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November 14, 2017

A Vision of Television

Evelyn DeWolfe's book, Line of Sight, details the life and career of her ex-husband, television pioneer Klaus Landsberg.

Iva-Marie Palmer
  • Klaus Landsberg

    Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe
  • KTLA covers an explosion at a chemical plant in downtown L.A. in 1947.

    Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe
  • Evelyn DeWolfe with the KTLA news team.

    Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe
  • Bob Hope reads copy on live TV.

    Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe
  • DeWolfe with Landsberg

    Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe
  • Photo courtesy of Evelyn DeWolfe

You arrive at Evelyn DeWolfe’s Hollywood home in the midst of a hurricane.

Not here, of course. As extensive the effects of climate change are, Hollywood still doesn’t get hurricanes. It does get scorching 100-degree days, moments before a wildfire will break out in La Tuna Canyon, but the hurricane-turned-tropical-storm in question is Harvey, battering Houston in a crisis that unfolds on, yes, newspaper fronts and online but perhaps most powerfully, still, on television.

Today, we take for granted that if there’s a hurricane in Texas, or wildfires in Southern California, some cataclysm somewhere, round-the-clock coverage of it is a given.

But it wasn’t always that way, and one of the pioneers of putting audiences right at the scene is none other than De Wolfe’s first husband, the late Klaus Landsberg.

“That was his vision,” De Wolfe said, of the way TV news brings people to the scene. “I think the reason so many people are coming together [to help Harvey victims] is much because of TV. It’s what brings people together. And Klaus would be extremely proud to see all of these stations continuing the work that he began, as one of television’s pioneers.”

Landsberg’s pioneering ways are detailed in Line of Sight, De Wolfe’s 2016 book that she authored along with journalist George Lewis.

The biography and slice of history contained within the highly readable volume give insights into Landsberg as far more than a brilliant engineer who helped television station KTLA launch in Los Angeles, becoming the first commercial station on the West Coast.

For Landsberg, TV was an obsession, not solely for what it was, but for what it could do. Said longtime Los Angeles Times TV critic Cecil Smith of Landsberg, “He believed television was a God-given instrument on which one could watch the world happen. It was his mission to make it work.”

And make it work, he did. In 1947, Landsberg’s KTLA – then just beginning its commercial broadcasts after several years of experimental programming - was on the scene of a chemical plant explosion in downtown L.A., scooping the morning papers. Though L.A. had only about 300 TV sets at the time, people gathered around receivers to see live coverage of the explosion and its aftermath.

“That day would mark the first live television coverage of a major disaster anywhere,” Line of Sight reads.

In 1949, Landsberg passionately pulled a 27.5-hour shift when 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus of San Marino fell down a 110-foot abandoned well shaft. Landsberg made the decision to cover the rescue attempts, cutting into normal programming for the live telecast.

Though Fiscus did not survive, the riveting story set the stage for 1987, when CNN – then a fledgling cable news outlet – covered the well rescue of Jessica McClure in Midland, Texas. “They called it television’s ‘baptism of fire’,” DeWolfe wrote of the Fiscus story in a piece for the L.A. Times that ran as part of its McClure coverage.

TV critic Smith wrote of people crowding the window of a Wilshire Boulevard store to watch a television in the window: It was the first time I had been aware of the impact and potential of the new medium.”

Landsberg, as the book makes clear, not only seemed to understand that potential from the get-go; he was extremely versatile. He not only had technical ingenuity (not to mention a disbelief in the word “can’t,” DeWolfe noted) and shrewdness.

When NBC didn’t want to let other stations use its signal path to L.A. to broadcast General McArthur arriving into San Francisco in 1951, Landsberg began cooperating with other stations to make a shared signal, forcing NBC – now without the scoop - to relent and share its relay; when you describe the move as getting NBC “by the balls,” DeWolfe agrees enthusiastically, “exactly."

He also had an eagerness to entertain.

“He was a showman,” DeWolfe said. In Line of Sight, Landsberg  is described as “part Edison, part P.T. Barnum.” He wanted to entertain, and he had a knack for discovering talent, and for directing. As KTLA’s founder, general manager and Paramount Television’s vice president, he produced and personally directed more than 3,500 TV shows.

Character actor Dick Lane was one of Landsberg’s earliest stars.

Landsberg realized Lane’s potential after the actor knocked on a door bearing a sign that read, “Experimental Television Station W6XYZ” at Paramount Studios.  That was in 1942, as what would become KTLA was still in its very early stages. Landsberg and Lane began tinkering with programming they thought the public would like – the public being the very miniscule handful of people who actually had TV sets.

In late 1943, the same door that caught Lane’s eye also drew De Wolfe’s notice. De Wolfe, a Brazilian student working as a translator for the Coordinator of Inter-America Affairs (America was heavily courting Brazil as its wartime ally), was on a tour of the studios when she too grew curious about the mysterious door, and met Landsberg.

By spring 1945, Landsberg and De Wolfe were married, and as De Wolfe became a first-hand witness to the dawn of television in Los Angeles, she also was a font of support to Landsberg. “My belief in him was my greatest contribution to his work,” she said. DeWolfe acted as a sounding board for ideas and the trustee of Landsberg’s secrets.

She also in a sense became her late ex-husband’s historian, as Line of Sight includes fond details of Landsberg’s reperatory company, which included the versatile Lane (he covered the expolosion mentioned above, because KTLA didn’t yet have a news team) and Stan Chambers, who became an L.A. legand as a KTLA reporter for six decades.

It was DeWolfe who urged Landsberg to use Chambers because “he was too good-looking to remain in the backroom,” she writes.

Lawrence Welk was another Landsberg discovery, a fellow German immigrant known in the music world but without a TV presence. The Lawrence Welk Show, televised on Friday nights from Santa Monica’s Aragon Ballroom, became one of the best-remembered programs in television history, featuring Welk and Roberta Linn (the Champagne Lady) and accordionist Myron Floren.

Of course, not all the talent worked out so well: for KTLA’s first commercial broadcast in January 1947, movie star and vaudeville veteran Bob Hope was brought on as emcee and – because he was used to working in radio – read from a huge sheaf of papers on live television. DeWolfe has no qualms expressing her displeasure for Hope’s lack of preparation.

Regardless, the efforts Landsberg made in those early days resulted in KTLA and Landsberg winning the biggest prize, Outstanding Overall Achievement Emmy at the first-ever ceremony held in January 1949. At the inception of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, writer and critic Syd Cassyd founded the academy as an organization honoring shows produced and aired in Los Angeles.

Cassyd and Landsberg had worked together and discussed the idea for the organization when Cassyd was a grip for KTLA. (Landsberg had hired him in 1945, when Cassyd first came out of the military.)

Landsbergian touches and innovations remain everywhere in the television industry. For example, “eye in the sky” helicopter reporting was something Landsberg was trying to perfect up until his death in 1956. Though his ex-wife, DeWolfe speaks in glowing terms about him. Still sparkly-eyed and radiant at 95, she says “I still love everyone I ever loved” – she wishes more people understood his impact on the industry.

The stories recounted throughout Line of Sight paint a picture of Landsberg that is not always perfect (his insistence that nothing was impossible made him a tough boss for some) but always impressive  and respected. And in a relatively short time, given that he died of cancer at age 40, he made countless contributions to television.

The ones detailed here are just a few, as one suspects Landsberg would not appreciate spoilers.

Line of Sight: Klaus Landsberg - His Life and Vision is available on Amazon and at DeWolfe's website.

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