Charles Rolland “Charlie” Douglass, inventor-operator of the often maligned yet much-employed TV “Laff Box” audience reaction machine, died April 8 in Laguna Beach, where he had retired to. He was 93.
The Acad of Television Arts & Sciences awarded the longtime CBS engineer and private entrepreneur a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1992. When he retired, his son Robert, himself a nine-time Emmy-winning sound mixer who had worked alongside his father for years, assumed running the family business, Northridge Electronics, which “sweetens” programs with “audience reaction.”
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Charlie Douglass and his family left their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was 2 because of the political unrest during the time of Poncho Villa. The young family moved to Nevada, where Charles’ father, an early-day electrical engineer, found work in silver mines. At a young age, Charles knew he wanted to pursue a similar career.
He worked his way through the U. of Nevada at the height of the Depression and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1933. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a sound engineer and later as a broadcast engineer for CBS Radio. He joined the Navy during WWII and was sent to specialized training at Caltech, Bowdon College and M.I.T. prior to assuming an assignment in Washington, D.C., where he worked with a team of engineers developing shipboard radar systems.
After the war, he remained in the Naval Reserve and attained the rank of commander before returning to his previous career as a broadcast engineer with CBS. In the early 1950s, with the broadening of the young television industry, he became a technical director for many live TV shows.
It was around 1953 that he got the idea of developing a “laugh machine” to enhance or even substitute for live audience reaction. That idea became his business and for the next 30-plus years he operated Northridge Electronics, providing audience reaction for TV comedy shows. The practice has always been controversial since it first came about and has often been maligned by critics and creatives, but it also became standard procedure for many shows, particularly laffers filmed on location or where no audience is present.
Besides son Bob, Charlie Douglass is survived by his wife of 62 years, Dorothy; another son, Dr. Steve Douglass; a brother; and two grandchildren.