To call the scene around an open field in a residential neighborhood in San Marino in April 1949 a circus would not have been an exaggeration. With floodlights blazing through the night, thousands of people milled around the former fruit orchard next to a school, jostling each other for a better look at what was happening. Vendors worked the crowd, selling hot dogs, ice cream and drinks. There were even jockeys from nearby racetracks and performers from Clyde Beatty’s Circus on hand, most notably an entertainer known as “The Thin Man.” Somewhere amid the crowd was the top of an old well, surrounded by men and machines working frantically.
And 90 feet down the 14-inch-wide well — as big around as a medium-sized pizza — was a small girl, trapped.
Another sort of circus was going on simultaneously: a media circus on a virtually unprecedented scale. Dozens of newspaper reporters and photographers documented the scene. Radio men thrilled listeners with their accounts of the dramatic rescue attempt. And for the first time ever, television news reporters were among those covering the drama, beaming the story live to the relatively small number of TVs then in the Los Angeles area, staying on the air around the clock that weekend — broadcasting so continuously that there were fears that their transmitters would melt down.
Today, we take such media spectacles for granted, part of everyday life. But this moment in television history, which began as an experiment and a brainstorm, would turn out to be revolutionary. Remote sports broadcasts had already taken place and were, in fact, fairly common. But this was different. This was news. It moved television, with one bold stroke, well beyond what it had been before, which was mostly an amusement in the parlor, a little electric box where kids could watch puppet shows.
What happened on that Palm Sunday weekend in that field in San Marino would turn out to be the first reality television show in history — all because of a little girl who had fallen down a well.
A HOLE IN THE GROUND
In the summer of 1903, a man named C.C. Johnson drilled a well deep into the big aquifer known as the Raymond Groundwater Basin below the San Gabriel Valley. The well was just south of Robles Avenue and west of Santa Anita Avenue in San Marino, and it went right down into the Raymond Basin.
The cast-iron casing of the Johnson well was 14 inches in diameter down to 507 feet and then narrowed to 10 inches in diameter for a couple hundred more feet. As Johnson bored into the earth, he encountered the different strata of the area. Each 10 to 20 feet, the sediments changed: soil, gravel, clay, “blue clay,” cement sand, hard clay.
With water drawn from the aquifer below, the Johnson well helped to irrigate a fertile landscape. The fields supported a wide variety of fruit trees: persimmons, peaches, plums, oranges, grapefruit, nectarines, lemons and apricots.
Just after the First World War, the Johnson well petered out and became inoperative. Maybe the casing had been damaged or bent deep below the surface. Maybe that portion of the aquifer had yielded all the water it could provide. In any event, in a report filed in 1919, the San Gabriel Valley Water Co. listed the Johnson well as “not in use.” It may or may not have been capped off. It looks to have just sat there, in and under that field, unused and abandoned.
The well casing stuck up perhaps 8 or 10 inches from the surface of the ground. If there was a cap on it, or maybe just a metal plate laid atop it, maybe soldered, maybe not, it had fallen off. Perhaps a tractor, cutting weeds in the field, had run into it, knocking it off.
Legend has it that neighborhood children knew about the well and its opening, and they liked to throw rocks down it. So maybe that cap or cover had never been there. Weeds grew around the well. There was talk of building a Masonic Temple on the field, though those plans went nowhere.
LITTLE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARED
As the years went by, one of the kids who played in the vacant field by the well was three-year-old Kathryn Anne Fiscus. On April 8, 1949, little Kathy was romping there in a pink party dress with her older sister and cousins and Jeepers, the Fiscus’ brown and white fox terrier. Suddenly, Kathy’s mother, Alice, noticed that her little girl wasn’t among the other children. Kathy’s five-year-old cousin, Gus, heard cries from near a tractor in the field, and he went to investigate. It was Kathy, down the well. Alice would later say that it was “an absolute miracle” that Gus heard her.
Kathy had fallen 90 feet — the equivalent of nine stories — down the old Johnson well. The adults lowered a length of electrical cord to her. But Kathy could not hold onto it, and it was clear that she had fallen a long way down a very deep hole. As her mother remembered, “we realized that it was deeper and deeper and deeper all the time.”
The family called the San Marino police. The police officers radioed for the fire department: Bring ropes. Five or six firemen soon clustered by the well with everyone else — family, more neighbors, the police. The situation grew frantic.
About an hour after Kathy fell in, the first reporter arrived. Bill Johnston covered the San Gabriel Valley for the Los Angeles Times with a notebook and his old-fashioned camera. “I saw a few cars parked and housewives standing in front of their homes, aprons on, looking in the direction of the field,” he remembered. Neighbors continued to bring things over to drop down the well. Nothing was long enough to reach Kathy, who was still crying down below.
“I have never heard a more heart-breaking sound,” Johnston wrote.
A CROWD GATHERS
The Red Cross came, offering the rescue workers coffee and milk, along with doughnuts, pie, sandwiches and cigarettes. It was clear that lowering ropes would not rescue the little girl. A clamshell digger arrived and began to dig a large hole by the well. Big lights showed up from an industrial supply firm in Pasadena. Within a day, these would be joined by motion picture klieg lights sent over by 20th Century Fox. Before it was all over, as many as 50 floodlights turned night to day at the site. Excavators began digging a large pit next to the well.
Word traveled fast: a little girl trapped in a well. Reporters kept coming. Onlookers. Neighbors. Kids on bikes. Cars. Lines of parked cars stretched a mile or more in multiple directions from the site. Volunteers came, thinking they might help somehow. Some in the assembled crowd wept, some prayed.
Johnston suggested to Kathy’s mother that “the story had become much bigger than any of us.”
People, rescuers and others tried to round up tiny or skinny men to lower down the well so that they might be able to grab Kathy and bring her up. Anyone attempting this would have to be lowered by their feet, head first. Jockeys hustled over from nearby Santa Anita Racetrack and from Hollywood Park in Inglewood, about 25 miles away. A call went out to Hollywood for people with dwarfism or other little people characteristics. That plea was answered by none other than Johnny Roventini, the less-than-4-foot-tall Philip Morris “callboy,” who appeared at the scene in his full bellboy get-up.
It could not get any stranger. But it did. The Thin Man from Clyde Beatty’s Circus, showed up and volunteered to go down the hole; he is said to have brought several other skinny people with him as well. Several people volunteered their own children as rescuers who could be put down the well. None were small enough, or none wanted to get dropped into the narrow darkness of the old well. At the scene, David Fiscus, Kathy’s father, was reluctant to have anyone else go down the well. He vetoed each scheme to send someone down.
Authorities were besieged with telephone, telegram and face-to-face suggestions from far and wide offering ideas as to how to save the little girl, most of them as far-fetched as they were desperate. Newspapers reported that the suggestions numbered in the thousands. A local physician proposed that a vacuum be created in the well so Kathy could be sucked up to freedom; equipment to accomplish this was actually secured, but the plan did not go anywhere. Someone else suggested that water or sand could be slowly poured into the well and Kathy would magically rise to the surface. That these notions were even suggested, much less considered, is an indication of the feverish nature of the rescue effort and its astounding challenges.
By Saturday evening, Kathy had been in the well for 24 hours. By then, the rescue workers had begun a second excavation, this one more of a hole than a pit. Five feet from Kathy’s well, workers bored this second hole with well-digging equipment and hand-held digging and dirt-removal tools: buckets, spades and picks.
‘THE POTENTIAL OF TELEVISION’
In the meantime, the television men had shown up to join the other reporters and radio broadcasters. Two rival Los Angeles stations arrived to broadcast the rescue operation. KTTV and KTLA trucks drove up, each with generators to do live broadcasts from the scene.
In these postwar years, television was a relatively new phenomenon. The idea of a live broadcast of a breaking news event — the attempt to rescue the little girl down the well — was even more novel.
The Fiscus story was not the first remote television news broadcast. Sixteen years earlier, the Long Beach earthquake slammed into the Southern California coastline. The handful of people with television sets at the time had the chance to see the destruction by way of experimental television station W6XAO’s broadcast. That there were television sets in the earliest years of the Great Depression seems astounding, but it was so. Even now, in the late 1940s, Los Angeles only had about 20,000 TVs.
Television broadcast technology at the time could not allow transmission beyond short distances. People who remember watching the rescue operation in places beyond Los Angeles saw newsreel, not live, footage. Locally, however, crowds congregated in front of appliance store win-dows all across greater Los Angeles as proprietors left televisions on to show the rescue attempt for more than 24 hours of continuous broadcasting. When he saw crowds of people standing in front of storefronts, eyes glued to the TV sets behind the glass, Los Angeles Times reporter Cecil Smith says he realized “the potential of television.”
The Kathy Fiscus story all but invented modern television journalism. “This is tragic,” said one producer from KTLA, “but this is also television history.” He was right on both counts.
Television reporter Bill Welsh, who had come to KTLA as a sports and general interest reporter in 1946, having begun his career in radio, had heard of the story from the radio. As he remembered years later, producer Klaus Landsberg “wanted to go out and see if we could televise from the scene.”
Welsh drove over from Burbank and met Landsberg and a small crew at the field in San Marino. It took a while to get the equipment up and running, and it was all an experiment. “In those days,” Welsh said, “nobody believed a television station could work continuously hour after hour.” There were fears the primitive transmitters couldn’t stand the strain of continuous broadcasting.
“What shall we say?” Welsh asked Landsberg. “Pretend it’s a sporting event and give them the play-by-play,” his boss responded. In all, Welsh and another KTLA reporter, Stan Chambers, broadcast from the scene for more than 24 hours straight. All commercials for the station ceased, as did any other programming.
Truth be told, there wasn’t much to see. “What did you look at most of the time? You looked at the end of a pipe, hole in the ground, some people walking around,” Welsh remembered in an interview years later. “Some equipment, cranes that could lift things and so forth. And a lot of times, you wouldn’t see anything. It would be completely static.”
The reporters interviewed bystanders. They interviewed the engineers in charge. Welsh remembered the scene, the frantic activity. Workers, “real wild-eyed guys,” were “taking terrible chances,” he recalled. Welsh almost fell into the pit as he walked around it. “I was on the edge and somebody yelled at me and I turned away.”
Once the television reporters got rolling with their broadcasts, about 6 p.m. Saturday, the audiences fixated on Kathy’s fate swelled to even larger sizes. Welsh later received letter after letter from people who had watched the broadcast.
REACHING THE BOTTOM
On Sunday morning, the parallel shaft reached the level 90 feet down where Kathy was stuck. Workers frantically pumped water out of the new hole. The rescue effort had clearly landed right atop, or even in, the water table. An old pumphouse nearby was put into service, working to lower the water level down the rescue shaft and within Kathy’s cylindrical trap.
Up top, it was a bright, sunny day: Palm Sunday. Thousands of people, some of whom had spent the night, others who had just shown up in their hats, sundresses, sunglasses or Sunday best, waited uneasily for news of Kathy’s fate. As many as 5,000 people were at the scene; that would swell over the hours to perhaps as many as 10,000. Thousands more watched the drama on TV.
By late afternoon, 48 hours after Kathy had fallen into the well, the crowd began to stir, sensing news. Two men went down the parallel shaft and punched a hole into Kathy’s well. They discovered Kathy just below the opening. “She was right there,” one of the men remembered.
But Kathy Fiscus was no longer alive.
Welsh later claimed that he was asked by the police to deliver the news to Dave and Alice Fiscus at their small white cottage, but they already knew. “They lived about a block away,” Welsh recalled, “and I walked over to the house and knocked. There was no television there. Just the family and me. They let me in and I said, ‘I’m very sorry to have to tell you that Kathy is not coming back.”’
Reporter Stan Chambers signed off for KTLA: “And now it is 9 o’clock Sunday night, probably the longest television broadcast in history. And we’re sorry that this is the way we have to sign off because we always hoped that we would have had a happy ending. We want to thank you for staying with us during these long, long hours and for being with us. I know the family feels the same way and appreciates the sorrow as you’ve expressed. And so, ladies and gentlemen, we leave San Marino … hoping to have given you the service that we wanted to. And now we return you to our studio.”
At the end of 1949, the New York Times described the Fiscus tragedy as the year’s single most significant photographic event. Within a year, the number of television sets in Los Angeles had increased more than tenfold.
Historian William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. This story is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Kathy Fiscus: Nine Stories.”