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In his retirement, every day is blue sky for L.A.'s Dr. George

On the Media

December 21, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

They spent the last week in our living rooms, marveling at a seven-day forecast with real weather, endlessly replaying the Mega-Doppler radar and relishing the sheer wetness of it all.

Fritz and Dallas and a man named (Johnny) Mountain. They have done the local weather so long, they can be identified by one name. They're as comfortable as your old rain boots.

But how do L.A.'s weathermen keep it fresh, after chasing clouds and cold fronts for decades? What's it like facing days so relentlessly sunny that parody (think Steve Martin's character in the 1991 movie "L.A. Story") would have them taping unchanging forecasts, days in advance?

I figured Dr. George had to have the answers.

The signature weather personality in a town of venerable weather personalities, Dr. George dominated the coastal eddy and the persistent inversion layer.

Through the 1970s and '80s he fed Los Angeles the 500 millibar chart and a heartfelt delight about the weather.

And, yes, George Fischbeck, who never knew his own June gloom, is still out there. He's still tilting forward on the balls of his feet, leaning into his next adventure. He's clutching his hand over his heart, making sure you know he means every word.

"Why do we do the weather?" said Dr. George, throwing the question back at me. "Because we love it. We love it. You're doggone right we do."

It's been more than a decade since Fischbeck left KABC-TV Channel 7. But after about a quarter-century on the air -- often three newscasts a night -- he has not been forgotten.

"He is the king," said Dallas Raines, Fischbeck's KABC successor, who is approaching his own silver anniversary. "He was a great communicator."

Dr. George lives in a comfortable but far-from-ostentatious Woodland Hills home with Susanne, his wife of nearly 60 years. Cinnimon the dog ("The result of a pit bull, a dachshund and a rape," he says) wiggles up in greeting.

Her owner follows, and he looks just as you remember him. The thick, black-rimmed glasses, perched atop that beak of a nose; the mustache, still animated, if a bit grayer than when he left KABC in the 1990s.

I ask Dr. George, 86, how he's doing, and he says, "Better and better."

Fischbeck made an instant impression when he landed in Los Angeles in 1972 by clinging relentlessly to his lack of polish. He flapped his arms and raised his Groucho Marx eyebrows.

He shuffled through hand-drawn charts, sometimes struggling to find the right one. He sometimes got so caught up in lecturing about the atmosphere that he forgot to deliver the forecast.

His training (in the National Guard) as a meteorologist enhanced his authenticity. Before his nightly newscasts from the Hollywood studio, he would drive to the Federal Building in Westwood and meet with government meteorologists.

"I sat among these princes," he said, "and I knew what was happening because I made the forecasts with them."

KABC claimed at the time that more than 90% of people in this market could identify Dr. George. Schoolchildren waved. Women stopped for hugs. Marlon Brando once called from a movie set in Canada, needing to know for a scene at what temperature his breath would freeze.

Dr. George said he doesn't really miss live forecasts because "I still do it."

"Suzy will say, 'Look at those clouds over the mountains,' and I say, 'Well, those are coming off the ocean, but then along the mountains the air condenses and you get the rain.' "

"He gives me the whole lesson," Susanne interjects, as Dr. George barrels ahead, on-air style, with a forecast that concludes: "And there's a second front coming in behind it in less than a week. And . . . oh my!"

Before I know it, the old weatherman has produced a giant plastic bottle, dropped in a burning match and begun blowing in and out of the mouth like a steam engine. He creates a cloud, then makes it disappear, chanting: "High pressure, low, high, low."

But don't think that Dr. George survives merely for the next big Arctic blast. The octogenarian volunteers like a fiend. A docent at the L.A. Zoo, he brings animals to cheer rest-home patients. He raises money for a couple of firefighter charities, including one that runs a camp for child burn victims.

But what gets his blood really pumping are the nights that he spends with the LAPD's Volunteer Surveillance Team. Susanne wonders if her husband is getting a little old for stakeouts that can last until 2 or 3 in the morning. But it's clear how much Fischbeck loves it. "We got him. We got him in six minutes," Dr. George chirped of a purse snatcher he radioed in to his police colleagues not long ago. "Well, I mean, the police got him. It's pretty exciting work."

It seemed like our conversation had strayed a bit far afield from the weather. But not to Dr. George.

His career came along just like every other break in his life, because he volunteered for something new.

After earning his archaeology-anthropology degree at the University of New Mexico, he began teaching poor Indian kids. A university professor asked if they could put his science lessons on the public education channel, which got him on TV.

The stint in the National Guard got him his weather chops. Then along came the news director from KOB Channel 4 in Albuquerque. In about a month, his sincerely manic style helped push KOB to No. 1.

"The secret of success is: Find a job you like so much you would do it for nothing," Dr. George said. "Then do it."

Raines remembers being new to Los Angeles and "down in the dumps" over yet another dull day of early fog and late sunshine. Then Dr. George, hand over his heart, threw himself into a soliloquy about a rising marine layer and a chance of drizzle.

"I thought, 'If this man can get that excited,' " Raines said, " 'then, at 28, I can get excited and put some enthusiasm into it too.' "

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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