There has been nothing more in life I have ever wanted than what was inside a brown paper bag. I’m willing to bet all Arizona kids growing up from the mid-50s to the late-80s would agree. The sight of a brown paper bag with the stenciled letters “Ladmo,” more specifically. If a kid busted out such a paper bag during daycare lunch, it would turn him or her into a hero, as it was known by all that this bag would be full of candy and toys.
Popularity contests were for fools, bribery was forever (until the next kid showed up with extra Halloween candy).
I had no sense of how big the world was at the time, being the ripe age of four going on five, and assumed every kid all over the world could ID this bag from across the room and ingratiate themselves with the one who possessed it—only to grow a tiny bit older since my youth in the 80s and discover this was just an Arizona/Sonora Desert thing.
A Ladmo bag, for the uninitiated, is an oversized lunch sack full of candy, popcorn, and soda one could usually only receive if they were invited to be a part of the live studio audience of Arizona’s Channel Five "The Wallace and Ladmo Show," a local children’s television program featuring cartoons and live action skits of its performers.
Shooting in the afternoon after school, every kid within the city of Phoenix (and its ever-sprawling suburbs) attempted to somehow earn their invite and strong-arm their weak-willed parents into taking a half work day to drive them to the TV station so they could be a part of the audience. Once seated at "THE Wallace and Ladmo Show," the tireless performers would take a break from their hilarity and distribute Ladmo bags at random to a few lucky kids sitting in the stands.
For all the effort a kid might exert to be there at that taping, it was still a lottery. You could hear the film crew yell, “That’s a wrap!” and the lights go out … and there you were: empty-handed.
The show had been on the air about 30 years in Arizona before I ever set my little eyeballs on it. Even Spielberg mentioned the show as his introduction to Popeye cartoons as a kid. It had entered the local lexicon describing the people in my city. Was someone bitter, mean, and jaded? Well, then they never got their Ladmo Bag as a kid. Are you in the Maricopa County Prison system? The state issue, paltry brown paper-bag lunches are tongue-and-cheekily called "Ladmo Bags."
Not wanting to turn into a bitter (or incarcerated) adult, and also a seasoned aficionado of sugar, I suffered deeply from bag envy. Every day before my parents took me to daycare, I would be glued to the morning program of Wallace and Ladmo and watched with awe as a few lucky kids discovered today was their day. In the afternoon was a second episode of the same caliber—and another kid to live vicariously through.
If I had a Ladmo bag, my life would be so different. I knew this within the core of my being.
I was not a popular kid. It didn’t help that I also had started dressing myself, which hadn't worked out as well as I imagined. Yellow tights, teal skorts, and hiking boots had not made me the fashionista I anticipated. Unbrushed hair was not in. So, I had to resort to other redeeming qualities of kiddom to stay in the fold, such as extremely callused palms that could take me across the monkey bars in 30 seconds or less, and a willingness to dislocate my shoulder than break rank when barreled at by the beefiest of 3rd graders in Red Rover.
But none of that could compare to the powerhouse that was my older sister.
Ann was known for being super smart, and if you didn’t know the trajectory of the greatest minds in the world, it starts by being admitted to kindergarten early, winning a 2nd grade reading contest, selected into a Phoenix school district’s gifted program, and last, world presidency. As my sister was already getting her bus schedule for the gifted program sorted, my situation was dire. For everyone knew, if there was a smart sister … it only makes sense in the balance of the universe that there’s a dumb one as well.
Nevermind I was two years younger than Ann, still being taught to read, and had nothing to prove myself with. So, the insinuations of being the dumb one couldn’t be denied or confirmed. But I feared it. And I was desperate to do something Ann had never done to prove I was in no one’s shadow—I was brilliant in my own right. Or at least popular …
But there was no great proving ground for me in this respect. Kindergarten brought no challenges. Colors? I’ve seen ‘em. My giant box of Crayolas was a hand-me-down from my sister. There was no color she didn’t know. Handwriting? My sister was so advanced her lowercase As had a little hook on top like she was a typewriter. Reading was out of the question—apparently my ability to make up stories while looking at the pictures in a book did not constitute actual reading. But my stories were better. I just had no audience to argue that on my behalf.
Luckily, pizza existed. It was easy to forget this constantly waging internal battle when my parents took me to the most wonderful place on earth, ShowBiz Pizza Time. Purchased and repurposed to Chuck E. Cheeses in the 90s, ShowBiz Pizza Time provided brightly colored, sensory-overloading games and rides that, for the mere cost of a shiny quarter filched from the bottom of my mom’s purse, could activate and come to life just for me. The plain cheese cardboard-esqe pizza slices were finely tuned for my 4-year-old palate. And of course, the show of ShowBiz Pizza Time was a full stage of an animatronic animal band—a bear on the banjo, a gorilla on keyboard, and the only female of the band, a mouse in a cheerleading outfit.
My sister’s school often had fundraising nights at Showbiz Pizza Time, letting all of us children run amok as raffle tickets were purchases to help the school with the year’s supply list and unending construction projects. It was one of these nights I was still breathlessly high from wandering the flashing lights, bright colors, and pings of ticket disbursements as I shoved delicious congealed cheese down my gullet that my mother’s raffle ticket was called. We won! Having a raffle ticket called? It's the elementary school version of winning the Powerball. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what it was for. And as my mom grabbed the envelope from that night’s Emcee standing in front of the dead-eyed animatronic bear, I noticed her check the envelope and shift her eyes to me.
Oh! Did I win something?! Even better.
I was too excited to comprehend the English language as my mother sat down. But I knew what was in that envelope must have been really good. Why else would it be in a raffle? Maybe it was a coupon to get a free bike at Toys R Us? Or could be redeemed for $20 in tokens at the Showbiz register? Maybe it was a free pizza, and we could do it all over again tomorrow!
But what I was being told was that there was an age requirement for what was inside that envelope, and I was not old enough—and my sister was. Also, it was a raffle for her stupid school, so it rightfully should be hers. My stomach twisted in knots. I didn’t like where this was going ...
My sister had received a ticket to attend the taping of "The Wallace and Ladmo Show."
Reader, I need to reiterate, being only four years old at the time, so you can forgive me for what I then did:
I lost my fucking shit.
I became a wailing ball of water and mucus. Kicking, screaming, instantly ending my night in the Showbiz Pizza Time kid pleasure dome, as I was hauled off to my parents' minivan to wail like a banshee privately, away from the other families just trying to build core memories in peace.
This is exactly why you can’t be on the show, Katie. You’re not mature enough.
Your sister is older than you—you have more time to earn a ticket to a taping.
Don’t ruin this for your sister, this is something special for her.
You’re too old to be having temper tantrums!
She would support you if it was the other way around.
Your sister deserves this, she just got into the gifted program and won her reading competition.
Fuck the gifted program. Fuck being six and older than me. Fuck being literate. I was now running a deeper deficit of being the way less cool and possibly dumb sister—and my heart was breaking.
I wanted a Ladmo Bag.
My sister probably didn’t even want one. She’d probably sit in the audience and Wallace and Ladmo would give her 10 of them just because. Why did she have to be so … smart and lucky AND likable?!
When the day of the taping finally arrived. My sister picked out her outfit and my mom took time off work to pick her up after school and take her to the TV station. And just because the world was terrible and cruelly unfair, she had to take me along as well. I had been contained as best I could in order to prove to my mother I was the most utterly very mature four-year-old to have ever graced the planet, and that the age requirement was pure discrimination of the nth degree. As I played it in my head, I would walk in and be mistaken for a five-year-old, maybe even a six-year-old, as my maturity was so profound. And because of that quality, the receptionist would not be able to resist letting me be in the show as well.
I dressed myself in coordinating clothes. I brushed my hair. I had only cried a little bit in the car.
But the receptionist didn’t even notice me. She waved my mother and I off to a waiting room, and my sister went to the recording soundstage. And it began to sink in. I held back tears, but not for long. Feigning maturity for 10 minutes had been exhausting, and I was leaning against a wall that harbored my dream just on the other side. I willed myself to have superpowers and hit the right frequency and vibrate through that wall. Or someone to run out and say some kid got stage fright and they needed another kid stat. And I was the only kid in the room. It would HAVE TO BE ME.
But it wasn’t me. And the more it finally sunk in, the more the tears came. In all my imaginings, I had always thought up a solution on how I would somehow be on the show in spite of not having a ticket and in spite of only being four. My embarrassed and exhausted mother begged me to be quiet, but I couldn’t stop crying. I kept trying to stop, to prove how mature I was, that they were all wrong about me … but I was just a truly devastated little kid, and no amount of masking or pretend could stop that from happening.
And I let it all out.
The way my mother was reacting, it appears my crying was as bad as the night at ShowBiz Pizza Time when this miserable torture of my life started. The receptionist hadn’t noticed me before, but my sobs were now echoing around the lobby, like Channel 5 was now haunted by a ghost. It was bleeding into the sound stage. It was audible every time that door opened and shut to "The Wallace and Ladmo Show"—who knows what else they may have been taping at the time?
And so it became apparent the show had to enact protocols when this situation happens, which I guess probably has happened from time to time.
Tears were wiped. Seats were shuffled. And one extra spot was made in the audience for me to sit next to my evil sister at "The Wallace and Ladmo Show." Transfixed by the lights and the actors that had been so small on my TV, now life-sized and telling jokes in front of me, I was in a daze of delight. I couldn’t believe it! I was on the show! Ladmo was telling me jokes and setting up the cartoons.
And when the time came for the commercial break—Ladmo bags were distributed to kids. A kid in the seat behind me. A kid in the seat in front. More jokes, more cartoons … and suddenly Ladmo was ordering Wallace to dump two bags on my sister and my laps.
I was holding my very own Ladmo bag!
I wrapped my arms around it like it was my baby I had to hold on tightly to, for fear it might wander off. I wanted nothing more than to look through its contents. Shake it out on my bed at home and see what treasure was inside. But the show was still going, and I simply could not risk anything falling out.
On the car ride home, my sister and I tore apart our bags. Exclaiming at each can of soda, or popcorn ball, or coupon to Whataburger we found. The next day we watched ourselves on TV saying our names into the microphone as we each got our bags. “I’m Annie,” she said. “I’m Katie,” I said in an awestruck whisper.
My mom rightly started to portion out the goods through the following week and none of it ever made it to school except for a few pieces of candy here or there that I got to tell everyone on the playground came from MY Ladmo Bag. And for once, I was the star for five seconds as I retold (only the best parts) of my Bag awarding.
"The Wallace and Ladmo Show" ended right after I entered the 1st grade, but the infamy of the show lived on. The performers would go to public charity events and stage skits and pass out bags. And that’s how I got my second Ladmo bag when I was ten or so. My sister and I had been singing in the Phoenix Children’s Choir for several years (yes, she was better than me, and still is), and at the end of our performance, they held a raffle. I had my own raffle ticket, and my number was called. I numbly walked up the steps back to the stage and was handed a brown paper bag with the words "Ladmo" stenciled on it.
As I sat back in the audience, I couldn’t stop staring at the bag.
It was so small.
I remembered the bag being much bigger, this was just the size of a lunch sack. I could get better candy out of a vending machine. My mother had bought us a 12-pack of Cokes at home, what good was one grocery store brand grape soda? Everything I had coveted, suddenly, was so silly and small.
Did I really throw away everything, my last shred of dignity … for this? I became profoundly embarrassed.
It had been so easy to feel like I was always missing out, that I was always one step behind—the kid in a Red Rover game getting picked last. That everyone else was winning awards, getting their Ladmo bags, but we really were all in the same boat—every once in a while, breaking through with a brief chance to shine when the sun briefly came from behind the clouds.
But I always had more in common with my peers, because most days, none of us were getting Ladmo bags.
As a writer, the lesson of the two Ladmo bags sticks with me as I navigate my career. Devastation when you get passed over, when your opportunity isn’t right. Finding pride and joy for others along the path instead of taking away their time with your despair (something I still wish I could go back in time and redo for my sister—I’m so sorry!).
And then for recognizing it’s possible you never get the Ladmo bag at all.
Because life is difficult and complicated and sometimes it just doesn’t work out in your favor … and that has to be okay, too. The bright shiny trophies and awards we get for momentary recognition are never guaranteed. And the brass ring you’re dreaming of now might be nothing one day, because you’ve already surpassed it so much.
And no matter what, it’s not worth ruining everyone’s day at the Channel 5 News Station.
*Feature Photo: Arizona Republic Archive AZR