Stan Chambers already has finished editing a feature and filing a report from Dorsey High School on a parents’ meeting with police officials in the wake of a shooting just outside the campus. Even so, it’s been a slow day so far on the KTLA-TV Channel 5 night shift, and Chambers and his cameraman decide to take a break for dinner at their favorite Hollywood restaurant.
They’ve finished their salads and are digging into their first piece of pizza when the newsroom beeps and they’re up and running--the pizza boxed to go. There’s been a traffic accident on the Terminal Island bridge in Long Beach and a child reportedly has fallen into the water. A search is on, they are told via cellular phone in the news truck. It will likely warrant a live report on KTLA’s 10 p.m. news.
This is what Stan Chambers lives for.
“What I really love about this job is that it’s the real world. This is really what’s happening out there,” says Chambers, 70, who on Wednesday will mark his 46th anniversary at KTLA. “And I get more out of it than anyone because I’m right in the middle of it. And I never know what is going to happen next.”
Chambers and his cameraman, Greg Hunter, aren’t sure if they measure a good night at work by whether they get to finish their dinner or are interrupted. “It depends on the story,” Chambers laughs.
On this night, the story is a bust. By the time they make the 40-minute drive down the freeway in a light drizzle, all that’s left of the apparent search is a fizzling flare. The water, the bridge, everything is deserted.
“It was a good drill,” Chambers says.
Like he needs the practice. Since 1947, Chambers has covered just about every event this city has experienced: from the 1949 Kathy Fiscus well tragedy to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to a movie set at 20th Century Fox, from the 1961 Bel-Air fire, the 1965 Watts riots and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 to the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, last year’s riots and the recent fires in Laguna and Malibu.
“Everywhere we go,” said Hunter, who has been Chambers’ nighttime partner for the past 3 1/2 years, “no matter what neighborhood it is, people know Stan, and they are so nice to him. We meet people who say, ‘I’ve been watching you for years. I want you to meet my kid.’ And they call their kid over and he’s this big adult guy named Stan.”
To honor Chambers’ 46th anniversary at the station, KTLA will present a two-hour special chronicling his news life and times, “L.A. Treasure: Stan Chambers,” Wednesday at 8 p.m.
When he first arrived, however, Chambers, a native of Los Angeles and graduate of USC, never really fancied himself a newsman and never imagined he could make a living at it. He first came to work pushing cameras around the KTLA studios and helping the chef on Channel 5’s cooking show.
Soon, however, he became one of the station’s small stable of announcers and he found himself improvising on the air, participating in such live shows as “Meet Me in Hollywood,” which featured interviews with people on the street, and “City at Night,” which brought the nighttime world of newspapers, breweries and the Los Angeles harbor into people’s homes. He hosted an ice-skating variety show called “Frosty Frolics,” anchored newscasts at all times of the day and night, and served as KTLA’s news director for seven years in the 1960s.
But the event that changed his life and secured his place in the history of L.A. television news occurred when 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell down a well shaft while playing in a field in San Marino. Klaus Landsberg, KTLA’s pioneering founder, rolled equipment to the field and, with Chambers and Bill Welch reporting everything they saw and heard, broadcast 27 1/2 hours of continuous live coverage of the ultimately unsuccessful rescue attempt.
Until then, Chambers said, television was just a toy. But the Kathy Fiscus story brought people together around television sets in store windows and neighbors’ living rooms, and “I realized that television had this remarkable ability, and it was then that I decided that I really wanted to be in news.”
He’s reported on well over 20,000 stories since. As KTLA’s one and only regular night-beat reporter, he sometimes races to six stories in one eight-hour shift, scribbling his copy for each piece while monitoring police and fire scanners in the front seat of the news truck as it speeds to his next setup. He remembers a time “when a murder was a major story.” Now, he says sadly, “we can’t cover most of them.”
Still, Chambers dashes from tragedy to tragedy without a trace of cynicism, having never lost the gusto that he brought to his work back in the early days, when every television broadcast was about as miraculous as sending a man to the moon.
“He is one of a kind. “He never gets tired of it,” said Warren Cereghino, KTLA’s news director. “And he’s optimistic and likable and believable, and that’s why people trust and respond so well to him.”
Chambers admits he’s no Woodward or Bernstein or Mike Wallace. He calls himself just a “regular reporter, out there trying to get the facts as objectively as possible without any hype or editorializing. Just the essence of what I see or hear.”
Though he’s seen all kinds of changes in the technology and content of a local news broadcast, his harshest criticism of local news today is that in the old days, “we focused on politics and disasters and didn’t get into some of the fringe areas like entertainment.” What he focuses on, now and always, is the live event--going on the air, telling the story as best he can, allowing his viewers to be a part of what’s going on out there via their television set.
That excitement and the uncertainty of what he will do and see each night might just keep him going forever. Chambers has 11 children with his first wife of 40 years, who died in 1989, and 13 grandchildren. His second wife of three years has three children and four grandchildren of her own. But when KTLA management asked him if he’d prefer to switch to the day shift to spend his nights at home, Chambers said: “No thanks.”
“You never know what will happen at night, and since we are the one unit on duty we get to go to everything,” Chambers said.
At 10:30 p.m., with the station’s newscast half over, Chambers is still sitting in the news truck in the KTLA parking lot, monitoring the scanners. By 10:50, he’s willing to call it a day. “Well, it’s about that time,” he says, “that if something happened at Denny’s across the street, we can almost do it.”
And then, calling “Good night” as his colleagues start to trickle out of the newsroom on their way home, he concludes: “I don’t know how long I will keep doing this, but I just don’t know of anything that I enjoy as much. Golf and tennis are fun, but they’re just not the same.”