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Fridays With Wallace

Jimmy Magahern | Aug 1, 2013, 6 a.m.
Bill “Wallace” Thompson and his wife, Katie, are flanked by admirers who regularly have lunch with the long-running children’s television actor. Adam Moreno

Katie Thompson, the woman who’s been married to Bill since 1974 and is, by all accounts, the driving force that keeps him coming to these luncheons, week after week, has become used to those awestruck reactions.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “They’ve been off the air since 1989, but we’ll go someplace to eat and we can hear people talking at the next table: ‘Look, It’s Wallace!’ And smiles just immediately light up everyone’s faces. It’s wonderful, it really is. And he loves everybody.”

Every Friday, Wallace takes his same seat at the table, with Katie on his right and on his left, his close friend Gibbons, a fellow KPHO alum who would fill in on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show” whenever regular Pat McMahon (who occasionally shows up at the luncheons) was on vacation.

Next to them sits Larry Chebowski, a former street clown who used to entertain as an unicyclist at Legend City, where Wallace and Ladmo regularly performed. In his trademark top hat, the lanky Chebowski, who today runs an entertainment booking company and says he still rides the unicycle at age 72, can bear an unsettling resemblance to Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski, Wallace’s beloved comedic partner, who died of lung cancer on March 2, 1994.

Chebowski insists the effect is unintentional, and can pull up old photos on his ever-present iPad that show him wearing the top hat as far back as the ‘50s, before Ladmo made the look his own.

“I bowled with Ladmo when he was a cameraman at Channel 5, before he teamed up with Wallace,” says Chebowski. “And I always wore the top hat when I bowled, which Lad would tease me about. I don’t know if it was because of me he started wearing top hats, but I think I was an influence on him.”

Regardless, Wallace and his substitute sidekicks have been slowly drawing their own crowd since the three old friends, along with “Wallace and Ladmo” writer Craig Dingle and Arizona Republic reporter and biographer Richard Ruelas, began the weekly lunch meet-ups around six years ago, originally at the Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, near Wallace’s home. The gatherings grew by word of mouth, and changed locations several times, as the size of the group began demanding its own private room—along with a certain level of respect. Chebowski, who organizes the events and sends out the email invitations, says he dumped one restaurant after they failed to prepare a cake for Wallace on his birthday, cobbling together slices of cheesecake instead. He dropped another when they couldn’t guarantee the services of a regular waitress.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual for 30 to 40 people to show up for the lunches at the former Bobby McGee’s, with waitress Monique, which take on the format of a celebrity roast, only with everyone still too in awe of the guest of honor to say anything ungracious.

Before and during the meal, everyone around the table takes turns updating the group on their latest doings, and some take a stab at providing a little entertainment. Abel will sometimes break out his harmonica; actor and former stuntman Rod Wolff will tell a joke or two; and Ellis, when he makes the festivities, will invariably break out in song.

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