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The Tragedy and the Man That Made L.A. TV

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In the last year of World War II, Army Navy Screen Magazine (produced by the Signal Corps) gave GIs a look at what their postwar world was supposed to be like. The first of these reports explained that the future would be televised.

Television had been promised "a couple of years away" since the 1920s, and it was even possible to watch experimental broadcasts before the war began. Now that men were being demobilized into an uncertain economy, TV was just around the corner again. In "Tomorrow Television," the Signal Corps made two points for an audience of anxious men with memories of the Depression: there would be jobs for those trained in electronics, and TV would be a transformative consumer product for everyone.

For once -- and finally, after so many years -- the prognosticators were right.

On January 22, 1947, commercial TV came to Los Angeles via Paramount Pictures and station KTLA. Bob Hope hosted the first -- necessarily live -- program. Hope's audience was small. By one estimate, there were less than 1,000 television sets in KTLA's broadcast area.

By 1949, Los Angeles had seven channels of television: KTSL-2, KNBH-4, KTLA-5, KECA- 7, KFI-9, and KLAC-13.

The broadcast day in L.A. was still short, generally beginning around noon. Programming was a mix of B-picture westerns, variety showcases, puppets and cartoons, wrestling, and talk shows. Nearly all of it was live. Korla Pandit (who never spoke on camera) played the electric organ. Betty White was co-host with Al Jarvis of a daily musical review. In the evenings, Spade Cooley fiddled western swing in front of his band.

Trapped  | Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times

TV in 1949 didn't have much to compel viewers to watch, beyond the novelty of having entertainment beamed into their living rooms. TV screens were mostly small, the definition of the image a bit rough, and the sets were expensive. A 12.5-inch Philco TV cost $319 in mid-1949, the equivalent of $3,100 today.

Television, although fitfully amusing, really wasn't essential -- that is until the evening of April 8, 1949. What viewers saw changed what watching meant.

Little Girl Lost

Professor William Deverell and I have talked about what happened through that April night, 66 years ago, and the days that followed. Deverell, who is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, described what happened in the Spring/Summer 2009 edition of Huntington Frontiers:

Late one spring afternoon in 1949, three-year-old Kathy was playing with her sister and two cousins in the field adjacent to her family's home in San Marino. All of a sudden, the older children noticed that Kathy had disappeared. They quickly realized that she had tumbled down an old well that lay hidden in the weeds. Over the next 48 hours that well and that beautiful little girl in a pink dress would become known across the nation and the world.

The little girl lost in the abandoned well was Kathy Fiscus. She had slipped through the 14-inch opening at 5 p.m., falling 90 feet, and was wedged in the darkness. Family members hurried from the nearby house. Her mother and her aunt shouted into the well and heard the little girl respond. They called for rescuers and stood by while a few volunteers, and then hundreds, converged on the field.

Thousands of men and women eventually gathered to watch while the spring evening tuned into night.

The policed called for little people from Hollywood, a circus thin man, and jockeys from the Santa Anita racetrack. None of them was small enough to be lowered headfirst into the well, perhaps to reach the lost girl and draw her to the surface.

By 6 p.m., the well was silent. Around it gathered cranes, a backhoe and bulldozer to dig into the alluvial soil, and lights that came on at dusk. On Saturday, a tall, thin man with a microphone stood at the edge of the crowd of rescuers and faced a bulky television camera connected by thick cables to a van painted with the call letters KTLA.

That tall, thin man was Stan Chambers, and >he wrote about broadcasting live that April Saturday and Sunday:

As efforts continued Saturday, one of television's brilliant pioneers, KTLA General Manager Klaus Landsberg, made the decision to provide live coverage. All programming and commercials were canceled, and Bill Welch and I began our open-ended, uninterrupted reports from the scene that afternoon. KTLA's marathon, 27 1/2-hour coverage of the rescue attempt was one of the turning points in television history.Up until then, television was a flickering new novelty and not taken seriously by many people. This telecast changed that view forever. People were irresistibly drawn to the tragic reality that was taking place on the screen of their living-room set. It was a television experience they would remember a lifetime.

Stan Chambers had grown up in Los Angeles and attended Loyola High School and Loyola University and USC. He went into the Navy in 1944, but the war ended before he saw combat. He went to work for KTLA less than a year after the station began broadcasting.

Although KTTV also had cameras and an announcer at the scene, and Chambers was spelled by Bill Welch during the hours KTLA was on the air, it's Chambers who is best remembered.

While construction crews worked through the rest of the day to dig a 100-foot rescue shaft parallel to the well, Chambers talked with volunteers, bystanders, and the Fiscus family. His voice was calm, sounding both sympathetic and more assured than he probably felt. He was making up the strategies of live TV news as he went.

Back in the van and in the control room at KTLA, they were inventing how to tell this kind of story visually.

Stan Chambers

| Photo courtesy KTLA

Bleached black and white and squeezed into 12.5 inches of primitive video, the scene in San Marino wasn't a place anymore, but a state of mind. When reason is exhausted, and TV continues to offer one more thing to watch, the hours of flickering images become an alternate reality.

Into Saturday night in homes around L.A., neighbors without a TV gathered in front of the little screen of someone who did. Some people stood in the aisles of department stores to watch display TVs. Even late that night, crowds of men and women lingered outside of appliance stores to watch a TV glowing in the show window.

Eventually, the watching ended. Many years later, Clyde Harp spoke of his role in the effort to rescue Kathy Fiscus:

I was there as one of the rescuers digging through dirt, quicksand, and water 94 feet down the rescue shaft and took turns with Bill Yancey, "Whitey" Blickensderfer, A. O. Kelly, and Herb Herpel and a few others. I was the youngest at age 25. On my third trip down I crawled through the small, short tunnel we'd dug over to the well. I made the first cut into the well (casing) and found Kathy Fiscus' body. Water gushed out, so I had to be hauled up quick. The doctor went down after the water was pumped out, and then Bill Yancey retrieved her.

"People were stunned," Stan Chambers recalled in 2009. "It was like they had lost their own little girl. It was such a shared moment. That's when television became television as we know it today." We still wonder at all the outcomes of that moment.

By the end of the following week, country singer Jimmie Osborne had written "The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus" and recorded the ballad a few days later. That was how disturbing events were transmitted and assimilated in an earlier century. Television -- and personable, believable on-air reporters like Stan Chambers -- now stepped in to serve that social role.

Chambers died earlier this year at age 91. He had spent 63 years in Los Angeles television.

The grave marker for Kathy Fiscus at the Glenn Abby Memorial Park in San Diego County reads "A Little Girl Who Brought the World Together for a Moment."

We might wonder who and what will serve in this new century of increasing speed, less attention, and almost universal skepticism about what might bring us together again.

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