I remember the ad in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader like it was yesterday. The World of Wheels was hosting Adam West in costume as Batman, and the ad featured a picture of Adam in costume from the TV series! This was not an opportunity I could pass up! At the age of 18, I was a popular radio DJ at KELO-AM and I used to do all sorts of fun features on my radio show. I figured an interview with Adam West would be a huge boon to the station’s ratings. So I phoned the promoter of the show and requested an interview with Adam to promote the World of Wheels. It was granted. Adam would come to the station at noon on Saturday March 1, 1980!
Leap Day 1980, the night before the big interview, I figured I’d run down to the opening night of World of Wheels to introduce myself to Adam and go over a few details of the interview. I boldly walked into the Sioux Falls Coliseum and introduced myself to the producers of the event. I said, “I’m from KELO radio and I’ll be interviewing Adam West tomorrow on my show.” The producer pointed to the corner and said, “He’s right there.” Imagine a Hitchcock zoom into my face, as I realized the guy sitting at a desk with his feet up…was HIM! I still remember the sheepskin jacket and cowboy boots he was wearing. He was talking on the phone.
He hung up and I introduced myself. Adam could tell I was star struck. In a basso profundo voice that rang through the office he shook my hand and said, “It’s alright. Just tell me I’m your hero.” I stammered and said, “I’m your hero. I mean…you’re my hero!” He explained that his Batman costume (and the rest of his checked luggage) had been lost by the airline and he was trying to run it down. Luckily he always carried on the famous cowl, so at least he still had that.
I told him that when I was 5 years old I pretended to be him by running around the neighborhood with a bath towel safety-pinned around my neck. He said, “That’s what I’ll be using this weekend.” What a quick wit. He was contracted to appear that night, but without a costume all he could do was pop on the cowl and appear in the clothes he was wearing. It was a zany first night!
We made arrangements for him to come to the station at noon on Saturday for the interview. I worked all night at the radio station and got off the air around 6am that morning. I went out for breakfast, came back to the station and napped on the couch for about an hour, and then got ready for Adam’s arrival at noon.
Oddly enough the DJ on the air over the noon hour was named Adam North. When Adam WEST arrived, Adam North, Adam West and I sat down for a fun 20 minute interview. The Program Director of the station called up later and told me that the interview was “electric.” That it was. After the interview I went over to the World of Wheels to see Adam in full Batman costume, which had arrived and had been delivered to his room that morning.
The KELO Interview
Though I was in total “worship” mode, I didn’t understand some of the snickering and rude comments that were being made at Adam’s expense behind his back. What were they laughing at? This was Adam West…the STAR! At the time Adam was 52, close to the age I am now, and he looked darn good in the costume. Unfortunately the quality of the costume wasn’t very good, and I vowed to someday costume my hero in the way he deserved. So I paid close attention to the details of his costume as we chatted, making mental notes to create my own version someday.
That evening Adam and I had dinner with some of the other guys at the radio station. Our waiter at the restaurant was so nervous in Adam’s presence he spilled hot butter sauce all over his sheepskin coat. I was amazed at how cool Adam remained as he whispered to me, “It happens all the time.” While we were eating, I asked Adam what I needed to do to be an actor in Hollywood. This single comment caused much snickering and derision amongst my radio peers at the table. But fast forward 18 years and Adam and I would be working on a top rated network animated show together. So who got the last snicker after all?
Back to the coliseum I went on Sunday March 2, 1980; the final day of that year’s World of Wheels extravaganza. I brought along a reel to reel recorder and microphone to interview Adam backstage during one of his breaks. This interview would focus on his future projects and ideas for a new Batman movie. He entered the backstage area, removed his cape, and unsnapped his cowl. Then (and I’ll NEVER forget this) he bent forward and removed the cowl from his head! I had never EVER seen that before, and I was shocked! After the interview we said our goodbyes, and he gave me his number and encouraged me to keep in touch, and to keep working on my career. I took his advice on both counts.
World of Wheels Backstage Interview
In fact, we kept in touch fairly frequently over the next few years, as he was one of my few lifelines to Los Angeles and showbiz. But by the time I moved to L.A. in 1987 Adam had already moved to Ketchum, ID with his family. According to the documentary “Starring Adam West” it was due to career difficulties he was having at the time.
In 1988 I asked him to come visit me at the Westwood One Radio Network so he could pitch his idea for a syndicated radio show. But while all of the execs loved meeting him and getting their pictures with him, they decided not to pick up his show idea. However they were interested in having him be a correspondent for one of the other shows, but Adam passed on that idea.
A few months later I would accompany him to my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a return appearance and autograph signing. He would appear at two different stores that day, in costume as Batman, and we had secured a limo to take us from location to location. My friends Chris Malmin and Dave Baumeister (we three were now known as “The Bat Pack”) would serve as Adam’s assistants and bodyguards. Oddly enough, this would end up being one of Adam’s final public appearances in the Batman costume. Soon after this day, Warner challenged Adam in court over his use of their character in public appearances.
That Saturday morning I went to Adam’s hotel to meet him for breakfast. He met me at his hotel room door and was concerned that his cape had become very badly wrinkled during the flight. Even though it was 7am on a Saturday morning, I placed a call to the only person who could help out in a situation like this….MOM!
My mother sprang from bed, leapt from the Momcave, and brought her trusty iron to the downtown Sioux Falls Holiday Inn and pressed Adam’s cape right there in his room. Then she joined us for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Adam got in costume and off we went to do the first appearance.
During the limo ride between stores, Adam blurted out, “Wally, I don’t know if this has been a blessing or a curse.” I told him that many actors would give their left arm to have just 1/10th the fame he’s achieved through the Batman TV series. He should consider it a blessing, given how much joy he’s brought to generations. He thought for a second and said, “I guess you’re right.”
The guy driving the limo had brought his 6 year old son along for the ride. The kid stood in the front seat and kept facing backwards; not taking his eyes off Adam for a second. Because of the child’s wide-eyed curiosity, Adam never removed his cowl in his presence. I’m sure he would have liked to, considering that he was most likely hot, sweaty and needing a break from the hot headgear.
The appearances at both stores were monumentally successful. So much so, that not everybody in line got to get an autograph. Just minutes after they cut off the autograph line Adam called me over. He asked that I make an announcement that, while time had run out for autographs, he was going to stand up and shake the hands of all the remaining fans waiting in line. So while some of them wouldn’t get an autograph, they would at least get to shake the hand of TV’s Caped Crusader. Truly a hero to the very last.
With the rumors swirling about a new Batman movie in 1989 directed by Tim Burton, it became apparent that the producers weren’t interested in using Adam as Batman. We thought it was odd, considering that the most popular incarnation of Batman at that time was Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” who was…you guessed it…a senior super hero.
Once the baffling casting choice of Michael Keaton was publicized, Adam’s fans were livid. I decided to lodge a protest the best way I knew…through comedy. Dr. Demento had played several of my parody songs on his syndicated radio show over the past several years, so I decided to express my displeasure through music. The big Grammy-winning song of 1988 was “Wild Wild West” from The Escape Club. It had “west” in the title, and the name Escape Club could easily be adapted into the Caped Club. I had my mission.
The resulting song (cleverly titled “Adam West”) ended up being played on the TV show “A Current Affair,” and was mentioned in an article in The Rolling Stone. With the licensing fee paid by “A Current Affair,” I could afford to visit the factory that pressed all of Westwood One’s radio shows on vinyl, and have a few hundred 45 rpm records pressed that I could pass out to radio stations, friends, and colleagues. “Adam West” by Wally Wingert and the Caped Club was a constant #1 song on Dr. Demento’s weekly Funny Five, and it came in at #2 for the year on “The Dr. Demento Show.”
Needless to say the hottest interview subject of the day was Adam West, as radio and TV stations were interested in his take on the casting of Keaton. He was kind enough to put a plug in for my “Adam West” parody song, which had the media scrambling to find a copy to include in their presentations. Luckily, in my position at Westwood One, I was able to act as a clearing house to get stations all the copies they needed.
When the new movie premiered in June of 1989, there were a lot of “alternate” Batman screenings going on which featured the 1966 “Batman” feature film on the big screen. It was at one of these events in L.A. that I met “Batman” costume designer Jan Kemp. It was with his help and guidance that I was able to make my new, deluxe Batman costume…darn close to Adam’s original. Jan told me many of the secrets of how to make the ultimate Batman costume! To make extra money on weekends, I did parties and appearances in costume with a friend as Robin.
One Saturday afternoon I was heading out the door to drive to an appearance at a party when the phone rang. I ran back in and picked it up. It was Adam. He said, “Wally, what are you doing now?” I told him, “Oddly enough, I’m dressed in my Batman costume and I’m heading to an appearance.” There was a pause and he said quietly, “Have you ever ‘done it’ in the Batsuit?” I said, “What?” He repeated, “Have you ever ‘DONE IT’ in the Batsuit? You have to try it, it’s great!” Adam never failed to surprise me and make me laugh.
A few years later, when Adam realized that I had consulted with Jan Kemp and had learned all the secrets of making the perfect ’66 Batman costume, he asked for my help in making one for him to wear in a super-secret magazine shoot. At last! I was going to get to clothe the King in a way in which he deserved! I couldn’t wait!
On a day in 1994, Adam came to L.A. and we drove all around town in my Ford Escort to consult with several people to make his costume a reality. He had brought with him several original costume pieces to have duplicated. The first stop was to see my friend Sergio Lopez at Universal Studios, where I was working in the Beetlejuice show at the time. We went to the costume studio and Sergio traced out his gloves, trunks, and cape.
Then we drove to East L.A. to Duran’s shoes to get Adam’s feet measured for new Bat boots. But on the way I took the wrong freeway and somehow got lost. I was driving around with precious cargo on board, and I certainly didn’t want to end up in the wrong neighborhood with HIM in the car! But we found Duran’s and all was good.
My pal David Miller was a make-up and special effects artist whom I had met while doing two TV commercials as Freddy Krueger. He told me if Adam ever needed his head cast done, he would do the work for free; just for the privilege of having an Adam head cast in his collection. But instead of putting a lot of cold goop on his face and covering it with plaster bandage, David suggested we do a “digital” 3-D scan (something that was brand new at the time). This would allow Adam to sit comfortably while a scanner moved around his head 360 degrees digitally capturing his likeness.
Once we had the finished head cast, David cleaned it up, cast it and sculpted on the shell for the cowl. Once he supplied me with copies of the shell, I hired a seamstress to cover them. When I saw Adam in 1995 at the “Famous Monsters of Filmland” convention we went up to his room so he could try one on. That way I’d get an idea of how the skirt on the cowl needed to be tailored to fit him.
Over the next several years I would travel around to conventions all over the world to hang out with him, Julie Newmar, Yvonne Craig, and other Batman stars. Chicago, New Jersey, Boston, Los Angeles, Austin, Anaheim, and Las Vegas were just a few of the cities I visited to hang out with Adam and company. And I always had my trusty Batsuit with me.
My dream of being in a project with Adam came to fruition in 1998 when I was cast to do various character voices in a new animated TV show called “Family Guy.” Adam would be voicing the Mayor in the show, with whom he shared a name. Though we never had any scenes together, I was elated that we got to share a card in the credits together! Since the guest cast was listed alphabetically it was always ADAM WEST…WALLY WINGERT. But as cool as that was, I had no idea what was to come.
Adam visited my house to see the shrine I had erected for him in October of 2004, I saw him again at the big Burbank Batman Blowout of 2006, and in 2009 I flew to San Francisco to see him at Wonder Con. But in 2010 I would be given the biggest honor of all.
When Adam was awarded with a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in April of 2010, he asked me to be one of the guest speakers. I had just become the announcer on “The Tonight Show”and I wouldn’t have missed speaking at the event for all the sand in Joshua Tree. After the speech, which succinctly outlined our 30 years of friendship, his family approached me to actually THANK me for being his friend for all those years. I was really touched by that.
It occurred to me right then and there that, given Adam’s current crop of pals and business acquaintances, he had known me longer than most everyone else in his vast circle of friends. It was a fact I was quite proud of!
Later in 2010, when Nicolas Cage appeared on “The Tonight Show” to promote his new movie “Kick Ass,” the producers brought Adam on the show to surprise him. It was no secret that Nick patterned his character after Adam’s Batman, so the show brought Adam on to compete against Nick in an impromptu Batman trivia game.
It was one of my proudest moments to go to Adam’s dressing room, where he sat with his daughter Nina, and say hi. I got to show him the audio room and sound booth where I worked, and introduce him to my “Tonight Show” colleagues. It was a small way for me to show him that his early faith in my abilities paid off. Though I didn’t get to announce his name at the beginning of the show, it was a day I’ll never forget.
In July of 2014 Adam, Burt and Julie were featured in the esteemed Hall H at the San Diego Comic Con to promote the upcoming DVD release of the “Batman” TV series. The place was packed to the brim with 6,500 fans waiting to see them. The mania was like1966 all over again. When Adam walked onstage the sound was deafening! Close to 7,000 people were on their feet creating a cacophony of thunderous applause, cheers, whistles and chants. I looked around at the crowd and got a bit emotional. Unlike 34 years earlier at the World of Wheels show in Sioux Falls, nobody was cracking snide jokes at Adam’s expense behind his back. Nobody was pointing and snickering. Adam was once again the king of the world.
When “Batman” was released on DVD in the fall of 2014, I was a bit hurt that I wasn’t included in any of the bonus materials. But I had been featured prominently in a documentary entitled “Starring Adam West,” and that meant more to me anyway. After all, I wasn’t just a Batman fan, I was an ADAM WEST fan.
During a few of my visits to Palm Springs, where Adam lived during the winter months, he and I were able to meet for a meal or two. During breakfast at Ruby’s Diner on Palm Canyon Drive it was just Adam and I. No agents, no family, no managers. It was like sitting backstage at the Sioux Falls Coliseum again; just a few guys chatting away…a hero and his #1 fan. He started out by apologizing for my omission in the DVD bonus extras, but he said it was out of his control. I thought that was a real genuine, classy move, and I appreciated the gesture.
About a year later, my friend Edi and I met Adam and his wife Marcelle for breakfast at the Tennis Club. They took us to their Palm Springs house and we got to meet their giant poodle Louie. What a great day that was!
But as cool as it was to share a credit with him in “Family Guy,” something MUCH better was about to happen in 2015. When Warner was looking for sound-alikes for the animated film “Return of the Caped Crusaders” I got cast as The Riddler. Now I’d not only be sharing a credit with my childhood hero, but I’d actually have scenes WITH him! It was an absolute dream come true!
In October of 2016 I saw him at Stan Lee’s Comikaze in L.A. doing an autograph signing. I had brought him one of the new Batman bowling shirts I had created, complete with his name stitched on the front pocket. I sat next to him and Marcelle at the table, but Adam was hurting bad. A continual back injury was keeping him in constant pain. I urged Marcelle to get him to the doctor as soon as they got back to Palm Springs.
The last time I saw Adam was in November of 2016 at the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank. His agent and our mutual friend Fred Westbrook had just passed away from lung cancer. Adam was moving slowly because of the unrelenting back pain, but he didn’t want to miss Fred’s memorial.
In early June my agent sent me an audition request from a studio that was looking for an Adam West sound-alike. Adam voiced a regular character on their animated show, and they included a note with the audition that said that Adam wasn’t going to be available in time to record his ADR (additional dialogue recording) for the airing of the show. They had his blessing to find a suitable sound-alike for the job. I found this very odd, because Adam ALWAYS found time for his work. He would cross hell and high water to finish a job, as he took his work very seriously. As Batman would say, “Odd.VERY odd.”
A mere three days later, my assistant Sara called me on that early Saturday morning with the sad news that Adam had passed away from leukemia. It was the exact same thing that killed another friend and TV icon Mike Connors a few months ago. Like Batman putting together the clues to solve a problem, it all started to come together in my mind.First the mysterious sound-alike audition, and now this.
I Googled “leukemia and back pain,” and sure enough my fears were confirmed. Back pain is one of the symptoms of leukemia. Now, I’m not a doctor – but I’ve played one in a cartoon. And I started thinking that Adam’s continual back pain was being mistreated all those years as a simple back injury, when the true cause was most likely the cancer. It’s a shame it hadn’t been identified and diagnosed much earlier. Perhaps he could have gotten treatment and gotten better.
The on-line news reports and tributes were flooding my browser. In some cases, Twitter and Facebook posts were linking to my 1989 song “Adam West” as a suitable way to characterize and express their feelings for Adam. When I wrote it, I never thought it would be used as a eulogy of sorts, but I was honored nonetheless. Some people even chose to quote lyrics from the song in their Tweets and posts. I was really touched.
Obviously I’ll miss seeing and talking with Adam, but I know he’s in a much better place. And best of all, he’s out of the excruciating pain he was in. Despite his self-confessed faults and sins (many of which were described in his book “Back to the Batcave”) he was a really good guy. He was an impeccable family man. He went out of his way to do nice things for people. He realized his status as a pop culture icon, and he embraced it fully with charm, warmth and humor.
I’m glad I kept all of the wacky e-mails he and I exchanged over the years, as they still make me laugh to this day. As do over 37 years’ worth of memories I have stored up in my head. It’s been a wonderful ride, and what kid can say he became friends with his childhood hero? I’m positive that, at this very moment, God is getting personal instruction on how to do The Batusi from its creator.
I’ll miss you, my friend. It’s been an honor.