GEORGE FISCHBECK WAS NO FOOL, but the timing of the Daily Press April Fools’ Day issue prevented me from acknowledging his passing, and as someone who knew him from his genesis in New Mexico, where I grew up, I’ve got a few things I can tell you about this TV weatherman who was our icon before he was yours.
If you lived in the L.A. area anytime after 1972 and had a television, you knew that face. He was the wildly popular and beloved, odd-looking, bespectacled, moustachioed, always enthusiastic, often disheveled and perpetually-in-motion TV meteorologist who did his thing, whatever that was, on the Channel 7 news broadcasts. (One night he did have to lead with an apology for not having gotten around to the actual forecast the previous show, because he got so carried away talking about the science of weather.) He was a most unlikely rock star, and held sway on the airwaves here for a quarter of a century.
Dr. George and the weather became synonymous. When it looked like anything other than our usual sunny skies, everyone ran to their TVs to get the gospel from Dr. George. He really was a trained and experienced meteorologist, unlike many of the pretty faces who read the weather forecasts today. I read in his L.A. Times obit that he would go to the federal building in Westwood twice every day to be briefed by government meteorologists, and that didn’t surprise me, because growing up in Albuquerque we knew Dr. George as our own lovable TV science guy.
I say “lovable” because comparisons to the also very popular Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) were facile. Watch Mr. Wizard was a network broadcast show, whereas Dr. George’s science show for kids was broadcast for more than a decade in Albuquerque on the public educational station KUNM, I think from some basement studio on the campus, long before PBS became a national watchword.
That George Fischbeck was loved by kids and parents alike, and he pulled you in with his unbounded enthusiasm for science and his disarming way of teaching it. He wanted children to love science the way he did. Although a longtime science teacher in the local schools, he came across more like your loony lovable uncle showing you science-based tricks in the kitchen while everyone else talked boring stuff in the living room.
“I could teach kids anything once I had their attention,” he told People magazine in a 1981 interview, “and if I could make them smile, they would even remember it.”
When he was recruited to do the weather segment on an Albuquerque station’s nightly newscast, they quickly shot to No. 1 in the ratings. Someone at KABC noticed, and 18 months later he was delivering his weather-as-science to millions in Los Angeles. If he weren’t so well-liked and respected, that defection would have made him a traitor in the Land of Enchantment. Instead, people were shocked and puzzled by his departure. L.A.? How could Dr. George go to L.A.? (Subtext: why would anyone go to L.A.?) They must have offered him barrels of money, we figured, yeah, that’s the only reason, probably hates the idea but they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Poor guy.
Planning my own escape west, which didn’t happen until 1980, I could understand perfectly. But Albuquerque in ’72 was a burg of 385,000 (the metro population is now close to a million), and a mindset even smaller. I mention this for two reasons: as a reminder of how many folks east of Riverside and north of Magic Mountain mock and despise us (but many of them would move here in a New York minute if they could), and also of what a great place New Mexico is to live, for many reasons, even in “the big city” of Albuquerque.
I’m pretty certain Fischbeck left with much regret. But he never looked back. He was famous for returning your wave, with a huge smile and a thumbs up, if you spotted him driving around town. My little Dr. George story is that I was new to L.A. and driving on the freeway when I heard a car honking away. I ignored it, it continued, then I could see a car changing lanes to get closer to me, and more honking. Oh no, what sort of L.A. weirdo do I have here? Dare I make eye contact? Finally I had to know what was up and looked right to see that famous face, grinning a huge, really delighted smile and waving at me furiously. He had seen my New Mexico license plate, and we Lobos stick together, rich and famous or otherwise.
Something I didn’t know about him before was that his only son died at 22 from an accidental shooting. That horror destroys many people’s lives from that point forward, and Fischbeck told the L.A. Times, the following year, “It changed my life completely. I’m sure I’m a different person now.” But here’s how he handled it: “I’ve got so much more compassion and understanding.” That lesson is probably the most important one the old science teacher ever taught.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TODAY to one of the finest, funniest, smartest, most loving and compassionate humans ever to walk this earth, and sing a Billie Holiday song to bring you to tears: Diane Michelle, aka Dian Andrews.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It doesn’t matter who you are, there are stars in every city, in every house, and on every street.” —Ray Davies
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.