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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

Today, Bob Roloff launches into a bit of his shtick as the Arizona Duuude (“That’s how we’d say it back in the late ‘60s: ‘Hey duuude!’”), a character who wears a shirt emblazoned with the Arizona flag and travels the state emceeing events as “Arizona’s No. 1 Fan.” Next to him is Wyatt Earp, the great-grandnephew of the notorious Tombstone lawman, who travels the world performing a one-man play about his famous namesake. In the way they all tend to look to Wallace for his reaction, many around the table seem to still be auditioning for a spot on the “Wallace and Ladmo Show.”

After the meal, things unwind a little, and everyone begins subtly jostling for time with their hero before he and Katie leave. Gibbons graciously vacates his seat so that others can have a little one-on-one time with Wallace, and one after another, each takes their turn beside the throne. And smiles.

It’s quite possibly the sweetest get-together that happens in Phoenix on a regular basis, but Wallace himself will have none of that sappy sentimentality.

“Frankly, I don’t know any of these people!” Wallace confides, with a boisterous laugh, when asked how it feels to see such an outpouring of love every week from so many lifelong friends and fans. “But I keep coming here, to find out who they are.”

Stay Tuned

He may move a little slower and look a bit frail compared to his heavier heyday, but at 82, Bill “Wallace” Thompson still retains all the irreverent wit and inspired mischievousness that indelibly shaped the sensibilities of the lucky generations of Arizonans who grew up watching his show.

On one Friday, after occasional guest Dolan Ellis serenades the group with a long, solemn reading of his tribute to Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever called “The Last of the Cowboy Sheriffs,” Wallace instantly brings the mood back up by asking Ellis, “So what happened to the second to the last cowboy sheriff?” When there’s a lull in the action, Wallace will grab Gibbons and the two of them will act out a hastily rehearsed skit in the middle of the room.

His top hat-wearing sidekick is not exactly Ladmo, and the Arizona Duuude is no Captain Super. But for a couple of hours every Friday, it’s as close to classic Wallace as we’re likely to get.

“He still seems to be at the top of his game, at times,” says Abel, who places Thompson in a league with pioneers like Ernie Kovacs and says Wallace’s inventive humor “cut me free from the bonds of colloquial thinking.” Adds Ellis, after Wallace’s sheriff quip, “Nobody else would ever think to say something like that. That’s why he’s the king.”

On this Friday, Wallace appears in particularly fine form, firing off grumpy observations about the adoring friends who pay him weekly tribute like vintage Mr. Grudgemeyer.

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“Wallace” admirers Glenna Covina, Wes Zimmerman, Marc Faigus and Barb Yuschik join the festivities, which oftentimes feature fans breaking out in song.

“This week we’ve got somebody with a famous relative,” he says, searching for the name.

“Wyatt Earp?” assists Katie.

“No, not the relative. What’s his name?” Wallace rejoins, engaging his wife in what would sound like forgetfulness coming from any other octogenarian but with his timing, comes across like classic “Who’s On First” riffing. “And here’s somebody of no consequence at all,” he rebounds, shaking hands with a beaming Steve Hoza.

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