Dr. Bill Webber remembers one particularly snowy day when his close childhood friend, the late Bill Thompson, burst into The Web’s second-story bedroom. There were a couple feet of snow on the ground.
“I’m going to give it a try,” announced Thompson, who went on to become the legendary Wallace Sneed, host of The Wallace and Ladmo Show, the longest-running children’s television show in U.S. history.
“You are going to do what?” Webber replied, mildly concerned, because his friend was capable of some pretty zany antics. For one, the friends had staged a massive car accident in Bronxville, New York, with nearly a dozen youngsters playing dead, just to see how staid suburbanites would respond.
With that, Wallace threw open his friend’s bedroom window and did a belly flop into the snow piled beneath the window. Weber had no intention of joining his friend in this escapade. “I ran around and started taking pictures,” Webber remembers.
And so, in a way, it began.
The Web shared his story in a Phoenix tribute to honor Thompson, who died on July 23, 2014 at the ripe age of 82. At times the August tribute seemed more like a roast as nearly two dozen speakers — many of them hand-picked by Thompson before he died — entertained more than 600 family members and faithful, some dressed as characters on the show. The event, streamed over the Internet and still available for viewing, was held at a Harkins Cine Capri Theater in the Tempe Marketplace.
Several characters from the beloved children’s show, which mixed skits (many written by Thompson at the dinner table the night before) and cartoons, showed up to pay homage to Thompson. Andy Masich, who played Andy from the Museum during the last five years of the show, remembered the day he brought some toy soldiers on the show — bagpipers in kilts.
“I wonder what they wear underneath,” Masich innocently asked, turning a soldier upside down to inspect its goods.
Wallace was seemingly unamused. He turned to Masich, who now directs the Heinz History Museum in Pittsburgh, and said, “We’re going to get letters on that one.”
Sure enough, next time Masich was on the show, Wallace brought out a bag of letters, including one from the station manager ending with the admonition, “Leave the humor to the professionals.” Masich thought that would be his last appearance.
“Then, toward the end of the show, Wallace gave one of those patented ‘Gotchas’.”
Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your perspective — this wasn’t an isolated incident of bad behavior. Rita Davenport, who used to host a mid-day show in Phoenix, and is now a nationally renown author and speaker, remembered the time she arrived a little late for a Christmas brunch with the Thompsons at a fancy resort.
“Wallace, I’m so sorry,” she said, rushing to a table where he was sitting.
“That’s OK,” Thompson said, looking up from the table. “We already ate.”
Wallace loved to pull the legs of reporters, too, remembered Steve Hosa, a close friend for 35 years. One year, after the last taping of the season, reporters asked him in routine fashion how the show had went.
“You know it wasn’t really a very good show,” Wallace deadpanned, as the junior reporters dutifully took notes. “I didn’t let my kids watch it. And as a child, my parents wouldn’t have let me watch it.”
Wallace enjoyed playing seemingly cruel jokes on his young audience as well. One year, his beloved co-star Ladmo decided to take a vacation. It was his first. He wanted to take his family to Cleveland, where he grew up. Wallace didn’t take a vacation during the show’s almost 36 years on the air. Often asked why, he would say he couldn’t think of a place he’d rather be than on the show.
Wallace announced on Monday that Ladmo wasn’t on the show because he’d been fired at a party over the weekend. Ladmo, Wallace told his likely stunned audience, had pushed the channel’s station manager, Dick Rawls, into a pool.
“The next day Rawls calls Ladmo in the hotel and says, ‘Get back here. The kids are picketing my house.’ Ladmo and his family had to drive all the way back. Then Wallace had to rehire him on the show.”
By all accounts, the show went to the next level when Pat McMahon joined the cast. A gifted actor, McMahon played Gerald (a spoiled rich kid the audience loved to hate), Marshall Good (a washed up cowboy actor), Aunt Maud (an unpleasant senior citizen), and Boffo the Clown (who hated kids). He treated the crowd to several backstage stories, including one about how the character Captain Super came about.
“You know,” McMahon remembered Thompson saying, “what we need on this show is a superhero. But of course on this show, one that doesn’t do anything super. In fact if he, in a show of strength, tears the phone book in half, make it the Heber phone book, with one yellow page.” Fewer than 2,000 people lived in Heber, Arizona in the 1970s.
In the 1960s, Thompson asked his cast whether they had noticed how much attention The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys were getting.
“Why shouldn’t we have our own overnight rock and roll star?” he asked. “And since it’s overnight, let’s do it tomorrow.”
Thompson originally wanted to call the group Hub Cap and the Tire Slashers.
“I was able to convince him that Hub Cap and the Wheels might be a little less violent,” McMahon recalled. “That’s the way it always was with Wallace — everyone could contribute as long as it was funny.
Dan Horn, who appeared as a ventriloquist, brought along his puppet Orson, who, it must be noted, had aged quite a bit since appearing on the show. Orson admitted that he had “had some work done.” Horn asked Orson to say something nice about the deceased Wallace, since he had made so many jokes at the host’s expense in the past.
“I did not,” retorted Orson. “I made jokes at Wallace’s expanse. Look at that picture,” he said, pointing to a large image of Wallace on the giant theater screen. “It’s actual size.”
A gifted performer, Horn went on to appear on The David Letterman show, one of Wallace’s favorite shows. In fact, Horn noted, Thompson routinely sent Letterman tapes of the best skits from his show, hoping Letterman would run them. Tragically, he never did. When Horn first appeared on Letterman, he asked to be introduced as the ventriloquist from The Wallace and Ladmo Show. Letterman read a different script.
The first female, Cathy Dresbach, joined the cast in 1984. She played Jody of the Pink Berets and Perky the Clown among other characters. Dresbach remembered Wallace as a mentor who showed her “how to dropkick a moon pie, ad lib your way to the end of a scene when the teleprompter gets stuck, and what do with fan mail from Florence State Prison….
“….Oh yes, a hard-core felon wanted Jody to be his pen pall. Wallace didn’t miss a beat. He knew just what to do. He donned his protector hat, snatched the letter from my naive hands, ripped it, tossed it, and said, ‘Goodbye now!'” That was one of the straight man’s signature phrases.
In his spare time, Thompson painted toy soldiers — typically ones from losing armies, since English companies had already recreated most of the victorious forces — and attended Civil War reenactments. Pete Kersten, an art director at KPHO, accompanied Wal-Boy to a half dozen. They even appeared alongside about 200 extras in The Blue and the Grey, a mini-series starring Stacy Keach.
The extras anxiously awaited their first glimpse of the Hollywood star. One day during a break in filming, Wallace spied Keach riding toward their camp on a horse. Wallace cried out, “Look, it’s Stacy Keach.”
At that point all the extras turned their heads and started calling out “Keach, Keach.” The actor was taken aback at first, Kersten remembers. “Then he rode up to us on his horse, saluted his troops, and rode on.”
Rick Kersten, Pete’s brother, who was also an art director for the show, told the now legendary story of Wallace attempt to ring the bell tower during his college days at DePauw University, which were by Wallace’s admission cut short due to a lack of interest in science and math.
Wallace had learned during Freshman orientation that the bell was only supposed to be rung after football victories, and only by members of the Sigma Chi fraternity, which donated the bell back in 1850. According to legend, only two people outside of Sigma Chi had ever rung the bell — one during the Depression and another during WWI.
“So he gets these black shorts, a black cape, and a black hat and sneaks up into the tower at night,” Kersten said. “He grabs hold of a wide rope and rings the bell, swinging from one side to the other.
“He started doing that about every other night. The local paper started picking it up. They would run headlines, ‘Will the Phantom Strike Again?'”
Meanwhile the fraternity brothers figured out that Wallace, who had quickly earned a reputation for his antics on campus, was probably the one ringing the bell. They would bump into him in the hallways and warn him, “You better not do that.”
“But Bill wasn’t going to stop,” Kersten said. “He had done it 10 times and wanted more. The 11th time he waited until three in the morning. But the fraternity brothers were waiting.”
The frat boys corralled Wallace, pummeled him, and dragged him to their fraternity, where they shaved his head, leaving only a patch of hair, in the shape of the Sigma Chi cross.
“It was in all the papers under the headline, ‘The Phantom is Caught.’ There was a picture of him with his mask coming off and blood on his face. And all these guys are posing with him.”
The Wallace and Ladmo show was so beloved by Phoenicians that Ben Tyler, a former scriptwriter on the show, thought people might enjoy a play about it. Wallace wasn’t convinced. He told Tyler that no one would sit for two hours to watch a play about a children’s’ variety show. “He also thought each scene should end with one of the players having a heart attack,” said Tyler, who ignored the advice.
The play debuted at the Herberger Theater in 1999. It set attendance records that still stand.
After each sold-out performance, Wallace and McMahon would stay late to sign autographs in the lobby. When the last person in line got to them, Wallace would invariably stand, stretch his arms, and say, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly sign one more autograph.”
Wallace didn’t like the scene in the play where the actors hugged. “We never hugged,” Wallace told Tyler. “Well, I was there and they did hug. In fact, Ladmo blatantly hugged Wallace in the last broadcast on camera when he gave him the last Ladmo bag to be given away on the air.”
Some of Wallace’s funniest bits occurred in real life. Michael Sweeney, who practically grew up in the Thompson household, remembered going out for barbeque with Wallace, his wife Katie, and their son, David, his close friend growing up. Going out for dinner was something his large Irish-Catholic family didn’t get to do very often.
“At the restaurant they would serve the barbecue chicken with a bowl of water with a lemon in it, to clean your hands after eating it,” Sweeney recalled. “I didn’t know what this was, and Bill said to me, ‘Sweeney, what do you think of the lemon soup?’ I dutifully tried it and said, ‘I think it needs more lemon.'”
Thompson spent summers in the West during his high school years, often palling around with his cousin Ned. One summer, the pair entertained themselves by visiting a local department store and inserting wigs into the open flies of mannequins.
“Then we’d hide in the clothes racks and watch the reactions,” recalled Ned, who spoke to this reporter after the tribute.
Several official speakers at the tribute recounted stories about being forced into action on the show. Sandy Gibbons, the former news anchorman at KPHA, would come to work early just to watch the show being taped. One day co-star Pat McMahon didn’t show up for work. Thompson asked Gibbons if he could help with a skit.
“You can be the kid show inspector,” Wallace told Gibbons. “Your a friend of Gerald’s. You are going to close down the show unless they rename it.”
Before Gibbons could object, Wallace cried out, “Roll the cameras.”
“It’s not easy being a kid show inspector,” guffawed Gibbons, borrowing one of Wallace’s signature phrases. “We’re not going to have any more Ladmo bags. No more Ladmo bags, unless we change the name of this show to Wallace and Gerald.”
Gibbons, one of Thompson’s closest friends, estimates he was on the show six or 10 times. “It was such fun for the newsman to get on there and make a fool of himself.”
The news anchor and cartoon host went to lunch every Friday for the last six years. Other friends would come along. Sometimes as many as 25 people were at lunch. Gibbons was there during Wal-Boy’s last week, visiting him in the hospital.
“He was funny until the end. He drove the nurses nuts. They’d come in his room and he’d be laying there with his tongue hanging out, playing dead.”