Biography written by Landsberg’s first wife Evelyn DeWolfe and George Lewis
By James O’Neal
In my review of Joel Tator’s “Los Angeles Television” in the Feb. 25, 2015 issue of TV Technology, I praised the author for including information about Klaus Landsberg, the genius behind the second television station in Los Angeles, W6XYZ/KTLA. I noted in that review that neither Landsberg nor his many achievements during television’s early years are especially well known outside of the Southern California TV community.
Landsberg’s first wife, Evelyn DeWolfe, along with veteran NBC television journalist George Lewis have teamed to do something about this by co-authoring a new Landsberg biography. The new book fills in some of the blanks surrounding the life and meteoric career of this west coast television pioneer. (Landsberg died at the age of 40 of complications from malignant melanoma. He worked in the nascent television industry for just over two decades, yet accomplished more than many do in twice that time.)
While “Line of Site” bears the name of the two authors, it appears to be primarily the work of DeWolfe, with Lewis more or less a silent partner; he would have been a teenager at the time of Landsberg’s death in 1956. On the other hand, DeWolfe, nee Ashlin, met Landsberg in late 1943 and married him in 1945. “Line of Site” (which is a reference of Landsberg’s explanation of VHF television propagation to DeWolfe when he took her to Mt. Wilson and the very top of W6XYZ’s tower; tt was there that he asked for her hand in marriage) is told through her eyes, tracing Landsberg’s story from his birth in Germany in 1916 to his untimely end.
Thanks to DeWolfe’s self-admitted “packrat” nature, many letters and other documents were preserved that help provide detail about her relationship with Landsberg and the Los Angeles television station he launched.
GETTING IN ON TELEVISION’S GROUND FLOOR
Landsberg, like many young people of his generation, became infatuated with radio, and this led to a technical education (he received dual engineering degrees from the Czech Technical University in Prague). His first immersion in television occurred when Nazi Germany decided to televise the 1936 Olympic Games played in Berlin. Young Landsberg, despite his Jewish heritage, was selected to help with the TV coverage. According to DeWolfe, his escape from the Hitler regime a year later was expedited by work he’d independently done on developing an aircraft instrument navigation system, something the German military needed, and something that young Landsberg used to advantage to obtain a U.S. entry visa. DeWolfe traces his career in the “New World” as beginning with Philo Farnsworth’s pioneering Philadelphia television station and laboratory, and from there to RCA to help prepare that company’s television exhibit for the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair. His next stint was with yet another television pioneer, Allen B. DuMont. It was while working for DuMont that Landsberg was hired to build a TV station for Paramount Pictures Corp., an investor in DuMont’s television empire.
Despite wartime shortages, Landsberg succeeded in launching Los Angeles’ second television station, W6XYZ, in late 1942, and remained with that station and its commercial successor, KTLA, for the balance of his career.
Landsberg acted as a “one man band,” serving as the station’s chief engineer, producer and director of programs, talent scout, and operations manager. Even after the station went commercial in 1947 and greatly expanded its operating schedule, Landsberg still played a dual role as engineer and director, and this “engineers rule” philosophy continued at the station for some time after his death.
LANDSBERG’S TELEVISION “FIRSTS”
“Line of Site” traces a number of Landsberg’s accomplishments, which include the first continuing television live coverage of breaking news events (a massive explosion at an L.A. business, and rescue attempts to save an 18-month-old girl trapped underground); the first live telecast of a nuclear weapons test (with such an impossibly short lead-time for linking the Nevada test with KTLA that AT&T Long Lines refused to take it on, forcing Landsberg to contrive his own methodology for spanning the 275 miles of desert); establishing the first television transmitter site on Mt. Wilson; developing programming ideas; identifying and hiring the large stable of on-air talent (KTLA’s “Dream Team”) necessary to provide programming as the station kept expanding its hours of operation; transitioning experimental W6XYZ to become the first commercial television station west of the Mississippi; and more.
Landsberg typically worked very long hours at the TV station he’d created, such was his infatuation and interest in grooming the new medium. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with television was ultimately responsible for his divorce (DeWolfe refers to TV as the “mistress” that ruined their marriage). However, the former couple’s young son kept the two in fairly close contact until the time of Landsberg’s death, so DeWolfe is able to give a comprehensive accounting of the TV pioneer’s association with the Paramount station.
While the authors do a very thorough and creditable job of documenting Landsberg’s career from the time he entered DeWolfe’s life (and also his early years in Germany from Landsberg’s parents who became part of DeWolfe’s extended family), there is precious little detailed information about Landsberg’s career track prior to his Paramount employment. As someone very much interested in early television’s history, I would love to know more about what he did in German television, what his instrument navigation system entailed, what his responsibilities were with Farnsworth’s television operation and how long he was employed there, and exactly what his role was in RCA’s World’s Fair television showcase. However, this information apparently died with Landsberg, and doesn’t seem to have been shared with DeWolfe or others. This omission does not detract greatly from the story, but having such information would help readers develop a more complete picture of Landsberg’s technical persona.
Also, while “Line of Sight” is quite readable and well organized, I do need to call attention to some failings in its editing (or perhaps proof reading), at least in my review copy. There are several instances where a thought ends abruptly in mid-sentence, only to reappear a paragraph or so later in its complete form, along with repeated material. This is a minor fault though, and will hopefully be corrected in a future edition. (Editor’s note: The author has confirmed that the errors have been corrected in the final version now available.)
I also have a problem with the artwork that’s intermingled with the text. While some of the photos are quite interesting, they are on the small side, making it difficult to pick out detail (the fact that the book is printed on rough stock doesn’t help either). An example of this is the reproduction of the early W6XYZ program schedule on page seven. It’s so tiny and lacking in contrast that it really takes a magnifying lens to decipher some of the lines. This shortcoming could perhaps be remedied next time ‘round by relegating such artwork and photos to a separate section printed on higher quality paper.
Readers with an interest in early television history, and the people who made it happen, will find “Line of Sight” to be a valuable addition to their libraries. I read the book in two sittings, and think that others with a desire to learn more about television’s infancy will find it equally difficult to put down.
“Line of Sight” is available at such booksellers as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at DeWolfe’s website, www.readevelyn.com/books.
James E. O’Neal is a retired television engineer and served as TV Technology’s technology editor for nearly 10 years. He still contributes articles to the publication on a regular basis and serves as its technical advisor.