled, which Lad would tease me about. I don’t know if it was because of me he started wearing top hats, but I think I was an influence on him.”

Regardless, Wallace and his substitute sidekicks have been slowly drawing their own crowd since the three old friends, along with “Wallace and Ladmo” writer Craig Dingle and Arizona Republic reporter and biographer Richard Ruelas, began the weekly lunch meet-ups around six years ago, originally at the Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, near Wallace’s home. The gatherings grew by word of mouth, and changed locations several times, as the size of the group began demanding its own private room—along with a certain level of respect. Chebowski, who organizes the events and sends out the email invitations, says he dumped one restaurant after they failed to prepare a cake for Wallace on his birthday, cobbling together slices of cheesecake instead. He dropped another when they couldn’t guarantee the services of a regular waitress.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual for 30 to 40 people to show up for the lunches at the former Bobby McGee’s, with waitress Monique, which take on the format of a celebrity roast, only with everyone still too in awe of the guest of honor to say anything ungracious.

Before and during the meal, everyone around the table takes turns updating the group on their latest doings, and some take a stab at providing a little entertainment. Abel will sometimes break out his harmonica; actor and former stuntman Rod Wolff will tell a joke or two; and Ellis, when he makes the festivities, will invariably break out in song.

Today, Bob Roloff launches into a bit of his shtick as the Arizona Duuude (“That’s how we’d say it back in the late ‘60s: ‘Hey duuude!’”), a character who wears a shirt emblazoned with the Arizona flag and travels the state emceeing events as “Arizona’s No. 1 Fan.” Next to him is Wyatt Earp, the great-grandnephew of the notorious Tombstone lawman, who travels the world performing a one-man play about his famous namesake. In the way they all tend to look to Wallace for his reaction, many around the table seem to still be auditioning for a spot on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show.”

After the meal, things unwind a little, and everyone begins subtly jostling for time with their hero before he and Katie leave. Gibbons graciously vacates his seat so that others can have a little one-on-one time with Wallace, and one after another, each takes their turn beside the throne. And smiles.

It’s quite possibly the sweetest get-together that happens in Phoenix on a regular basis, but Wallace himself will have none of that sappy sentimentality.

“Frankly, I don’t know any of these people!” Wallace confides, with a boisterous laugh, when asked how it feels to see such an outpouring of love every week from so many lifelong friends and fans. “But I keep coming here, to find out who they are.”

Stay Tuned

He may move a little slower and look a bit frail compared to his heavier heyday, but at 82, Bill “Wallace” Thompson still retains all the irreverent wit and inspired mischievousness that indelibly shaped the sensibilities of the lucky generations of Arizonans who grew up watching his show.

On one Friday, after occasional guest Dolan Ellis serenades the group with a long, solemn reading of his tribute to Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever called “The Last of the Cowboy Sheriffs,” Wallace instantly brings the mood back up by asking Ellis, “So what happened to the second to the last cowboy sheriff?” When there’s a lull in the action, Wallace will grab Gibbons and the two of them will act out a hastily rehearsed skit in the middle of the room.

His top hat-wearing sidekick is not exactly Ladmo, and the Arizona Duuude is no Captain Super. But for a couple of hours every Friday, it’s as close to classic Wallace as we’re likely to get.

“He still seems to be at the top of his game, at times,” says Abel, who places Thompson in a league with pioneers like Ernie Kovacs and says Wallace’s inventive humor “cut me free from the bonds of colloquial thinking.” Adds Ellis, after Wallace’s sheriff quip, “Nobody else would ever think to say something like that. That’s why he’s the king.”

On this Friday, Wallace appears in particularly fine form, firing off grumpy observations about the adoring friends who pay him weekly tribute like vintage Mr. Grudgemeyer.

“This week we’ve got somebody with a famous relative,” he says, searching for the name.

“Wyatt Earp?” assists Katie.

“No, not the relative. What’s his name?” Wallace rejoins, engaging his wife in what would sound like forgetfulness coming from any other octogenarian but with his timing, comes across like classic “Who’s On First” riffing. “And here’s somebody of no consequence at all,” he rebounds, shaking hands with a beaming Steve Hoza.

Wallace’s laugh is still the very definition of infectious, and even long-suffering Katie is not immune. “He is so funny, and he’s that way at home,” she says. “I have to look at him twice a lot to see if he’s being serious.”

So what’s life like for Wallace these days?

“Really boring!” he says. “I still have my soldier set collection, that I probably shouldn’t still be adding to”—one of the biggest Civil War collections in the world, according to Hoza.

“We used to go to the movies a lot,” adds Katie, alluding to the lifetime movie passes — the full Willy Wonka Golden Tickets, their friends call ’em, including concessions — that theater owner Dan Harkins bestowed upon them years ago, in one of the many happy paybacks grateful fans have given them. Now they mostly stay at home and watch TV, Katie says. “He likes boxing, anything on the History Channel, and lately, ‘American Pickers.’”

He tries to stay up on comedy—he’s heard good things about Jerry Seinfeld’s Web show, “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee”—and he remains open to listening to new music. Lately Gibbons’ son, Jim, has been trying to turn Uncle Wallace on to his Irish Celtic rock band, the Biffos.

But Wallace says he lost his musical connection with the passing of Mike Condello, music director on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show” from 1962 to 1971. After years of chronic depression, Condello took his own life in 1995, just a little over a year after the death of Ladmo. “We lost a lot when Mike died,” he says, a little quietly.

No one wants to say it out loud, but everyone who keeps coming back for lunch with Wallace does it partly because no one can say how long this will last.

“Today is the most animated I’ve seen him in a while,” says Ethington. “But sometimes he’s pretty quiet.” Chebowski adds that he has to deliver Wallace a big enough audience these days to keep him coming back. “If it gets down to five or six people, he doesn’t show up,” he says. “If I can keep the count up to 20 or more, he shows up.”

He still enjoys an audience, after all these years. “I think he enjoys it, he’s sitting there smiling through the whole thing,” says Abel, who feels many come to the lunches to pay their respects to the man while he’s still around to see it. “Most of these people owe their careers to Bill Thompson.”

Mike Martin, a veteran broadcaster who did a children’s TV show in Tucson he admits was “heavily inspired, shall we say, by Wallace,” says he comes to the lunches “pretty much for the same reason everyone else does: to hang out with Wallace.”

One after another, the lunch guests sing their praises of the man they come to salute. But Wallace himself is convinced they come more for the dollar ice cream sundaes Chebowski was able to finagle for the group.

“Don’t you believe any of them!” he hollers, as he and Katie, arm in arm, begin heading for the back door. “They’re all lying!”

See you next week, Wall-boy.

– end —