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Left to right: Bill Thompson as Wallace, Pat McMahon as Gerald and Ladimir Kwiatkowski as Ladmo, on set in 1984. Photo courtesy PHOENIX magazine archives.

Published by Phoenix Magazine, 11/1/2014

Until the very end, Bill “Wallace” Thompson was playing jokes. Irreverent, savagely funny jokes. The kind he turned into ahead-of-its-time comic art, as ringleader of legendary local children’s TV program The Wallace and Ladmo Show, and finally aimed at himself, subverting his own memorial service.

Thompson’s co-star Pat McMahon delivered the closing eulogy at the “Tribute to Wallace” event in August at Harkins Tempe Marketplace Cine Capri. “At the end of the tribute,” McMahon says, “I was approached by a woman named Alana, who I remembered managed the Wallace and Ladmo souvenir booth at the Arizona State Fair. And she said she was on a mission from Wallace.”

She said Thompson called her into hospice with a request, shortly before he died. “He told her, ‘I’m sure you’re going... to this event I know they’re planning,’” says McMahon, who, following the passing of Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski in 1994 and now Thompson, is the sole surviving member of the show’s comic trio. “‘Do me this one last favor. Call Bert Easley’s Fun Shop, the costume department. Tell ‘em it’s for me, so they won’t charge you. Get a grim reaper costume. The night they’re doing this event, I want you to put it on, go in there – and follow Pat wherever he goes!’”

McMahon erupts in laughter. “Isn’t that incredible! That was Wallace on his deathbed. Still coming up with bits!” But Alana was stopped at the door. “They said, ‘No! You can’t do that!’” McMahon relates. “‘People will misunderstand and think it’s in bad taste!’”

Thompson’s humor was always refreshingly off-center, a not-ready-for-prime-time view “before,” as Wallace and Ladmo fan Steven Spielberg has said, “there was a Saturday Night Live.” From the first show in April 1954 until the final broadcast in December 1989, Thompson pushed the envelope, creating children’s entertainment with layers of humor for every age, long before prime-time cartoons for adults and kids’ TV networks swimming in snark.

“There was something very sinister going on,” says Alice Cooper, who devoured the show as a Cortez High School student in the ‘60s. “There was always something that was not quite right. It was a kids’ show, but you’d always hear the cameramen laughing. You could just sense that they were having more fun than the kids were.”

Prairie Prince, drummer for wildly theatrical rock band The Tubes, says his band was influenced by Thompson’s pre-Weird Al parodies of ‘60s pop music, aided and abetted by house musician Mike Condello.

“They’d dress up in funny outfits and play instruments made out of vegetables – just shred cabbage and crack carrots,” Prince says, laughing. “I just thought that was too much! It made us not only want to play music but combine theater and art and costumes and wigs and everything.”

Could Phoenix ever produce another program like The Wallace and Ladmo Show? “No,” says McMahon, who still hosts a local morning TV show. “Even if you could find the talent, local stations don’t want to pay to put on a live kids’ show when it’s easier to just buy a syndicated show.”

Kids today aren’t watching TV like they used to, either. “They’re sitting around watching funny YouTube clips on their laptops or cellphones,” Prince observes. “That’s where you’d have to reach them.”

But McMahon says Thompson would have been totally in tune with the viral video-fueled generation. “The immediacy of the Internet would have worked to our benefit,” he says. “Wal’s attitude was always, ‘Great idea! Can we do it tomorrow?’ Hub Kapp and the Wheels started with Wallace saying, ‘We ought to have our own overnight rock ‘n’ roll sensation.’ So we did the bit the next day – literally overnight!”

Unfortunately, Thompson’s ill health in later years kept him from getting back in the game. Carrie Thompson saw her dad become angry when he feared he was losing his inner Wallace. “When the dementia set in, he lost his tool,” she says. “At the very end, when I’d call, he would be so frustrated. He’d say, ‘I can’t keep up. I don’t have any funny things to say.’ And I’d say, ‘You don’t have to say funny things all the time, I love you!’ But he felt like he needed to be funny.”

Perhaps he’s still keeping Phoenix weird. On the day of the Wallace tribute, tragic news about another funnyman, Robin Williams, turned every other comic somber. But somewhere in Downtown Phoenix, a woman was emerging from a novelty shop toting a grim reaper costume, to wear to a memorial. “Mission from Wallace,” indeed.

McMahon wishes Alana had gotten past the doors that night. “Oh, of course I would have known Wal Boy was behind that!” he says, laughing. “We all would have.”

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