Thanks For Tuning In
Richard Ruelas (2006)
The family was made up of a father named Bill Thompson and a mother named Marie. They met while both were seniors at the University of Arizona. Bill Thompson's roommate in college was named Barry Goldwater. After graduation, Bill Thompson worked as a reporter for The Arizona Republic. He and Marie then married and moved to New York. They had a son named William Ernest Thompson, born on Dec. 18, 1931. Another boy, Boyce, came along on Christmas Eve of 1932. (3)
Billy's Aunt Gertrude donated the yacht, The Alder, to the Navy, who used it as a troop ship. The Japanese sunk it off the coast of Guadalcanal. When Billy heard the fate of the yacht, he ran into the kitchen and broke a set of Japanese dishes. (18)
Neither the cartoons nor the columns paid. Billy's first actual job was at Mr. Alfredo's nursery. He paid Billy $5 a week to patrol the nursery every night, armed with a BB gun. Billy didn't have any experience at guarding, but took the job anyway. His father told him, "You know who he is keeping off the property? You, You and your friends." Billy never thought about it that way. But, come to think of it, most of the people he was keeping off the property were his friends. (20-1)
He was in Round Valley. A sign in a store window advertised a rodeo that day, with a cash prize for bronco riding. Nos figured he had nothing to lose and tried it. He got bucked off in about two seconds. But one of the cowboys told him about a boxing tournament that night in Show Low that paid $10. Problem was the entry fee was $5, effectively wiping Nos out if he didn't win. But he decided to go for it. (28)
In Nos's senior yearbook, there was a page listing quotes and sayings about every student.
For example, it said Donna Cope could often be heard saying, "Db, really?" and that her weak point was the class clown.
That class clown was Nos.
This is what it said by his name:
From whom can be heard: belches.
Weak point: Arizona. (34)
His second job came through Lad. The two would sometimes go to a fairly seedy bar called Easy Deal Wilson's on Baseline Road. It was run by a guy named Easy Deal Wilson, fittingly enough, who used to be a halfback on Arizona State University's football team. Now Wilson was running this rough gin joint along Baseline Roadthe only building for miles, surrounded by fields of crops and flower gardens. Lad used to take Bill in there and watch fights on the television and talk old times with Easy Deal, who was a great guy to talk old times with.
The next time Lad and Bill went in to Easy Deal Wilson's, Bill asked him for a job as a bartender. This must have struck Wilson funny because he knew Bill was on television as part of a children's show, but he also knew from Lad that KPHO didn't pay so good. Wilson thought about it for a bit, then said OK when he realized that Bill would be a good bartender because he didn't drink and there would be no worry about him sneaking a sip now and then. (50)
There was usually a fight once a week, which was always fun. Drunk guys would hit each other, but Wilson, Bill and the customers would usually step in before things got too out of hand. Every so often, someone would get caught stealing stuff out of cars in the parking lot, so they could sell it for beer money. When Wilson caught someone doing this he would drag the guy out of the car and hold him up by his neck. He would then slam the door on his torso. Then he'd do it again, and again and again. He'd let go and the guy would slowly slide down. Wilson would keep slamming the door until the guy hit the pavement.
Wilson had a signature phrase he used when tossing somebody out. The signature phrase was this: "Don't come back until tomorrow night." (51)
"It's Wallace?" was basically Wallace on a bare set. There was no theme to the show. Wallace wasn't a farmer or a cowboy or a spaceman or anything else that would have limited the comedy possibilities. That was on purpose. Bill knew he didn't want to force himself into constant bits about haystacks, or 'lassos or spaceships. It ended up being a wise move. (56)
Wallace was stuck onscreen by himself and if he needed to stretch out a bit because of some technical glitch, he didn't have much to work with.
To get out of these comedic dead ends, he started telling the audience what was going on.
"Well, I've got nowhere to go," he'd say into the camera. "Apparently, there's some mishap somewhere and I'm supposed to fill up time until it's fixed."
Hands still pulling taffy. Keep stretching, Wallace.
"I will get a full report. I will name names."
More taffy. Keep stretching.
"Actually, let's turn the camera around. See if we can spot them working on whatever problem they have. Can we do that? Is that the guy who's holding the show up?"
Technical difficulties didn't stop the show. They became part of it.
Wallace did that same thing with commercials.
The station, of course, took the spots seriously. This was where the money was made. Some other kids' show hosts would go as far as to completely drop their character's persona in order to do the commercials straight.
But that kind of pitch didn't fit Wallace. It wasn't fun. He started turning the products into props in comedy sketches he would make up on the fly.
Every commercial spot came with a fact sheet. Say it was Scooter Pies, a small, round chocolate cake. Wallace would have to use the three or four lines on the fact sheet in his commercial. One of those lines was usually the product slogan; the rest were descriptions of the product. Wallace would dutifully do the commercial, mentioning the slogan, incorporating the lines about how scrumptious they were, and maybe even taking a big bite of one and smiling. But then he'd go on to note how much they looked like a hockey puck.
And he would tell kids that if they tried one, and didn't like it too good, they could still have fun with it by kicking it around the floor. Then he would kick the Scooter Pie around the floor, showing exactly how much fun it really was. He would laugh. The crew would laugh. The only people who didn't laugh were the sales guys. They were pulling their hair out.
The guys who sold the station's ads would demand meetings with Wallace and when they got him into their little conference room, they kindly reminded him how important it was that sponsors be kept happy, and maybe he could just stick to the script and save the funny stuff for later. Thompson would listen to this advice and nod politely, agreeing not to fool around anymore during the important sponsor time. Then, Thompson would put on the Wallace costume and go out and do the show and tell the audience how he just got balled out for saying Scooter Pies made excellent hockey pucks and how he was sorry, and how Scooter Pies shouldn't be used as hockey pucks. Because they're surprisingly aerodynamic and make for great flying saucers instead.
Eventually, some sponsors caught on that it wasn't so bad to have Wallace make fun of their product. People were laughing and people were watching and a good chunk of them were buying, just as if they had seen a regular commercial. (57-8)
The children's market was so big; KPHO even wanted its radio station to get in on the act. It asked Wallace to host a show. The station broadcast from the ground floor of the Westward Ro, right across from the hotel's restaurant. Wallace was supposed to get 15 minutes on the air every day, after "It's Wallace?" He was supposed to read a nice story from the Golden Books collection to children, something that would get them ready for bedtime. This all sounded very sweet and was obviously dreamed up by someone who didn't know Wallace very well.
Wallace tried to read the books. But he couldn't help himself. He added funny sound effects to go along with the story, and when he thought of a better ending, he would stop reading the book and start reciting the one in his mind instead. Usually, his endings weren't as nice and sweet as the ones the Golden Books people had intended. No one ever told him what to do or not to do on that radio show, and maybe they should have.
It lasted about six months before someone pulled the plug. That was just fine with Wallace. He was having more fun on TV. (59-60)
Meanwhile, "It's Wallace?" picked up a major sponsor in the Toy Cottage, on 7th Avenue. George Bradbury, the owner, figured it would be a natural tie-in to provide all the toys for giveaways. The "Toy Cottage" name was put right on Wallace's box of props and toys. The other sides said: "KPHO" and "Wallace and Ladmo." The fourth side said, "This Space for Rent." (70)
The Wallace show was a monster. And other stations were taking note.
As they watched "It's Wallace?" rise in the ratings, they saw their own shows fall. Sales people at the other stations tried to go after the perceived weak point of the showthe way it treated sponsors. Wallace heard secondhand how one of the competing hosts entered a conference room, filled with sponsors and advertising executives, wearing a Wallace beanie. He then took it off and replaced it with his cowboy hat, telling the sponsors. "We treat your product seriously."
It didn't work. (71-2)
The extra time and the extra shows meant even more time to fill and Wallace kept coming up with new ways to do it. One good way was contests. He created Funny Picture, Hobby, Home Movie and Pet Photo contests, letting the kids have something to talk about when they got on the air. He also thought of creative contests, such as "Design KPHO's New Tower on South Mountain" and "Design a New Suit for Dick Rawls." (73)
It was an ordinary spot, nothing special. Wallace and Ladmo did about five live commercials each show and they didn't expect the one for Rusketts Flakes would end up changing their show forever.
"Now, Ladmo, the sponsors have been complaining lately because we don't show enough respect for the products they sell."
"What are we going to do, Wal boy?"
"Well, they're going to give us scripts. The advertising agency that handles all these details said we're going to lose the account and they're not going to pay for any of these commercials anymore if we don't do them straight. So they sent us these scripts. They won't let us ad-lib them anymore."
Wallace handed a script to Ladmo who looked it over.
"OK, I'm Personality One?"
"Yes," Wallace said. "I'll be Personality Two."
"Glorioski! I can hardly contain myself. These Rusketts Flakes are neat-o-roonie!"
Ladmo stopped reading and turned to Wallace.
"Geez, Wall, do we really have to talk like this?"
"No. It is rather embarrassing, isn't it?
Wall grabbed the box and looked right at the camera.
"Look boys and girls. You like flakes or don't you? These are corn flakes. There's a guy named Rusketts that puts them out. You like corn flakes, why not get these? What are you out? Otherwise, there's a guy on the coast who has a warehouse full of them."
Wallace then ripped the top off of the box.
"And if you don't like flakes, just wait until the holidays." He then showed what good confetti the com flakes made, as he and Ladmo sang Auld Lang Syne.
What changed the show wasn't the commercial itself. It was one of the people watching it.
He was a discharged Army sergeant named Pat McMahon, who was in a Phoenix hotel room, during what was supposed to be a brief stay over before heading to New York to seek show business fame.
He was flipping around channels when he stopped at this commercial. Along with the desert, the mountains and the general feel of the city, this show mesmerized him. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he stuck around for a while. Maybe New York could wait. (79-80)
As he turned 28, Wallace had to abandon another of his passions: the Golden Gloves tournament. He had one left before he hit the age cutoff. His first bout was with a construction worker. Wallace got knocked down in the third round and ended up losing the decision.
But the day of his last fight ended up being the best day of his life.
It started off with Wallace getting the news his grandmother had died and left him $10,000. That sort of took the edge off her passing. That night, Wallace went up against an airman from Williams Air Force Base. Wallace came out blazing. He had the guy on the ropes in the second round. The referee stopped the fight and gave Wallace a victory by technical knockout. Afterwards, Wallace went to a party where he ended up spending some quality time with two Japanese student nurses.
Life was good. (83)
Zoomar worked for a while, but it had limited potential. McMahon then came up with a character that ended up being the longest-running character on the show. He told Wallace he could do an old-lady character and Aunt Maud was born.
She wore a flowery dress and had a shawl draped over her shoulders and teetered about slowly. But she was the exact opposite of the gentle little old lady. She could be caustic. She could be mean. She could also be a bit senile. She was perfect for interviewing celebrities.
Wallace had to be good-natured and polite to the celebrities. They were his guests. He couldn't be mean. But that meant that he sometimes couldn't be funny. The segment was only as entertaining as the celebrities could be. If they took themselves seriously, Wallace, being a good host, had to play along.
Enter Maud. She could make the interviews funny.
"You have no idea what this means to me, Wallace,' said Maud, interrupting Wallace's interview with piano legend, Liberace. "You are one of my all-time favorite pianists," she said.
"But, my favorite'Autumn Leaves.'"
Liberace smiled gently as Maud continued gushing about her favorite Liberace song, which, in fact was performed by Roger Williams, Liberace's keyboard rival at the time. (85)
A young, clean-cut comedian named George Carlin visited. He stood off-stage, wearing a striped blazer, and watched an Aunt Maud bit.
Wallace had found a piece of string on his shirt and was getting ready to throw it away. Maud stopped him and said, "Wait a minute! Give me that piece of string."
"Why do you want that?" Wallace asked.
"There's 100 things you can do with a piece of string," Maud said.
"100 things?" Wallace said.
"Yes," Maud said. She then went on to describe about a few dozen, using the string to illustrate each one, and getting more and more breathless as she spat them out. For the last one, she made a small hangman's loop. "Garrote a mouse."
A few weeks later, McMahon saw Carlin on a TV variety show. He pulled a piece of string off his shirt and told the audience that there were 100 uses for a piece of string. He then proceeded to list off a few dozen.
McMahon called Wallace, who was also watching.
"Did you see that?" McMahon said. Wallace thought it was great. ''How else are we going to get our material on the network?" (86)
McMahon came on as a memory expert who had just written a book. "So, when did you write this book?" Wallace asked. "Ummmm." "OK, well where did you write it?" " Ummmm." "What is your name?" " Ummmm." (88-9)
Wallace took a stab at playing another character. This time, he made sure no one would recognize him. He hid behind some plastic glasses with clouded-over eyes, a big bushy mustache and a big, curly wig. Wallace became Mr. Grudgemeyer.
The voice was inspired by the sharp, nasal delivery of Dick Rawls, the station's general manager. So was the temperament. Grudgemeyer bits would be a run-in with Ladmothe straight laced, play-by-the-rules guy going up against the happy-go-lucky kid. The bits would always end with the two starting to methodically destroy each other's hats, clothes and property, a la Laurel and Hardy.
Mr. Grudgemeyer caught on. It took a while, though, for Rawls to catch on to the idea that Grudgemeyer was a send-up of him. Thankfully, he liked it. He would ask Wallace to tell him when he was doing a Grudgemeyer sketch, and then he would bring guests by the studio and tell them, "Watch, the kid's gonna do me." (91)
The only real competition "It's Wallace?" had came from Channel 3, which programmed "American Bandstand." That show hit the teenage market, and Rawls wanted a chunk of that audience. He asked Wallace to produce a music show, called "Teen Beat," that would use local rock music talent.
Wallace was eager for the job, but he didn't know much about rock music. He was a classical music fan. (92)
[Mike] Condello also had an innate talent for music. He was able to quickly learn any instrument he picked up. But he concentrated on guitar. As a teenager, he started playing in talent shows around town, then graduated to nightclubs, and the steady job at Stage 7. All this by the age of 15.
Wallace went to Andy Grand's the next night and sat at the bar. Grand, who worked the cash register, called himself The Funniest Buffoon in any Saloon. He kept Wallace in sodas while he watched the band. At the break, he introduced himself to Condello, although Condello needed no introduction. "I watch your show," he told Wallace.
"Good," Wallace said. "Want to be on it?" (92-3)
Wallace figured McMahon would be a natural host for the show [Teen Beat], but he was still months away from coming back from the Army. The station didn't want to wait that long. So, Wallace became the first host.
He wanted a new look, something different from the "It's Wallace?" show. So he settled for a sportscoat worn over his bare chest, with a black tie painted directly on his skin. (93)
One day, at a country bar called Frankie's on East Thomas Road, Wallace met a man named Waylon Jennings and asked him to come on the show. He agreed. About 25 years later, while touring through Phoenix, Jennings and his son stopped by KPHO to appear on one of the last Wallace and Ladmo shows. He thanked Wallace for his first television exposure. (93-4)
In the middle of the night, McMahon's phone would ring. It would invariably be Wallace saying, "How about this?"
One of Wallace's first ideas was for a villain, someone who would be the enemy of Ladmo. Wallace had tried the Captain Zoomar character, but that didn't work out too well. Zoomar was condescending to everybody, not just Ladmo.
No, Ladmo's villain needed to be another kid. A brat. An anti-Ladmo.
As soon as that thought struck him, the character fell into place, including the name:
The legend went that Gerald was the nephew of Dick Rawls, the station manager, and Rawls ordered that Wallace find a place for Gerald on the show or else the show would be cancelled. (96)
Gerald appeared in public for the first time on July 4, 1963.
Wallace expected some sort of response. After all, everybody likes to boo a villain and Gerald was a great villain.
But no one anticipated the ire kids had built up against Gerald. If anyone had, they would have hired more security.
As soon as Gerald stepped on that stage in front of Papago Plaza, the kids started booing. Some started waving the signs they made. Gerald came on stage holding a court order from another uncle, a judge, who ordered the fireworks show stopped. Ladmo ripped it up, to the delight of the kids. But they still kept booing. Then they started throwing stuff, like pickles, like grapefruits. Condello watched a chunk of watermelon fly past Gerald and smack right into his brand new Fender amplifier.
The kids rushed the stage. Their weight collapsed it.
Gerald made a break for it.
He dashed off stage and into the KPHO pickup truck. He locked the doors before the kids converged. McMahon, still in full-on Gerald character, started taunting the kids through the truck's window, sticking his tongue out at them and making funny faces. He did this because he thought he was safe. He stopped doing this when the kids started rocking the truck back and forth, growing more desperate to get inside.
Everyone else was standing on what was left of the stage watching this scene deteriorate. McMahon was a door lock away from being clobbered by a gang of angry children.
Everyone was speechless. Ladmo, aghast, turned his eyes briefly from the mob scene to look at Wallace. What he saw in Wallace's eyes wasn't fear or surprise. It was pure joy. Wallace leaned in and whispered to Ladmo, "I think we're on to something."
Condello also looked to Wallace. Condello was looking for reassurance. He thought maybe Wallace would get on the microphone and tell the kids to calm down, that this was all just for fun. But Condello saw that Wallace was downright giddy.
When they caught each other's eyes, Wallace mouthed to Condello, "It's working."
The show had a villain. (97-8)
Wallace knew Gerald was worming his way into the city's brain, when he got a letter from Judson School. On the show, Gerald was supposed to be enrolled at that private school. But students were catching grief and administrators complained that Gerald was giving them a bad name. So, Wallace had Gerald transferred to the fictional Miss Canfield's Charm School for Gifted Children, where he was the only student.
Then, he got Gerald a monster.
This, he knew, played on every child's worst fear: a boogeyman living under the bed or in the closet. Wallace wanted the monster to be truly scary. Pete Kersten designed a furry stitched-up mask and big black claws. And he got Bowie Adams, a football player at Phoenix College and the biggest guy he knew, to get into the costume. . . .
Adams was also the perfect bodyguard size. And with the level of hatred directed at Gerald continuing to rise, having Adams standing on stage, even in a monster costume, wasn't such a bad idea.
Here was the bit with the monster:
Gerald would taunt the audience, saying his monster was coming to get them. "When you hear a rap on your window tonight, it won't be the wind. It will be (dramatic pause) my monster!" Then he would open a door or call his monster out from backstage and the monster would walk out Frankenstein-style with his arms stuck outward, growling.
Until he saw the children.
Then he'd start waving.
And put his hand to his mouth like he was blushing.
And also do some tap dancing.
Maybe a furry soft shoe.
This would give Gerald fits.
It also gave parents fits. Gerald's monster was one more reason to call up the switchboard at KPHO and complain about the show, saying how horrible it was that Gerald was scaring their children.
That didn't make sense to Wallace. He saw that the kids got it, that this mean-looking monster actually liked kids. Maybe it was the parents who were having the nightmares. (100-01)
In 1903, Legend City opened. It was an amusement park nestled in the desert between Phoenix and Tempe. Admission into the Old-West theme park was 75 cents. It had rides, a petting zoo and plenty of junk food. There was a stage at the Saloon. Sandy Gibbons and a young ventriloquist named Vonda Kay Van Dyke, who would later become Miss America, would often do shows there. Wallace and Ladmo became fixtures over at the Lagoon Stage. They got big crowds. The kids loved it. The guys loved it. Legend City loved it.
The guys performed on the Lagoon Stage, an amphitheater located near a fake lake. They did one show on weekdays, and two on the weekends. The shows proved popular. One November day, it rained a hard rain, the kind that made everybody race from the park. The guys looked out from the covered stage, figuring they wouldn't have a show to do. But they saw two kids. They were sitting alone in the stands, their heads under their shirts. The fellows did a show just for them.
The next year brought elections. Barry Goldwater, the U.S. Senator from Arizona, had grabbed the Republican nomination for President. He had been on the show a few times before and was a good sport. So Wallace knew he'd come on again as he worked the campaign trail.
Goldwater became one more in a long line of uncles to Gerald. Goldwater made it clear he didn't care much for his nephew.
The state's most popular politician, and the one with the highest national profile, was on a kids' show, pretending a grown man in blond wig was his little nephew. It wouldn't have made sense to anyone who wasn't a regular watcher of the show, who wasn't in on the joke.
And Wallace was about to find out how tough it was for anyone outside of Phoenix to be truly in on the joke. (102)
Everybody loved the idea of cheering for a rock band, especially since they knew that the Beatles were never going to make it to Phoenix. Instead, they could cheer for Hub Kapp.
What's strange, though, is that everyone knew that it was McMahon in a costume, that Hub Kapp was just a character. 'Those same kids who were cheering McMahon as Hub Kapp were, minutes before, booing McMahon as Gerald.
Unfortunately, the people at Capitol Records weren't privy to this nuance. They were in Los Angeles, and all they knew was that some band called Hub Kapp and the Wheels had knocked the Beatles out of the top spot on Phoenix's record charts.
So a couple of executives got on a plane and came to West High School to see a show. What they saw was a crowd of teenagers going nuts. They didn't know this was a character on a kids' show. They probably wouldn't have cared anyway.
Hub Kapp and the Wheels got a record deal. (106)
As record company executives tried to get more TV appearances and even talked of putting the band in a beach movie, McMahon kept telling them he had to head back to Phoenix to do his children's show. When they'd ask why, he'd pull back the Hub Kapp wig. "See guys, it's really me."
Wallace knew that McMahon loved playing Hub Kapp, that it combined his love of comedy, with his intense love of music. And, being a good friend, Wallace used that knowledge to screw with him. This was one of Wallace's cruelest practical jokes.
The Beatles had announced a tour of the United States. Unfortunately, Phoenix wasn't one of their stops. So Wallace wrote a letter on KPHO stationary asking them to come on the show. About a week later, he got a response from manager Brian Epstein, telling him that was impossible. But that didn't matter. Wallace just wanted the letterhead.
He turned it over to Pete Kersten, who carefully copied it on another sheet. Wallace then wrote a letter saying that the Beatles would gladly be on the show; they just needed a $30,000 appearance fee and an opening act. Wallace then placed this dummy letter in the real envelope and told McMahon about it.
McMahon went nuts. He started haggling management to come up with the Beatles' money. And for the opening act, he humbly offered Hub Kapp.
Some people might have let this joke go for a few minutes, or a few days. Wall kept it up for three weeks. One day, McMahon gathered Wall, Lad and Condello and told them about his plans for the press party. He would have it at his house and he showed them a list of reporters he would inviteand those who he wouldn't. He also discussed what hors d'ouvers would be best. But Wall still didn't drop it. Not until McMahon said he was on his way to the bank to take out a second mortgage so he could pay the Beatles.
"No, don't go to the bank," Wallace said. Ladmo started convulsing in laughter. McMahon realized it was all a joke. His face turned red and every so often he screamed out a choice obscenity at Wall and Lad. Condello, another big Beatles fan who bought into the joke, went outside the station and sat down on the curb and stared off into space. Wall and Lad laughed. A lot. Ladmo didn't stop wheezing for about a half an hour.
It was even better than the previous joke they played on McMahon. They were driving through the desert on their way to Yuma. Wall driving, Lad in the passenger seat and McMahon asleep in the back. Wall pulled over and he and Lad got out and started shouting about some weird craft that was flying overhead. McMahon, a big science-fiction buff, woke up and scrambled outside to join them. But Wal and Lad immediately said, "Oh, you just missed it."
On the way back, Wal and Lad kept talking about what they'd seen. Wal said he'd doubted the existence of UFOs all this time, but now he was convinced. He and Lad described, in great detail, over and over, the craft they saw. The next week, Wal and Lad had an airman from Luke Air Force Base come down and make like he was taking an official report from them about the sighting. The investigator asked McMahon if he saw the object, and just as Wallace and Ladmo had thought, McMahon started describing, in great detail, a cigar shaped craft with purple lightsa craft he never saw. (107-9)
Wallace shared [Fred] Allen's love for humor that came from human behavior. But the characters Wallace thought up were more than eccentric. They had deep social problems. Wallace liked humor that was a bit uncomfortable.
That's the kind of humor that came out in the characters he created.
First came the cowboy: Marshall Good.
He dressed the part: Western shirt, 10-gallon hat, and shiny silver star. But he didn't have the same demeanor as the heroic cowboys Wallace watched as a kid. For one thing, Marshall Good had never been on a horse. He was from New Jersey. He was trying to make a stab at show business, but was failing miserably. He would ask kids in the audience for change. . . . Marshall Good was loosely based on Lew King, a good friend of the guys, who started the first televised talent show in Arizona. King's name was actually Lew Kline and he grew up in New Jersey. But he wore a big Western hat and tried passing himself off as a real-life cowboy on the air. (111-12)
Like Marshall Good, Captain Super was also built on Wallace's dislike of phonies. Captain Super was a pompous, arrogant, sanctimonious blowhard who took himself way too seriously. He could talk a big game, but never deliver. Early on, it was revealed that this courageous superhero slept with a nightlight.
Then, there was Boffo.
He was a clown that wasn't funny. He didn't like kids. He wore a clown suit and a cute red hat and a funny nose. But it was just a way to make a living. It was all about the money.
Boffo had a price list for kid's birthday parties. He charged extra for a cake with candles. He charged more if the kids wanted to eat the cake. If not, he would put the cake back in his trunk and use it again. He charged another $1.50 if you wanted him to wear the clown suit. (113)
The three characters were introduced over a few months. Wallace introduced each of them with fanfare. "We are so fortunate today to have a famous cowboy actor," he would say. "Here he is, Marshall Good."
Marshall Good would come on and announce that he was in an off-Broadway production. "Oh really?" Wallace would say. "How far off Broadway?"
"Mesa," Marshall Good would say. "Broadway Road. I juggle grapefruits by a fruit stand on the road to Apache Junction." He would then mention that the check wouldn't come for a while and ask Wallace if he had some cash to float him. (114)
Aunt Maud showed up and developed an instant crush on [Cassius] Clay. She asked if he was a boxer and he said, "Yes. I box grapefruits. I box oranges ... " Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, ended up coming back to the show two more times. One of those later appearances happened just after Ali fought local heavyweight Zora Foley. Wallace mentioned to Ali that he had done an exhibition bout against Foley. "Foley's a good guy," Clay said. "He probably took it easy on you." (117)
The show also continued to be popular with politicians. The guys campaigned for Sam Steiger who ran for Congress in 1966. Wall, Lad and McMahon went to small towns in the northern part of the state playing on Steiger's Tigers, a softball team. Steiger got elected, and made Time magazine when he walked into Congress on the first day of the session with a wheelbarrow and shovel. (118)
It was McMahon's idea. Kids who won prizes on the show were getting to pick something out of the Toy Cottage. But watching a kid make up his mind didn't make for great television. McMahon decided to put a toy in a paper sack, along with a bunch of other sponsors' products, and call it a Ladmo Bag.
Suddenly, every kid wanted one.
Kids could win them on the show by winning a contest. But it was easier to win one at a stage show. So as Ladmo Bags became more and more popular, Wallace and Ladmo stage shows became an even-more consistent draw.
Plus, handing out Ladmo Bags was a good way to break the tension brought on by Gerald, which continued to grow. At one 1965 show at Legend City, police arrested a teenager carrying a gun at the Lagoon Stage. It appeared he wanted to take Gerald off the show for good. (118-19)
But it wasn't just his loyalty to management that kept him off the picket lines. It was the show.
He could not stomach the idea of the show going off the air, or being used as some tool to end a strike. Neither could Ladmo. The union asked him to strike, but he wouldn't walk out either.
So, everyday, Wallace and Ladmo crossed the picket line to work on the most popular show on KPHO's schedule. To the kids, there was no strike. (124)
As Wallace was leaving, with the prop box in its familiar place on his shoulder, a guy ran up and tossed some papers into it. He told Wallace, "You've been served."
The papers were divorce documents. Donna was leaving Wallace.
He went home to find all of his stuff stacked up in neat little piles on the driveway. With no place to stay, he collected his things and went back to KPHO. He started living in the prop room. . . .
Wallace was a wreck, both financially and emotionally. But he never missed a show.
Rawls hired Wallace a good lawyerRichard Kleindeist, who later became a figure in the Watergate scandal. Rawls didn't want a depressed Wallace, and did what he could to make sure the divorce went as smoothly as possible. (130)
Kangaroo Carson was a villain. And he complained about "fast counts" a lot. He was also one of Wallace's favorite wrestlers. He was a great villain. Before one match, a guy in a wheelchair kept yelling stuff at Carson. So, Carson lifted up the ropes and told the man. "Climb on in. I'll break what's left." The man became enraged and actually tried getting out of his wheelchair but fell over.
Once, Wallace was with Carson as they entered a convenience store in Casa Grande. Carson was smoking a big cigar. A woman, who was at the checkout carrying a bag of groceries, recognized Carson and started yelling at him. Carson calmly tapped some ashes into her grocery bag. She got steamed. That's the kind of guy Carson was. (131)
Carson jumped out of the ring and shoved Wallace out of his folding chair. Then he picked up that folding chair and bashed Wallace over the head with it.
Of course, has all a set-up. Carson knew how to hit someone with a chair and Wallace knew how to take it. The chair would end up along the back of the shoulder. It would still smart, but not like it would if it were square on the head. To sell it, Wallace had to jerk his head back and forth a lot and stagger around. He also needed some "juice." He fell to the ground under the ring, where a razor blade was stashed. He used it to cut himself on the forehead. It didn't hurt much. But it did make a lot of blood. Wallace ran into the ring, with Carson still shoving him. Wallace made it up to the announcer and grabbed the mike.
"I can't wrestle," he told the crowd, blood still streaming onto his face. "But I do know how to box." (132)
But, Wallace knew his comedy could work in other formats besides a kids' show. And he thought of a new venue, one that held real potential to hit nationally.
He called it "The Low-Budget Talk Show." He played host to a variety of fouled-up guests. For example, there was Rupert Croon, played by Lad, a famous lounge singer who had the misfortune of contracting a case of laryngitis before the show. Instead of singing, he pulled out a big pad of paper and wrote out the lyrics to "The Impossible Dream." (139)
The three were getting a lot of press attention. And the words used to describe the show would get more and more flattering as the years passed.
But Wallace knew that to those outside of Arizona, this was just a kids' show. It would be forever a task, for not just Wallace, but for every Arizonan who grew up with the show, to explain what made it unique to those who had never seen it.
And that task was going to be vital. A team of management outsiders was coming in who had no idea what they had on their hands.
The first words General Manager Bill McReynolds said to Wallace were, "What else do you do here?"
This was right after Wallace told him he hosted the afternoon kids' show. (142)
The government didn't help matters.
That same year, the National Association of Broadcasters, under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission and a parent's group, adopted a new code of conduct for member stations. Kids' show hosts could no longer do commercials during their shows. The kids' show hosts had too much influence over their young audience, went the reasoning. Doing commercials exploited that power.
That rule put almost every kids show in the United States out of existence.
The hosts across the country may have seen themselves as serving a vital role in the community. But in a purely business sense, their role was to sell products. If the government wasn't going to let them do that, the station could just run the cartoons with no host.
It was much cheaper.
And here was "The Wallace and Ladmo Show." (142-3)
The ban on product endorsements meant that the show had to grind to a halt every ten minutes for two-minute commercial breaks. And Wallace couldn't make the spots entertaining anymore. He couldn't have Captain Super confront the Shamrock burglar, only to find it was his old frat brother Charlie. (143-4)
Wallace, Ladmo and McMahon grew ever frustrated, squeezed by both the government regulations and the tighter management style at KPHO. Then came the debacle over the Wallace and Ladmo Savings Club.
It was a tie-in with Greater Arizona Savings. The deal was this:
For use of the Wallace and Ladmo name and their pictures on Ladmo Bucks, the bank was going to pay a fixed amount. That money was supposed to be split four ways among Wallace, Lad, McMahon and the station. KPHO was also going to get money from the bank buying commercial time to promote the plan.
At least that was the original deal.
Jack Donahue, the new sales manager, changed the split. Now KPHO was going to get 75 percent of the money. And the three guys split up the rest. Instead of getting a quarter of the pot, each guy got 8 percent. Wallace figured that cost them each $10,000, Jack Donahue was added to the "dork" list. (144)
An upstart theater owner named Dan Harkins started popping up on the show. Harkins's dad, Red, ran the Valley Art in Tempe for several years and now Dan was following in his footsteps. Harkins had grown up on the same street as Wallace lived.
When Dan was in high school, Wallace saw him at the house and noticed his face was all puffy. Harkins told him he'd been beaten up. As class president, he was a target for bullies. "Tomorrow, you're going to start learning how to box and defend yourself," Wallace told him. The next day, they started with a two mile run. Then came the basics and, over the next few months, sparring with Lad and Condello. Dan got to use this new knowledge at prom. A bully picked a fight with him and ordered him outside. Danny hit him with a straight left jab, followed with a right cross. The guy went to the ground, and when he got up, he ran off. Wallace felt a lot of pride when he heard that story. (148)
One day, Wallace went into an antique store and hid a fake treasure map inside an old book. A little while later, he brought David and Mike into the store and pretended to find it. It showed buried treasure on Squaw Peak. "Let's go, let's go," they said. They talked Wallace into it and they started following the map. Over the tree, over the rock, up the side of a hill, under another rock. It took an hour, but the two finally hit "X" and started digging. They discovered a metal box filled with old coins. David and Mike slapped their foreheads when they found it. Wallace didn't tell them that he had buried that box himself the day before. (150)
One day, in line at the supermarket, a lady suggested to Wallace that the show should be more whimsical. "You should feature elves and butterflies and snowflakes." The very next day, Gerald did a poem about elves, butterflies and snowflakes and was soundly booed by the kids. The lady wrote Wallace saying that wasn't what she had in mind. So that next day, Aunt Maud told a story about a cute little elf who put butterflies and snow flakes in a blender with a little nutmeg. Wallace never heard from the lady again.
The Maricopa County Magic Club wrote Wallace to say Amazo's bad tricks were giving magicians a bad name. Wallace invited them on the show and Amazo destroyed all their props.
The Phoenix Clown Club said Boffo was giving clowns everywhere a bad name. Wallace had them on and Boffo popped their balloons and spritzed them.
The Cave Creek Motorcycle Club wrote to say that Bobby Jo Trouble is an excellent role model for bikers. The dozen members were invited to the show and Ladmo gave them all Ladmo bags. (151-2)
It was after an Arizona State Fair stage show. Wallace had a fierce headache and was walking to the exit with the prop box tucked into the groove on his shoulder and a kid asked him for an autograph. "If I put this box down to sign the autograph, I'll never get it back up on my shoulder," Wallace said, and kept walking. It was the only autograph he had ever refused, and the memory bugged him for years. Enough so that he wanted it included in his biography. (152)
The soundstage and offices of Wallace and Ladmo were always a popular stop on tours of Channel 5. Usually Wallace didn't have to do much more than wave and smile at the passing line of people, like he was on exhibit at the zoo or something. One day, after the crowd had moved on"now we'll visit the set of "Open House"one guy trailed behind and laid a sheet of paper on Wallace's desk. "Here, I wrote a Boffo bit," he said.
Wallace scanned over it and thought it was terrific.
He scampered after the guy and told him, "Come back tomorrow with another one."
Wallace convinced management to bring this man on as a writer. And management, wanting to keep its institution happy, obliged.
The man's name was Craig Dingle and he was profoundly strange. Which meant he was perfect to write for the characters on Wallace and Ladmo. His humor was in line with Wallace's, but was a tad bit sicker. Dingle would mention taboo subjects like death in his bits. Not exactly typical kiddie show fodder.
Wallace loved it.
Dingle worked alone, just like Wallace. They didn't bounce ideas off each other. Instead, Dingle presented finished bits to Wallace for approval. Over time, Dingle's personality quirks surfaced.
Dingle used to take the city bus to work everyday, something not many people did in car-crazy Phoenix. Wallace offered to let him have his old Ford Pinto instead and Dingle reacted with shock, "What? A Pinto? You want my friends to see me driving a Pinto?" (156-7)
Upon meeting Dingle, Sgt. Harry Florian told Wallace to watch out for him. "That's the kind of guy who ends up with serious problems," Florian warned. (157)
For generally strange behavior, a memo went out forbidding Dingle from going into parts of the building other than the Wallace and Ladmo set and office.
Wallace knew he had found the right guy. (158)
There were still stage shows. One advantage Wallace and Ladmo had over the cable networks was the personal connection they could make with kids every weekend. Mickey Mouse couldn't do that.
During one show at a Catholic Church in Coolidge, a small boy parted the crowd holding a plastic crucifix up in the air. He got up to the stage and told Wallace he wanted to speak with him. Wallace figured that if he gave this kid the microphone, something funny would happen. So he led the kid up to the stage, and the kid, still holding the cross up in the air says, "I swear by all that is holy, it is Gerald who's doing all the bad stuff."
The crowd went nuts.
The kid turned and pointed the cross at Gerald, who pretended to be exorcised and cowered away, finally falling down, screaming in pain and rolling back and forth. The kids started screaming, "miracle, miracle."
Ladmo was laughing so hard, he was crying. (160)
KPHO put together another 90 minute special. In it, Gov. Bruce Babbitt told them he had already issued a state proclamation for their 25th Anniversary and he was too busy to sign another one. "Could you please just scratch out the 25 and write 30?" he said.
Also included were memories from Steven Spielberg, who grew up in Phoenix, and came on as a teenager to show a film. He had given an interview to Channel 5 movie critic Bill Rocz to promote Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and reminisced about watching Wallace and Ladmo saying, "They never talked down to kids." That was high praise for Wallace. That was exactly the point of the show.
Bill Rocz told Spielberg the trio was about to celebrate their 30th Anniversary, and Spielberg's eyes widened, "They're still on the air?" (164-5)
Wallace started noticing more and more station promotions during the show. That meant ads weren't being sold and the station had to run house ads to fill up time. Wallace crunched the numbers and figured out that the show wasn't pulling its own weight anymore.
He talked to Greg Brannan about it. And Brannan told him that, although the show was losing money, the station management wanted to keep it on the air because it was an institution. Wallace went along with management. (168-9)
The show opened with a trademark Wallace segment. A suit-clad speaker sang the praises of the show outside the Arizona Capitol Museum. The camera panned to a grinning and nodding Ladmo, then over to Wallace who was sleeping. Seated in the folding chairs behind them were two winos and a yawning Brownie. (171)
Wallace had written good-bye skits for all the characters: Boffo said he'd go into the birthday cake business. Marshall Good asked if he could live somewhere on the set. Captain Super said he'd run for office.
Gerald came in and announced how happy he was to finally be getting rid of Wallace and Ladmo. He gave the kids one final Bronx cheer before he stormed off the set to a chorus of boos. But the camera followed Gerald to the back where he revealed the sad truth: Wallace and Ladmo were his best, and only, friends and he was going to miss them deeply.
Gerald finished, choked up a bit, and Condello started playing "1954" over a collage of old clips.
As the show wound down to a close, Ladmo gave Wallace a Ladmo Bag and a deep hug.
Then it was over. (179)
Wallace used what little time was left over to slowly sink into depression.
It was the first time in his life that he didn't have to be anywhere or do much of anything. He had devoted his life to a kids' show. Now it was off the air, and the cartoons that ran in its place were getting the same ratings. Wallace started to seriously question whether he had wasted his life.
So he was surprised when the Arizona Historical Society called. (183)
Still, the crowds came. He and McMahon would sit behind a table and sign the books. Everyone had a story to tell. By the end of the day, Wallace's hand hurt, but his spirits were high.
Wallace signed every book the same way. This is how he signed it:
Lots of memories. Wallace. (188; see an example)
The people from the Boyce Thompson Arboretum called. They wanted Wallace to come out and get an award and open their fall season. Wallace said he'd be glad to come out, but he just didn't want to stand around and get an award. He asked if he could plant a tree instead.
The desert park was started by Wallace's great uncle, William Boyce Thompson, who had developed two of the West's biggest copper minesthe Inspiration mine near Globe and the Magna [sic; Magma] mine near Superior. He opened the arboretum in 1927. (196)