July 24th, 2014

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Halloween Cat

An Arizona Era Ends

I didn’t grow up in Phoenix, but I often was extremely jealous of those who did, because if you grew up in Phoenix, from 1954 all the way through 1989, you had Wallace & Ladmo.

When I moved up to Phoenix in 1986, their show was well past its glory days – but it was still a joyous, subversive, hilarious, and wonderful thing to behold.

They may have been a kiddie show, Wallace & Ladmo never played “down” to kids. They have been described as “Saturday Night Live” long before there was ever any such thing; they were Laugh-In, they were Monty Python and In Living Color; they did spot-on parodies, political humor, and typical kiddie stuff (including showing cartoons), but always with a sly wink and a grin, never mean or gross. Silly, though. Oh, yes. It could be deliriously, deliciously silly.

Over the few years I actually got to watch the regular show (by the 80’s they were running morning and afternoon), I caught a glimpse of what had attracted people for nearly four decades. After the show ended, Phoenix never could really let go -- there were retrospectives and clips and reruns; there was even a theatrical play which we got to see a performance of, which told the story of how one of their skits kind of ran amok: the third major cast member of the Wallace & Ladmo show was the great Pat McMahon, who created nearly every other character on the show – spoiled rich kid Gerald, the deliciously subversive Aunt Maud, “super” hero Captain Super, and a dozen or more others – and in the early days of the show, one of the characters he created and played was an Elvis parody called “Hub Cap & the Wheels.” Hub Cap got so popular he attracted national attention, and McMahon was offered a major recording contract (with Capitol Records). He thought about it… and decided to stay a Big Fish in the Little Pond that was Phoenix in those days (it really was a small town once). Local television history was being made.

There have been numerous times, watching reruns and clips, that I could easily see that Barb watched this show A LOT in her formative years. All that weird, tongue-in-cheek humor? Yeah, it’s here.

Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski passed away in 1994. It was a city-wide day of mourning. And yesterday, Bill “Wallace” Thompson died. And even though I didn’t grow up with them, I feel the loss the same way the city clearly does.

When it ended in December 1989, it became the longest-running daily kid’s TV show (I think Sesame Street has since eclipsed it). It won nine Emmy awards. To this day anyone who grew up in Phoenix wishes they had gotten a Ladmo Bag.

This is the Wikipedia article.

I think one of the things that makes me nostalgic for things I never had in the first place is my insatiable curiosity about “how things were” – I sometimes think that’s what makes me writer, wanting to know about, or see (if I can), everything that I missed. I wish I had been able to see Phoenix as it was then, before all this sprawl and before they built all these offices (including the one I work in) where Legend City was. When it really was a long way from Phoenix to Chandler and a trip to Gilbert was an all-day event. When Mesa and Tempe were actually separate cities. Rawhide was way, way, way above even the most northern part of Scottsdale. Papago Park was on the riverside surrounded by nothing but more desert and the SRP station.

It’s not that I don’t like many of the things we have now – I do! I don’t want everything to go back to “the way it was” – I just kind of what to be able to access them all at once. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of time travel fantasies.

I have a couple of those “Then and Now” books, the picture books showing city landmarks in the city’s early days and “now” (of course, even those are out of date) – so “now” should be “at time of publication,” I suppose. Certainly the Las Vegas one I have is completely wrong as to “now.” But they are very cool to look at.

I often wish I had more time to explore parts of Phoenix that are still old – they’re rare and valuable, since Phoenix does not go in for that fancy “preservation” stuff, and much of what exists now is less than twenty years old. But there are pockets, here and there, where people have managed to save something – the Orpheum Theatre, Heritage Square, the Pioneer Cemetery – I’ve seen some of them; I’ve walked in some of those places. One thing the massive amount of footage that the Wallace & Ladmo show preserves is that glimpse of Phoenix as it was, when it was a small desert city, on a small local station (Channel 5 wasn’t a CBS affiliate, then), a really wonderful time capsule.

RIP, Wallace. You made a lot of people VERY happy for a very long time.