Wednesday, February 24, 2010

                                                         Lost Childhood

Or How the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show helped me love film, and how, sadly, the show itself wasn’t preserved.

Most people today get their introduction to classic and silent films through the medium of television, more specifically the cable channel Turner Classic Movies, and to a lesser degree Fox’s cable TV stations, the HBOs, Showtimes, and Cinemaxes, and before that AMC was in the mix, as well.

Some local university based public TV channels, which would’ve been only on the dreaded UHF broadcast bands in the old days, also show old films. This gradual shift from big screens to small screens has been that way since the 1950s when the Studios began packaging their libraries and syndicating them aggressively, and largely willy-nilly.
Soon it will be computer screens or those systems connected to a high-def set that are the main intake, and already iPods and smart phones are used extensively for viewing by younger folk. But before the advent of big cable, and recordable home media, there was a glorious show on TV that had a love for film, a love for slapstick, a love for rock and roll, and above all, a love for kids. 

As a boy growing up in the late 1950s and straight through the 1960s in the Phoenix, Arizona area, my introduction to silent and classic films was through a local broadcast TV station, Channel 5. Its call letters were KPHO, and was one of the last Dumont affiliates – at one time the only TV station in Phoenix, it showed all four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, and Dumont, until other stations came along. 

Channel 5 had lots of old movies, in seemingly endless categories, including what I now know to be pre-codes, and even some I believe are now lost or too damaged to see. They showed lots of B&W and even a few silent films, and must’ve been on a tight budget, as many seemed to be pretty obscure. 

They had a silent comedy series, although not locally produced I seem to remember, and a serial series as well, also syndicated, but at least they showed Commando Cody, and Flash Gordon, and other episodic wonders. In addition, a local car dealer had married Acquanetta, a minor star of Universal’s B- and Z- adventure and monster films, and she hosted a late-night show of older films, as well. 
                                                                  Acquanetta in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman

All this was just part of the attractions on local TV that had classic film connections, but children growing up there had much more on their plate:

              The Wallace and Ladmo Show, simply the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show. 

And I do mean kid’s as opposed to children’s show, because The Wallace and Ladmo Show wasn’t like the others: some children’s shows were relentlessly didactic, some were relentlessly static, some seemed aimed relentlessly at five-year-olds, some were relentlessly cute, but Wallace and Ladmo were above all relentlessly funny, and entertained the kids and their parents. 

It started as It’s Wallace?, then morphed into Wallace & Company unchanged, and finally as The Wallace and Ladmo Show, (but every kid called it Wallace and Ladmo all along) and ran from April 1, 1954 to December 29, 1989, before a “live” audience, a thirty-six year run, which made it the longest-running, locally produced daily kid’s show, ever, and won many local Emmy awards. This record probably won’t be broken, either - local children's programs aren’t produced in the U.S. much anymore, if at all, and certainly none like The Wallace and Ladmo Show.

                                                                                Wallace and Ladmo 

    A full house at the old Fox Theater in Downtown Phoenix, AZ for a live Wallace and Ladmo stage appearance.

The Wallace and Ladmo Show had music, sketches, and slapstick, and was closer to an Ernie Kovacs kind of show, with some Soupy Sales and Mad Magazine thrown in, than an ordinary children’s show, even having guest appearances by the likes of Jack Benny, Mohammed Ali, Steve Allen, and especially, a famous, huge fan of the show: a local band called "The Earwigs" made their first ever TV appearance on Wallace and Ladmo; you’ll prolly know that group better by a future name - Alice Cooper. Also an occasional guest was a local young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, who would show excerpts from his early efforts. The show gave out locally famous prizes, the legendary Ladmo Bag, a grocery bag filled with chips, candy and coupons – Alice Cooper was presented with one at the end of the show’s run in 1989, the last one besides the one given to Ladmo himself.

                                                                            Ladmo with Ladmo Bag
                                                                   Alice Cooper gets his Ladmo Bag

Started as a way for KPHO to show syndicated cartoons, it starred all locally developed performers: Bill Thompson, the actual writer of the show, as Oliver Hardy-like Wallace Snead, (mostly called just Wallace, or Wallboy by his sidekicks) usually wearing a bowler hat; a tall drink of goofy water named Ladimir Kwiatkowski, an ex-ballplayer, who played Ladmo, the very Stan Laurel part, with huge top hats, (much like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland) and his trademark large, loud ties, worn even with a t-shirt; and the amorphous and prodigiously talented Pat McMahon, a veteran of a vaudeville family, who played a myriad of roles, a host of parts that generally spoofed film, TV, and popular culture, including the villainous Gerald, the station owner's fictional nephew, in a Buster Brown outfit and big glasses. 

Gerald was the evil little kid everybody hated, and would spout lines like this about the kids in the audience: “You invited these little jerks down here; you got them out of the alley where they usually hang out. Reminds me, I should pick up a new copy of Lord of the Flies.” Not your children’s show’s usual dialog, by far, and it was the show's trademark – they talked to kids like ordinary human beings, so they got the first part, and were also talking to the adults and teenagers whom they knew watched it, too, for the literary reference. 
                                                                      Wallace, Gerald, and Ladmo

For much of its run it had superior music, due to the contributions of Mike Condello, a local rock and roll musician. Far from running away from popular music or becoming mired in mediocre taste, Wallace and Ladmo embraced it: the show had their own R&R band, a spoof of course, called Hub Kapp and the Wheels, who played on the show, and actually had some radio airplay; enough to show up on Steve Allen’s show for a gig. Occasionally videos of that show with Hub Kapp and the Wheels’ local hit ”Work, Work” (A dirty word, the dirtiest word I ever heard) show up on YouTube today. They even had a recording contract until McMahon and the boys in the band decided they couldn’t keep up the façade that long. Condello also wrote and performed a number of Beatles spoofs for the show, as well, and also the show’s theme song, “Ho Ho Ha Ha Hee Hee Ha Ha”, which replaced the Ernie Kovacs-like ditty they had used for a while.

The show's film connections started early, as it was basically a sketch comedy affair with cartoons thrown in, and many of the sketches lampooned and parodied specific films and film conventions. One of McMahon’s many incarnations was a deadbeat former movie cowboy named Marshall Good, (former Guy Good, last of the Good Guys),who made it so I could never watch Gene Autry or Roy Rogers with a straight face ever again – Marshall Good was always bumming quarters from the kids in the audience. 
                                                                           Ladmo and Marshall Good

The show parodied other children’s shows with McMahon playing both Aunt Maude, a crotchety senior citizen whose “gather ‘round fairy-tale Children’s Stories” always ended badly, and a TV clown named Boffo, who hated kids – the first name they chose, by the way, was Ozob the Clown, who dressed suspiciously like Bozo, until they were rumored to have been pressured to change both by the Bozo Franchise. The show had a superhero loser character, too, in McMahon’s Captain Super, a weasily faker. Here's Aunt Maude:

My earliest remembrance of a silent film isn’t Chaplin, or Keaton, or any Studio efforts, though - no, it’s the silent homemade films that Wallace and Ladmo produced for this show. You might see their stop-motion little shorts with Wallace herky-jerking around, or the real gold mine: their silent Western serials, often with the bad-ass Nasty Brothers, which included railroad train shots and lots of horses. These were locally made short films that didn't invoke their earlier counterparts simply because they lacked sound; they had the cinematographic cadence of silent films and even intertitles. Ladmo was the veteran studio cameraman for the regular show, often locking it and running around to the front for various gags in the early days, and this made their films so much more like mini-studio productions.Here's some of the few surviving shorts:


Wallace and Ladmo also had a running gag with little slapstick bits involving Ladmo getting into trouble over a particular park bench with cranky Mr. Grudgemeyer, played by Thompson with a cheap Styrofoam skimmer, a fuzzy black wig, and googly-eyed glasses, with a Kovacsian, cheesy recording of “Emery and his Violin of Love” playing “I Love You Much Too Much” accompanied the mayhem. 
                                                         Ladmo and Mr. Grudgemeyer start in to fightin’!

The Grudgemeyer comedies were unabashed homage to Laurel and Hardy, according to Ladmo himself, and often they were having so much fun they couldn’t get the sparse dialog straight. This included lines like Mr. Grudgemeyer’s, after tearing off parts of Ladmo’s coat, promptly holding them up and in the tradition of all great matadors, said, “Grudgemeyer is awarded two ears!” This was obviously not played for the kiddies in the audience.

And one shouldn’t forget the main reason for Wallace and Ladmo’s very existence: they showed cartoons – syndicated rather than network produced or initiated, and the grandest of them all was one of the best ever: 

                                                                             Roger Ramjet.


This biting, snarky, enormously funny cartoon from 1965, deliberately sketchily (some say, badly) drawn, fast-paced and witty, had a long-running relationship with movies and their foibles. Most of its 156 episodes had some sort of film-based satire, and many of the character’s lines were aimed well over the heads of the little kids watching, and smack into brains of older kids and parents, and were much like the contemporaneous Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons in looks, and even surpassed them in attitude. A Snyder-Koren Production, in association with Pantomime Pictures, Inc., it was a small animation outfit that took chances, with edgy minor character names like Speed Merkin, (!!!) and was written by Gene Moss and Jim Thurman.

                                                                                Roger Ramjet

Roger Ramjet himself, voiced by the great Gary Owens, was a rather thick-headed jet jockey, who would always end up downing his “Proton Energy Pills, which gave him the power of 20 atom bombs for a period of 20 seconds” to get out of whatever trouble his obtuseness had gotten him into, and his sidekicks, the American Eagles, always had to help. Roger worked for clueless General G.I. Brassbottom, the very short, very loud military chief of a special, but mysterious, military organization.
                                                                         General G.I. Brassbottom

The villains were classic Hollywood creations, like the Gangster: Noodles Romanoff, (a combination of George Raft, Jimmy Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson) and his Gang of No-Goods, native New York speakers all, who were useful for classic crime spoofs; the Evil Aliens: the Solenoid Robots, who spoke in mechanical tones with lots of buzzes and clicks,(literally the spoken words, “buzz” and “click”!) rolled on one wheel and fell over a lot, and were the Sci-Fi films punching bags; The Evil Mad Scientist, Dr. Frank.N.Schwein, so they could spoof horror films; the Superspy Femme Fatale: Slavic-sounding Jacqueline Hyde, for the espionage thrillers; and an anachronistic favorite of mine, the Freebooter: Red Dog the Pirate, who sailed in a classic square-rigger,had a parrot, Punjab, that screeched out “Pieces of Seven!” Red Dog spoke in a wonderful Robert Newton-ish pirate accent, “Aaaarrrhh”, and plenty of pirate lingo, for the swashbuckling spoofs. 

                                                                           Solenoid Robots

Many episodes featured Lance Crossfire, Roger’s rival for the attentions of the Girl: Lotta Love – and she was a lotta. Lance spoke in a clenched-teeth manner, like a Cary Grant/Errol Flynn/Burt Lancaster combination, and was the foil for many Hollywood inspired romance plot lines. Lance was an egotistical buffoon, as opposed to Roger who wasn’t egotistical, as evidenced by this exchange:

Roger: “Tell me, Lance, did you crash into that mountain…‘because it was there?’” 

Lance: ”NO! Because it was HERE! If it was THERE, I would’ve missed it!!” 

Of all things, the gag was based an obscure reference to doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s response to why he would climb Mt. Everest! This is typical Roger Ramjet-style writing.
                                                                          Roger and his American Eagles 
Yank, Dan, Doodle and Dee were his American Eagles sidekicks, young kids going up those old crates, you might say, and were honest and true. Ma Ramjet popped up on one early episode, and Doodle told her how excited they all were to meet her, “Roger’s told us all about you!” “LIES! All of it!!” Ma Ramjet promptly screeched. She was often involved in the plots, or her pet gorilla was, who followed Roger around a lot, and would lead to one classic exchange between Roger and the Pirate:

Red Dog: “Aaaarhhh! It’s Ram-jet, an’ e’s brought ‘is brother!” 

Roger: “He’s not my brother, he’s a friend of my Mother.”

Red Dog: “Who, yer father?”

This was not the expected dialog in any other cartoon, quite adult for its time, and we relished it for its snark. 

                                                    Ma Ramjet’s Gorilla, Roger and G.I. Brassbottom

When the announcer spoke, his words popped up in intertitles on the screen, sometimes with deliberate misspellings. The plots were often straight parodies of classic films, like High Noon, (“Bernie Miller’s outta prison, he’ll hit this town like nuclear fission!”), or sci-fi spoofs that were clever and thought provoking, such as when the Solenoid Robots began stealing all the government agencies that used acronyms, FBI, CIA, COMCINC, and any other letter combination the writers could think up.

Another episode had a running gag when it was discovered the Navy’s anchors were disappearing, and sure enough, starting with the Admiral of the Navy, someone would say “We’ve got to find out who’s taking our anchors away!” and the nearest door would fly open, a Busby Berkeley chorus line of sailors would burst through singing “Anchors Aweigh!”, and someone would yell, “Get those midshipmen out of here!” There were other episodes that played with Hollywood musicals, too, and episodes like The Three Faces of Roger were obvious film spoofs, as well.

Roger Ramjet didn't skirt the cultural edge aspects, though, it jumped right in – a trip to the fictitious South American country of San Domino had the bandito Enchilada Brothers, Beef and Chicken, true heirs of Alfonso Bedoya’s Gold Hat from Treasure of the Sierra Madre; a feisty Hispanic gal, Tequila Mockingbird, and the President of San Domino, who would confer with his Cabinet, literally a wooden cabinet that he would open to ask, “Hey Cabinet, S’Ok?”, a voice inside the cabinet would respond “S’awright!” and end with the cabinet saying, “Close de box!” A quick Señor Wences and Pedro ventriloquist bit!! Of course, this probably wouldn’t fly today.

The key to The Wallace and Ladmo Show, and Roger Ramjet, too, was the audacity they showed in treating kids as intelligent beings, and knowing they had adults and teens watching, the fearlessness to assume their entire audience was in the know at different levels, too. They knew the older kids would get some of the allusions, and the teens and adults would probably get the higher flying jokes, gags, and topical references, and they expected their cleverness would be appreciated. They may not have assumed their show would become beloved and respected as a local cultural institution, but by the time the show ended, they knew how important they’d been to hundreds of thousands of kids in Phoenix, Arizona - there were Wallace and Ladmo spin-offs, burger joints, live shows, some syndication around the country, and most of all, a hellacious amount of fun – a glorious run.

And then one day, it was gone.

And I do mean gone – outside of a handful of later episodes towards the end of the run, no complete episodes survive. The station had mercilessly taped over every episode it could, re-using the tapes over and over, driven by the bottom line, something that’s no small factor in an independent station’s survival, but heartbreaking none the less. Even Roger Ramjet has a few lost episodes, but thankfully survives on DVD almost complete. It wasn’t a death by the whole show’s recordings being lost in a cataclysm, like a fire, and there wasn’t a gradual loss of existing material – no, it was a slow death by inches, starting from the very beginning, a disposable reality, born anew every day and murdered that same night. There are bits and pieces of the older episodes of Wallace and Ladmo online occasionally, but for all intents and purposes, especially the era I grew up in, the wonderful, glorious, side-splittingly funny Wallace and Ladmo Show, the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show, is gone. Preservation never entered the equation until the very end – it was erased, rubbed out, as if it never existed.

Could someone have saved those episodes? I guess not, unless some secret stash of tapes shows up, an unlikely occurrence, sadly. I doubt many watchers realized it, and in the absence of home recording media, even a legion of fans can’t bring back that special moment in time. I barely touched on the long history of Wallace and Ladmo, and it lives now only in the collective memory of an aging fan base. There are fan pages online, interviews, and some transcripts, and it’s possible the scripts survive with Bill Thompson, but the images, the immediacy of their performances, are now mostly stills and snippets. Ladmo passed away in 1994, and Mike Condello in 1995, but Bill Thompson and Pat McMahon, and most of the rest of the cast are with us still.

Preservation wasn’t in the cards for The Wallace and Ladmo Show, and Roger Ramjet survived because it’s been shown off and on since its inception, in many countries, and enjoyed a cult following even in its darkest hours. Syndication saved it, and many other children’s cartoons and shows, but so many locally produced television shows, no matter how popular and groundbreaking, were simply erased from the tapes, day after day, year after year, and most were forgotten. The absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to The Wallace and Ladmo almost happened, to have been completely forgotten, but the show is fondly remembered and although it was considered a brilliant success by most who watched it, even this is only a pale shadow of what it was.

Please donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation, and help save films and maybe some old local TV programs someday:
And have a look at their website:

or have a look at the Movie Preservation Blog:

This worthy worthy endeavor was ramrodded by Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren:

and Marilyn Ferdinand at:
I’ll always be grateful to The Wallace and Ladmo Show ,and Roger Ramjet, (not just for molding me into the smart-ass I am today!) because at first, they just made me want to watch films to make sure I could get the jokes and allusions, and through this I found I loved watching films for what they were, not just as adjuncts to a kid’s show. As for The Wallace and Ladmo Show itself, Ave atque vale, old friends, a fond farewell to The World’s Greatest Kid’s Show.
                                                                                So long, old buddies!


Tinky Weisblat said...

Thanks for giving us a look at a program we'll never see--and one that obviously meant a lot to you!

Joe Thompson said...

Vanwall: Great post. You were lucky to have a show like that in your youth. We had children's shows in San Francisco, but none were that creative-sounding. I will have to go back and revisit Roger Ramject. Thanks for sharing.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Fabulous piece, my man. It so makes me wish I could have been part of the experience. (I'll bet dollars to donuts that silent comedy program you mentioned was the Silent Comedy Film Festival, because it aired in my neck of the swamp as a kid as well.