Trailblazer kickstarted station's innovation

A correction was made to this article on April 30, 2007.

Whenever KTLA masters another first — from its network-challenging morning news show to broadcasting in high-definition — the station is honoring the legacy of Klaus Landsberg.

Landsberg died way too young (in 1956, at the age of 40) but his place in TV history — and in turn KTLA’s — was already secure by the time he succumbed to cancer.

Landsberg was a whiz kid in his native Germany, designing TV equipment as a teen. He then emigrated to the United States shortly before World War II, wowing the engineers at Farnsworth TV, NBC and DuMont labs (where he launched New York’s WABD-TV, now WNYW) before heading West at the request of Paramount.

Owners of a stake in DuMont, Paramount wanted Landsberg to launch its Los Angeles TV station, W6XYZ. But it was 1941, and the United States’ involvement in the war by the end of the year would slow down the introduction of TV.

Landsberg spent the time experimenting. That included the first telecast inside a movie studio (Paramount, of course) in 1942 and sports coverage by 1946.

The newly renamed KTLA broadcast its first Tournament of Roses parade in 1947. On Jan. 22, the first commercial TV station west of the Mississippi River officially launched with a broadcast hosted by Bob Hope — who goofed and opened the festivities by calling the station “KTL.”

Under the direction of station manager Landsberg, KTLA quickly blazed a trail of innovation — forcing rivals to keep up.

Landsberg popularized the idea of getting out of the studio to cover actual events as they unfolded. Little more than a month after KTLA went on the air, the station was broadcasting an electroplating plant explosion on Pico Boulevard east of downtown Los Angeles, repping the first time a TV station went live from the scene of breaking news.

But it was the wall-to-wall coverage of rescuers’ attempts to pull 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus out of an abandoned well that cemented KTLA’s reputation — along with that of TV in general as a gathering place for the public to witness events as they happen.

It was Landsberg who decided to trot the station’s cameras to the scene and broadcast nonstop for 27½ hours — even though there were few TV sets in L.A.

“He was a very good showman,” remembers KTLA’s Stan Chambers, who is also celebrating his 60th anniversary with the station this year. “He loved entertainment, he loved putting programs on the air. He was the one who said we should take a camera out there.”

Fiscus didn’t survive. But the marathon KTLA broadcast — even though it was seen by few people — legitimized TV as a new news medium.

KTLA was such a trendsetter that it dominated the inaugural Emmy Awards in 1949, landing kudos for top station, top personality (Shirley Dinsdale and puppet Judy Splinters) and most popular program (“Pantomime Quiz”).

KTLA continued to dominate the Emmys over the next two years, scoring the station achievement prize in 1950 and 1951 as well. The TV Academy’s perceived bias toward Landsberg and KTLA was such that the org decided to award Emmys by national network, rather than local TV station.

Besides “Pantomime Quiz,” early KTLA programs included “Time for Beany,” “Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians,” “Bandstand Revue” and “City at Night.” The station introduced audiences to Lawrence Welk, Korla Pandit, Hopalong Cassidy and Spade Cooley.

Innovation continued in subsequent years. The nation got a chance to see Landsberg’s and KTLA’s handiwork in 1952, when the station relayed pictures of a Nevada H-bomb test to the rest of the world by placing equipment on several mountains between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Landsberg’s relay system fed pictures back to the station; they were then uploaded nationally via coaxial cable.

Time magazine was suitably impressed, calling Landsberg’s plan “daring” in a May 1952 issue and pointing out that AT&T had said such a relay system couldn’t be put together fast enough.

“In all, Landsberg used six cameras and 39 engineers, cameramen, assistants and announcers,” the mag wrote. “Total cost of the relay setup, which was built in six days: About $50,000 — or $40,000 (and 23 weeks) less than AT&T had estimated.”

After the death of Landsberg, KTLA nonetheless chalked up more achievements — including, most significantly, becoming the first station in the nation to utilize a helicopter for newsgathering. KTLA’s “Telecopter” first took flight in May 1958 and was soon providing the station with stunning images — including the 1961 Bel-Air fires and the Baldwin Hills Dam break in 1963.

Then came the Watts Riots in 1965; KTLA’s coverage of the civil unrest earned the station a Peabody Award — the first ever for an independent TV outfit.

The pace of innovation slackened as the industry around KTLA boomed, but milestones still came. In the 1990s, KTLA broke the video of the Rodney King beating, which was handed to Chambers and ultimately led to one of the biggest L.A. news stories of the decade. KTLA also broke ground with the 1991 launch of the “KTLA Morning News,” which loosened the stranglehold networks had on morning show success, and in 1998 became the first local station to broadcast in HD.

“There’s something in the DNA that inspires you,” says KTLA general manager Vinnie Malcolm. “You need to stay relevant, and we’re fortunate to have a history like that.”

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