Stan Chambers, the legendary TV newsman whose marathon live reporting on a little girl trapped in a well in 1949 was a watershed moment for the burgeoning medium, died today at his home in Holmby Hills, CA. He was 91. His career at KTLA Los Angeles spanned more than six decades and 22,000 stories, and he retired on his 87th birthday in 2010.
The L.A. native starting working at KTLA in 1947 after a stint in the Navy and while attending USC. He broke into the nascent TV business working behind the scenes but eventually found his way in front of the camera. In April 1949, he rushed to the scene to report on the effort to rescue 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus, who had fallen into a well while playing with her sister in San Marino. It was the first live TV coverage of a breaking-news story. He and his colleague Bill Welsh spent the next 27 hours live on the air as rescuers tried to free the girl. There were only a few thousands TV sets in the LA area, but the coverage riveting those who watched.
“We had no idea of the impact that this was going to make,” Chambers said in an interview with KTLA decades later. “It really brought the city together. Los Angeles was a big city, but on this one weekend, it became a small town. Neighbors would visit neighbors they didn’t know very well. They’d sit in front of the set. They’d have dinner there. They’d go to sleep on the floor, really right up to the end. For the first time, they experienced the long form of television, that they were a part of this whole broadcast from the moment they started looking.”
More than 40 years later, Chambers broke another story that would rock Los Angeles, and indeed the nation and world. He reported as KTLA was the first to air the videotape of the Rodney King beating by a group of LAPD officers in 1991. The tape led to the officers being indicted and standing trial; all eventually were acquitted, verdicts that led to the devastating 1992 L.A. riots.
Chambers worked on KTLA’s first daily newscast in 1962. During his 63 years at the station, he covered in his measured, unhurried style such riveting local stories as the disastrous 1961 Bel-Air fire and 1963 Baldwin Hills Reservoir dam break, the 1965 Watts riots, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Manson Family murders, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the O.J. Simpson chase and trial. He also announced President Kennedy’s death to the Los Angeles TV audience and was the first to cover the above-ground A-bomb test in Nevada with TV cameras.
In 1986, Chambers again covered a live rescue attempt that kept viewers transfixed. A low-flying small plane snagged high-voltage power lines short of the Ontario’s airport and became entangled in the wires. The two men aboard were strapped into their seats as the Cessna dangled upside-down by its propeller and front landing gear — 80 feet off the ground. CNN picked up Chambers’ live KTLA feed, and the successful rescue was broadcast around the world.
“I like the idea of the live deadline of standing there with your mike in hand and 20 seconds to go waiting for the cue,” Chambers said in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It’s a sensation that I do enjoy. I frankly just think that I’m there in the dark talking to the cameraman.”
He won numerous awards during his long career including multiple News Emmys and Golden Mike Awards, an LA Press Club Award and the Los Angeles area Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The Associated Press Television-Radio Association renamed its Extraordinary Achievement award for Chambers following his retirement from KTLA. The annual award honors lifetime achievement by broadcast journalists in the Western U.S.
He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a portion of Sunset Boulevard and a building on the KTLA lot are named after him.
KTLA will air a special report Stan Chambers: L.A. Newsroom at 9 PM Sunday.
Chambers is survived by his wife, Gigi; 11 children; 38 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His grandson Jaime Chambers is a former KTLA reporter who now works at XETV San Diego.