LADMO'S LAST CURTAIN CALL
Television icon, ASU alum loses bout with lung cancer
By Paul Matthews
As the lovable Ladmo on Channel 5's "Wallace and
Ladmo" show, Ladimir Kwiatkowski pasted smiles on children's faces for
almost 36 years. Those smiles turned to tears Wednesday, as the 65-year-old
Kwiatkowski lost his battle with lung cancer.
He is survived by his wife, Patsy, and their five children.
Kwiatkowski was somewhat of a star even before his television career as Ladmo. From 1951 to 1952, he was a starting outfielder for the Arizona State College Bulldogs, predecessor to today's ASU Sun Devils.
His baseball career ended in 1953 when he graduated with a degree in journalism, but the reputation he developed with his teammates lasted the rest of his life.
"He had a good arm and he hit the ball real well," recalled 62-year-old Scottsdale resident Roy Coppinger, a catcher for the team from 1951 to 1952. "we weren't real close, but we were friends. He was a real nice person."
His co-workers fondly remembered Ladmo as one of the most positive people they had ever met.
"He was the greatest guy in the world, everybody's friend," said Sharon Kelley, a director/producer for KPHO. She said she directed the show in its final eight or nine years, and she doesn't believe there will ever be another show that successful in the Valley again.
"In the early days with the stage show, thousands and thousands of kids would line up around the block to see Wallace and Ladmo," Kelley said, trying to describe the Ladmo phenomenon. "It's like explaining the Beatles. They had something everyone loved and felt good about."
The "Wallace and Ladmo" show had three stars and hit the airwaves in 1954. Bill Thompson played the straight man, Wallace. KTAR talk show host Pat McMahon played a variety of characters, including rich superbrat Gerald, fairy tale-telling Aunt Maude and Captain Super.
Ladmo's trademark garb consisted of a top hat and a gray coat with tails. His claims to fame were Ladmo bags -- brown bags filled with candy and toys that he would pass out to the squealing delight of lucky children in the audience. Winning one was considered a special treat.
Kelley said the show's 35 years is television record for a continuous show with the same cast.
Thompson, who as Wallace was Ladmo's sidekick and friend, said Kwiatkowski was a terrific partner and someone who won't easily be forgotten.
"Ladmo was a terrific guy to work with," Thompson said. "you could always count on him to come in with a cheerful positive attitude, to put the show together and go out there and just do it. People will remember him for a long time. Only one Ladmo comes along in a lifetime."
Linda Turley, now a public information officer for Maricopa County, worked for Channel 5 between 1978 and 1993, the last 12 years as an anchor-woman. She said she grew up with the "Wallace and Ladmo" show, and getting the opportunity to work with Ladmo was one of the most exciting aspects of her job.
"When I got to meet Ladmo, Gerald and Wallace, I thought I had gone to heaven," Turley said. "one of my favorite things to do was sneaking out of the newsroom to go and watch the 'Wallace and Ladmo' show."
She said everyone was hit hard when the show was canceled in 1989, and watching the final production of the show was difficult.
"I think Ladmo was the one hit hardest of all," Turley said. "Wallace was kind of ready to hang up his hat and McMahon had other things he could do. I think (Kwiatkowski) really did suffer with the loss of it."
Ladmo's legend extend to the Elks Lodge in Tempe, where he was a member for 30 years. Members of the Lodge said he was tireless in his efforts to entertain kids and in 1993, won the Elks' Citizen of the Year award. Members of the Lodge said he will be dearly missed.
"The guy always volunteered," said 54-year-old Jack Denton, a member of the Elks for 17 years. "I don't know how he found the time but he always found it, especially for kids."
The Lodge bartender, 67-year-old Skip Golis, had nothing but compliments for Kwiatkowski, whom he said entertained kids in a Christmas program for many years.
"He was a good Elk, very charitable," Golis said.
'Ladmo' show went beyond silly to satire
In its glory years -- and I'm thinking mid-1960's
here, the years I watched it as a kid -- Wallace & Ladmo was,
first and foremost, satire.
Oh, sure, the show had cartoons for us public-school brats. But the reason it's remembered so fondly by everybody who witnessed it in those years was an almost-nothing-sacred attitude toward all kinds of grown-up topics.
As the Valley became known as a retirement mecca, Wallace & Ladmo offered a character -- Aunt Maud -- lampooning cranky old folks.
As the Valley became known as home to red-blooded conservative politics, Wallace and Ladmo featured Captain Super, a transparent superhero in shoulder pads.
When assembly-line pop stars ruled radio, Wallace, Ladmo and company produced their own -- Hub Kapp and his band, The Wheels -- and watched in shock as the guy's spoof records became hits.
The show had a freewheeling, let's-make-TV glow in those days, before Phoenix became much of a media market. It had sharp humor, not just kid-show silliness. It had an ironic eye.
More irony: This summer's retrospective repackaging of the Wallace & Ladmo show's greatest bits was prompted by the recent death of one of its key players -- Ladmo, Ladimir W. Kwiatkowski, a beloved local icon -- but better spotlights the satirical talents of other cast members, Bill "Wallace" Thompson, Cathy "Jodi" Dresbach and Pat McMahon, who played a cast of thousands.
Ladmo was a kid-magnet on the show, which ran on Channel 5 (KPHO) from 1954 to 1989. Thompson, McMahon and (during later years) Dresbach were the irony engines.
"The 1950's was just Lad and I," Thompson said. "It was two guys learning on the job. We really didn't know what we were doing.
Decade of experimentation
"In 1960, McMahon arrived on the show, and the demographics greatly expanded. He had appeal to teens, college kids and adults. It became a decade of experimentation.
"Before, it had been just a straight man and his side kick."
McMahon's characters -- old-lady Aunt Maud, superhero Captain Super, hep cat Hub Kapp -- "brought an entire rainbow of human flaws" to the little screen, Thompson said. "It was just amazing."
Sadly, not much remains from the show's best decade, the 1960s.
"Viewers have the conception that we have a vault somewhere that holds every show ever made," said Sharon Kelley, a Channel 5 news director who is compiling the summer series from about 40 hours of archival tape -- the surviving total from the thousands of hours that aired. Kelley directed most of the show's final decade.
The program was broadcast live from its 1954 debut through the early 1970s. All that remains from that era are prerecorded spots that were inserted into the shows between the cartoons, commercials, sketches and live patter.
The segments include in-studio blackouts, silent-movie clips filmed on location around the Valley and a collection of rock-and-roll parodies written by guitarist Mike Condello and mimed by the troupe in the style that would in a later era be called music video). Even less 1970s Wallace & Ladmo exists than was saved from the '60s, Kelley said. The program became primarily a studio production after about 1970, with far fewer preproduced segments. Another problem: In the early 1970s, the program went from live to one-day tape delay. The tapes were kept for about a week, Kelley said, then reused. A whole decade of shows was lost, one week at a time.
Kelley began to keep a highlights reel when she took over as director in 1982. These later clips, mixed with film salvaged from the 1960s, will make up much of the Channel 5 retrospective series.
Kelley said few of the clips from the new series have been used in previous anniversary shows, or in the live memorial Channel 5 aired after Ladmo's funeral.
1 full show from '66
Especially fresh will be footage from the
one full show somehow saved from the prime year of 1966. Kelley said
the hour probably was recorded via kinescope to shop the show to advertisers.
A couple of live commercials captured on the film illustrate Wallace's irreverent contribution. Wallace pitches Chocks, a chewable vitamin for kids, by telling his young audience that, "You chew 'em up like candy, and they taste good like candy."
In another spot, Ladmo wheels a Sealtest ice-cream cart onto the set. Thompson/Wallace tastes the product and deems it, "Good. Not great, but good."
Advertisers were happy to pay for this kind of attitude because viewers of all ages ate it up.
McMahon, who narrates, the new compilation, says his first memory of the show was tuning in to catchy Wallace and Ladmo gently trashing an advertiser.
"I was mesmerized by their irony toward our industry, their iconoclasm and their wonderful, unparalleled honesty," said McMahon, now a talk host for KTAR radio.
Most kid shows of that time were "lame," McMahon said, "featuring some guy who puts a sock on his hand and does a hand puppet and tells kids nothing more entertaining than they should brush their teeth three times a day."
But here in Phoenix, they had two guys sitting on a bench, tossing corn flakes in the air.
"They were letting the kids in on this stuff," McMahon said. "At that moment, I said 'I want to meet those guys.'"
'Today's kids have Barney, Yesterday's kids had Ladmo.'
Legions of fans mourn Ladmo, TV's clown prince
By Gail Tabor
He personified the innocence of childhood, and children
loved him for it.
The love and loyalty extended into adulthood, and many longtime residents of the Valley and state felt that a little bit of their childhood died Wednesday along with their hero, Ladimir Kwiatkowski.
To them, he was Ladmo. Ladmo of the cartoonish hat, the goofy grin. Ladmo the victim, who usually got blamed for Gerald's snotty tricks. Ladmo, who filled his Ladmo Bags with sweet treats that sent mothers and dentists into despair but children into delirious joy. Ladmo, of the "ho ho ha ha hee hee ha ha" Wallace & Ladmo Show, the longest-running local television show in the nation's history.
Today's kids have Barney. Yesterday's kids had Ladmo.
Ladimir Walter James Kwiatkowski, who was born July 13, 1928, the only son of an officer on the Cleveland Police Department, enrolled in 1949 at Arizona State University to study journalism. His heart, however was in center field, and through four seasons, Ladmo played baseball well enough to get a contract offer from the Cleveland Indians.
However, Kwiatkowski stayed one more year to graduate and then went to work as a stagehand and cameraman at KPHO-TV (Channel 5). At that time, 1954, Bill Thompson was host of a children's show called It's Wallace, and he needed a partner.
Recalling the event years later, Kwiatkowski said, "I just locked in the camera, ran around in front and started doing stuff."
"What are you doing?" questioned Wallace.
"Looking for a valuable ring."
"Where'dja lose it?" asked Wallace.
"Whatcha' lookin' in here for?"
"There's more light in here."
A new star hit the stage, and kids unconditionally surrendered to this rubber-faced, leather-booted clown who acted out their own impulses.
Over the years, Ladmo became their hero while Wallace was the nice guy who tried to make sense of all the confusion. After Pat McMahon, a radio talk-show host, joined the show, his character, Gerald, got the boos.
"I am the kids," Ladmo once said. "I do the things they wish they could do, and I get caught the way they do, and get spanked the way they do."
The show was renamed Wallace & Company in 1961, and then became Wallace & Ladmo in 1961. McMahon joined the show in 1960 and brought his characters -- Aunt Maud, Captain Super, Marshal Good, Ozob the Clown and the rich little brat, Gerald -- with him.
The zany, goofy, inspirational, educational program lasted 35 years, and its guests would have Jay Leno green with envy. One star who never did talk shows, actor Walter Brennan, had a fine time with Aunt Maud. The great Spanish dancer Jose Greco joined the fun, auditioning "Sonny and Warmer, a flamenco dance team from Tolleson" -- in reality, Ladmo and McMahon.
Alice Cooper, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali and Willie Mays were guests. In one single week, the lineup included Jonathan Winters, Jack Benny, Joe Namath, John Byner and Lorne Green.
Steven Spielberg, who grew up in the Valley, wrote Ladmo a letter to thank him for the inspiration his character provided the film director in his earlier year.
Even Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon Jr. of the Arizona Supreme Court donned his judicial robes in 1988 to explain to the children the impeachment of then-Gov. Evan Mecham.
And local personalities never turned down an invitation to appear on the show, because anybody who was anybody came and went like old friends dropping by the house.
There were no rehearsals. Wallace gave the parameters of a sketch, and it was primarily ad lib.
It was slapstick, free-swinging fun and wildly creative. Sometimes all their jokes weren't on the screen -- Wallace and Ladmo delighted in playing elaborate practical jokes on McMahon.
The simplest involved a flying saucer, supposedly spotted by Wallace and Ladmo as they drove to Yuma for a personal appearance. McMahon had dozed off in the car and was driven frantic by their description of what he had missed.
One of the most hectic jokes involved an invitation to The Beatles to appear on the show, and Wallace told McMahon they had accepted. McMahon busied himself for weeks making all of the arrangements before discovering it was a Wallace-Ladmo hoax.
Another regular on the show was musician Mike Condello, who created the Salt River Navy Band and popularized a local hit song, Ladmo in the Sky With Almonds. Cathy Dresbach joined the team as Jodi in 1984.
Bill Thompson, aka Wallace, said Wednesday that he has lost not just a partner, but a close friend.
"He was a great guy to work with, and most of all a really nice guy," he said. "i'll miss Lad a lot."
Dresbach, choking back tears, said, "I loved Ladmo just like every other kid, and getting to know him for real, he was as warm and loving and funny as he was on TV."
Ladmo's love for children was exemplified by his devotion to his own three sons and two daughters. He married Patsy in 1951 after they met while both were students at ASU. He proposed to her during an ASU-University of Arizona football game.
Patsy told a woman years later that she made a devastating mistake when she had candy-striped carpeting installed in their living room. Ladmo and the kids used the stripes as down markers for their indoor football games. Unable to move the games outdoors, she gave up and moved out all of the furniture.
When the show celebrated its 35th anniversary in April 1989, then-Gov. Rose Mofford issued a formal proclamation designating April 1 as Wallace and Ladmo Day. An estimated 40,000 fans showed up for their anniversary show in Encanto Park.
During its run, the show received seven regional Emmy Awards. And management in November 1989, ostensibly because Thompson wanted to retire, viewers were shocked.
One third-generation Arizonan said, "This is a black day in Phoenix history."
At the time, Ladmo said, "It's very sad. It kind of gets you in the gut. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm trying to be happy and jovial about it, but it's tough. I like being Ladmo."
Post-television, Ladmo made personal appearances with Dresbach and gave out Ladmo Bags. In 1989, he entered an agreement with a cookie company to use his name on their cookies. However, Meredith Corp., owner of KPHO-TV sued, saying it owned the name, not Ladmo.
A jury agreed with Meredith. Ladmo took the stand during the 1992 trial, beginning his testimony by asking the judge, "So, how do you like your job?"
Ladmo loved his and obviously wanted the show to go on. But he realized it couldn't without Wallace.
"I have to thank all the viewers who made my life so happy," he said. "I've been the luckiest guy in the world."
All those viewers, many of whom still have their Ladmo Bags, think it was just the opposite. They were the lucky ones.
--Also in this article:
The Wallace & Ladmo Show attracted some of the biggest stars in entertainment and sports. Guests included:
Muhammad Ali, Jack Benny, Walter Brennan, John Byner, Alice Cooper, Lorne Green, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Jonathan Winters.
Remembering with a Smile
Frank Drew, 38 --"I
started watching the show when I was 18, after I moved here. They
did a lot of positive things in the community. The show made me laugh.
It wasn't just for kids. I'm sure I wasn't the only 18-year-old watching."
James DuMars, 27 -- "I watched Wallace & Ladmo every day and loved them. I wanted to be on their TV show my whole life. They came to my school once for a carnival. I placed second in a balloon-blowing contest during the show, but it was the first-place winner who got the prize."
Angel Villa, 24 -- "I grew up with Ladmo. One of my fondest memories is being picked to go on stage during a Legend City show. I had to choose a prize. In one bag was a Ladmo T-shirt; in the other, Gerald's socks. Fortunately, I picked the T-shirt. I also got to be on the TV show."
Maureen Cosgrove, 30 -- "I remember Ladmo always wearing a big jacket and that silly T-shirt with the tie painted on. I remember that Wallace always treated Ladmo like he was stupid. Ladmo was always the nice one."
Barbara Stoute, 43 -- "I watched Wallace & Ladmo every day and always wished I could be on the show. I was real sad when it went off the air."
Missing a Friend
End to Ladmo's life of Joy
By Bill Muller
For the first time since we've known him, Ladmo inspired
tears instead of laughter.
But if anyone could have a funeral full of joy and celebration, it was the man who came into the world as Ladimir Kwiatkowski and left it as every child's best friend.
"This is a sad day because I'm missing a friend," said Bill Thompson, who played Ladmo's pal, Wallace.
"But there's a certain amount of joy because we got to celebrate Lad's life, which was all about joy and being happy."
Hundreds filled Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe on Friday to say goodbye to Ladmo, the clown prince of Phoenix television who charmed generations of young viewers.
Kwiatkowski, who died Wednesday of lung cancer at age 65, played the lovable Ladmo for 35 years on The Wallace & Ladmo Show, the longest running local television program in the nation's history.
Friday's services had all the trappings of a state funeral. Motorcycle police waited somberly outside the church, which was surrounded by fire engines and televisions trucks.
Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods attended, as did Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell, and the ceremony was broadcast live on KTAR (620 AM) radio.
Amid the confusion, 14-year-old Joe Yale rode up on his bike, his schoolbooks in tow.
"It's so sad," said the eighth-grader. "He wasn't even that old. He was a good person. I liked how he treated people, how he respected kids. He was like, friendly, you know?
"He helped a lot of kids out. He was a role model."
Ladmo's pallbearers, including three of his sons, wore Ladmo T-shirts, complete with painted-on ties. Family members carried the trappings of Ladmo's persona: his oversize hat, coat, shoes and a Ladmo Bag in a glass case.
All his old friends were there to say goodbye: Thompson and his alter ego Wallace; Pat McMahon, who played Captain Super, Marshal Good and bratty Gerald; musician Mike Condello, creator of the show's Salt River Navy Band; and Frank Kush, former Arizona State University football coach.
McMahon's heartfelt eulogy had the mourners laughing and crying, almost both at once.
"It occurred to me a few minutes ago, when I saw the order of the program, that after 10,000 times, this was the only time I was ever on first," McMahon said.
"So it's up to me to welcome you like Wallace did every day.
"Nice to see you, glad you tuned in."
McMahon said Ladmo was a unique character, and shrugged off comparisons to Peter Pan or the Pied Piper.
"Ladmo knew that Peter Pan could never hit a curveball," McMahon said, alluding to his friend's baseball prowess. "And he wasn't the Pied Piper. He didn't lead kids, he was one."
In a light moment, McMahon told mourners that Captain Super had turned in his uniform, and Marshal Good had finally gotten a job.
"And here's the biggest news of all," McMahon said. "Gerald is not here today because he volunteers three times a week to serve lunch at a public-school cafeteria."
As the crowd howled with laughter, McMahon added, "But Gerald was right. All those years he told you that Ladmo did it. And he did. He changed our lives."
But the crowd of more than 300 got the biggest thrill when Thompson and McMahon re-enacted an old skit from Wallace & Ladmo, handing out a Ladmo Bag to a surprised mourner.
"It was very special," said Kathleen Pierson, a Phoenix woman who is pregnant. "I had no idea. But it's special because the baby is due today or tomorrow."
Asked whether the baby might end up named Ladmo, Pierson joked, "It might not work if it's a girl."
The Ladmo Bags, which were filled with Twinkies, soda and other goodies, were handed out to kids during the show. True to form, Pierson's bag contained Twinkies and orange soda.
While McMahon's eulogy was aimed at people who may not have known Ladmo, those who grew up watching Ladmo compared his passing to losing youth's innocence.
"I consider myself one of Ladmo's kids, like thousands of others who grew up in Arizona," Woods said.
"I think that's why it was so meaningful to so many people. I think we do feel like part of our childhood has slipped away here."
Roger Kronberg, who went to school with Ladmo's oldest son, Kim, said he had mixed feelings at the ceremony.
"It's sad that he's gone, but the rich part is all the people he touched," Kronberg said.
"He was always smiling, always happy and he always had a joke for you. He brought life and levity to any situation."
As the ceremony ended, the mourners drifted away. Thompson, Ladmo's partner for half a lifetime, stayed in the parking lot shaking hands until almost everyone had left.
"Everybody's been affected by it," Thompson said. "He was a great guy. He had so many friends. We're all going to miss him."
Then he turned and made the slow walk to his car.
A heart filled with sunshine
He was a co-star of the longest running local television
program in history and he brought joy to perhaps millions of youngsters
in his 35-year career, yet it's doubtful many could pronounce, let alone
remember, his name. To nearly everyone, Ladimir Walter James Kwiatkowski
was simply Ladmo. His death this week at age 65 left this Valley
considerably short of its normal portion of humor, kindness and good will.
He turned down a baseball contract offer from the Cleveland Indians to take a cameraman job in 1954 at KPHO-TV at about the same time that Bill Thompson needed a sidekick for his children's program, It's Wallace? The rest is television history; 35 years on the same show, taking falls, being hit over the head by Thompson, giving out Ladmo bags of goodies to children and generally brightening the hears of all who watched. It was a children's show that adults watched on the sly.
News of his death touched nearly all of us who were in the Valley during the run of the show. To those who came after its end, this was a marvelously talented comic who had a heart of pure sunshine. We were fortunate to have him as long as we did.