Three decades ago, a long-running local TV program vanished from the Phoenix airwaves. For those who experienced some portion of that impressive run, the Wallace and Ladmo Show endures as an incomparable and deeply beloved pinnacle of Arizona’s cultural history. For those who arrived here during the post-Wallace era, a brief introduction to this iconic program seems a solemn obligation.
Yet the task of successfully explaining this TV show to people who never experienced it is a formidable one. Wallace and Ladmo was a television phenomenon utterly without precedent or parallel. Yes, it was a kid’s show, replete with cartoons, comedy bits, prizes, and funny characters.
But Wallace and Ladmo effectively transcended all the recognizable archetypes of the traditional kid-show format. The humor was intelligent, inventive, sophisticated, unpredictable, multi-dimensional, and at times, genuinely subversive. This show was children's programming that was adept at attracting an adult audience. Wallace and Ladmo was also uniquely Arizonan, with local inside jokes, home-grown celebrities, and a marvelous musical dimension that somehow culminated in a nationwide rock ‘n roll sensation called Hubb Kapp and the Wheels.
There’s more. Wallace and Ladmo wasn’t just a daily, hour-long exercise of silliness on the tube. The cast members were frequently on the road, tirelessly making personal appearances and performing their stage shows across the state for decades. Their storied performances at the Mann Chris-Town Theatre and the Legend City amusement park long ago ascended to the realm of local entertainment lore. In short, Wallace and Ladmo were indispensable to local childhoods and culture for 35 years.
KPHO-TV set the fateful wheels in motion by giving a young upstart named Bill Thompson a cartoon show in 1954. Already familiar to locals as a character called Wallace on the Golddust Charlie kid's show, Thompson soon inserted some rudimentary comedy bits to his new program. Then he added a winsomely goofy sidekick, cameraman Ladimir Kwiatkowski, who became known forever as Ladmo.
It’s Wallace? carried on as a popular two-man show until 1960, when a new employee by the name of Pat McMahon appeared at KPHO. McMahon was a young man with seasoned entertainment skills who became fascinated with the zany goings-on each day on the Wallace and Ladmo set.
McMahon well remembers his first glimpse of the show: “It's almost too good to be true, but I promise you it’s true. I turned on the TV, and I hear a song called ‘Oriental Blues.’ I didn't know what it was then, but it was the first theme song for a show called It’s Wallace? It was the first thing I ever saw on Phoenix television.”
It was only a matter of time before Wallace asked McMahon for help with a three-man bit on the show. He wound up assisting for the next three decades, as the show was renamed Wallace & Company in 1968, and The Wallace & Ladmo Show in 1970. The result was the longest-running daily kid’s show in history.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Mar/Apr 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No.2.