In 1967, pioneer L.A. news photographer Delmar Watson established the Watson Family Photo Archive in a two-story building on Hawthorn Avenue in Hollywood. Over the decades, the archive grew to comprise hundreds of thousands of photographs and negatives, including many of early L.A. and vintage Hollywood, and became a popular source of historical images for filmmakers, authors and private collectors. The collection gradually outgrew the Hollywood space, and in 2007, the Watsons moved the massive hoard to its current, more spacious location on Glenoaks Boulevard.
Delmar's wife, Antoinette, has overseen the archive since her husband died in October 2008. But after nearly 50 years, Antoinette announced that she's selling both the archive and the building that's housed it.
Delmar Watson had first joined the old L.A. Mirror-News in 1948 as a news photographer, eventually taking countless memorable shots for a string of papers that would add up to create a collective portrait of the city, circa 1946 through 1970. He shot Frank Sinatra testifying in court against Confidential Magazine in the early ’50s, Ann-Margret getting her star on Hollywood Boulevard, a very young comedian named Johnny Carson, Lassie wearing sunglasses.
One glaring mystery survives him: Watson is credited (by some) as having taken the well-known photo of Sophia Loren looking scornfully at Jayne Mansfield’s breasts; what is known is that several alternate shots of that moment survive, taken by a bevy of excited Hollywood photographers who were more than happy to take the bait from Mansfield, and Delmar was one of them. “I don’t remember Delmar talking about it particularly,” Antoinette says, adding, “We actually have a magazine article at the archive giving him credit for the famous shot.”
It was Delmar Watson’s unusual dual biography, as both a child actor in Hollywood in the 1930s and then as a Weegee-style news photog in L.A. in the ’50s — shooting crime scenes, accidents, famous actors caught in scandals and cute kids eating ice cream — that made his archive of L.A. treasures possible in the first place. And the lives of Watson’s five brothers followed a very similar course.
Back in the 1930s, before “child actor” had its current connotations, there were the famous and amazingly well-adjusted Watson Kids: nine brothers and sisters, several of whom at one time or another made high-profile acting turns in some of the biggest films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Watson family goes so far back into Hollywood history that the children’s father, Coy Watson Sr., is considered by film historians to have been “the original stage mother” in Los Angeles: He was already employed at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1912 as a stunt rider (on horses, that is), and overseeing the prop department, when the nine babies started arriving in quick succession.
The first child, Coy Watson Jr., made his screen debut as an infant in 1913, seen curiously squeezing the nose of comic actor Ford Sterling, Keystone Studios’ pre–Charlie Chaplin comedy star. The family grew up in Edendale, a patch of land that’s now considered part of Echo Park; the name “Edendale” survives today only at a neighborhood library and post office. Mack Sennett’s studio was in Edendale, a
literal stone’s throw from the Watson family home at 2211 Berkeley Ave. Coy Jr. was billed as “The Baby” in at least three films shot in the neighborhood in 1913, including a Fatty Arbuckle short. According to his obit in the L.A. Times, “Coy Watson Jr. would go on to appear in so many … Keystone Cops comedies that he earned a nickname: ‘the Keystone Kid.’” The obit continued: “When a director would say, ‘I need a child for a movie, do you have one?’ the senior Watson was said to respond: ‘What size and what sex?’”
All of the Watson Kids were archetypally cute, with pinchable Irish faces, an all-American ideal for the majority-Anglo movie audience of the time. According to a promotional bio put out by the archive, father Coy “allowed his three girls to work in movies … but didn’t want them to work in the business after the age of 12 or 13. The boys worked continuously through the 1930s and ’40s … credited in over 1,000 movies.”
Round-faced little Delmar (born in 1926) made his acting debut at age 6 in a 1932 film, “To the Last Man,” with an unknown, even tinier tot named Shirley Temple (I spotted Delmar on TV one night, in a short cameo in a Laurel and Hardy film; he was a cute little pudge).
If there was a climax to the collective career of the busy Watson Kids, it was the appearance of four of them in one very high-profile film: Garry, Delmar, Billy and Harry all show up in that certified 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. In one scene they’re all seen together, frantically composing type to put out their Boy’s Stuff newspaper, in an effort to clear the name of the valiant Mr. Smith.
This film turned out to be a fictional glimpse at the Watson sons' real-life futures. The family was not only a creative bunch but a resourceful one. After serving in the Coast Guard during WWII, five of the brothers headed for the offices of L.A.’s five daily newspapers and found their calling as news photographers; earlier in the century, the family’s place in L.A. history had already rooted in the press by their uncle George R. Watson, who joined the staff of the Times as a news photographer, way back in 1917. He’s credited with having taken the first aerial photograph of L.A. in 1919.
So the Watson boys fanned out to make and record history; Coy Jr. became a pioneer of early television, producing some of the first filmed-on-location news stories for the primitive TV stations that began forming here in 1947 and ’48. (The number of TV sets in L.A. in 1947? Oh, about 350.)
As a roving news photographer, Delmar had an endless number of “war stories” that he enjoyed recounting years later, the kind of harrowing “how-I-got-the-shot” reminiscences that made you gasp and feel glad you didn’t go through them yourself. In 2002, he recorded some stories for posterity:
“The City Desk says, ‘Hey, we’ve got an assignment on Bunker Hill.’ That was before Bunker Hill was planed off for the high-rise buildings. There were a lot of tenement houses up there. So what’s the story? ‘Some kid killed a grocery store clerk.’ So we went up there to this really crummy place, upstairs. We got there, knocked on the door, and this little old Mexican lady opened the door … and here’s two detectives, standing there … and the boy is standing there, he hasn’t said one thing, he’s just standing there in handcuffs. At any rate, we’re standing there talking and then all of a sudden, the mother, in Spanish asks the boy, ‘Did you kill this man?’ And the boy looks up at her and that’s when I shot the picture, right after he said ‘Yes.’ And the look on his face …”
“When he said yes, she just completely collapsed, and we were so crowded, two detectives, the boy, the interpreter, myself and the reporter all in this little room; luckily I held the camera high enough to where I could shoot over the top of them. But there was the whole story in one picture: the anguish in the mother’s eyes. It was one of the saddest stories I ever covered, outside of the first one I covered when there was a little girl who was killed and stuffed in an incinerator.”
Delmar retired in the early 1970s and settled into running the Watson Family Photo Archive, both as a business and as a lifelong, sentimental look backward, not resting on his laurels but collecting more photos from his brothers and other veteran photographers. They all came to Delmar with treasures in hand.
In his cluttered offices, he loved regaling visitors with these tales of life in the real-life “noir” days of the old L.A. press, chasing news stories with a cast of zany characters. “You had five metropolitan newspapers here,” Watson said in the 2002 recording. “You had the Daily News, the Mirror and the Herald-Express, which were all afternoon papers, then the Los Angeles Times and the Examiner, they were both morning papers. They were really characters in those days, the old newspapermen. Guys like Sid Hughes, Aggie Underwood, Bevo Means, I mean they were just like the guys in that Ben Hecht play The Front Page. A lot of them drank pretty hard, they played hard and they worked hard …”
“Aggie [Underwood] was at the Herald. She walked in off the street one day down at the old L.A. Record and got hired as a telephone operator there; she worked her way up. She ended up being the first female city editor of a Los Angeles metropolitan newspaper, and the first female managing editor of any metropolitan newspaper,” Watson recalled. “There was a wonderful gal,” he added. “She never forgot her roots.”
“Things were so much different, they were so much easier [then]. There was office politics but not the politics there is now.” Warming up to the subject of the bad-boy reporters he so fondly remembered: “Bevo Means worked with Aggie down at the L.A. Herald. He was on the sheriff’s beat up in the old Hall of Justice there. He really liked to drink, he’d get in there at 7 in the morning and he would start drinking almost immediately. Reporters would come in there and they’d say, ‘Hey Bevo, will you do something for me?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, what is it?’ ‘When you die will you leave me your liver? I wanna make a pair of Indian moccasins!’ But there were so many guys like that. Luckily I had a taste of it for about six years, before it all went flat.”
Watson’s many years spent contentedly working alone in his Hollywood offices resulted in the production of several self-published photography books, complete with his signature jokey captions (“Quick Watson, the Camera!” and “Goin’ Hollywood, 1887-1987” are my personal favorites). Major-league luminaries of the Hollywood-history set such as Kevin Brownlow, John Gilmore and Marc Wanamaker all visited the Watson shrine in search of rare pictures and to listen to Delmar reminisce about the old days. On these occasions, holding court and in his element, he had a constant twinkle in his eye.
Colleagues who remember him recall what a rarity the gravel-voiced, sentimental curmudgeon really was: a real-life throwback to the world of L.A. newsmen downing drinks in Main Street bars, chasing down murder stories, sometimes rubbing elbows with the cops in an era of cozy police-and-press relations. He was a survivor of Jack Webb’s and James Ellroy’s Los Angeles.
It was a true-crime book that brought Delmar and his true-crime-buff wife together. Antoinette was working at the Central Library downtown when a book came in that caught her eye: Brad Schreiber’s Death in Paradise (1998), an illustrated history of the L.A. Coroners Department. “It said, ‘special thanks to the Delmar Watson photo archive in Hollywood’ and I went, ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta see this place!’” Soon, they met; they bonded; they fell in love; they married. Antoinette took on the herculean task of bringing order out of the chaos that was the archive; it took a full year. At 72, grumpy-but-lovable Delmar was now a very happy, grumpy-but-lovable Delmar.
In another bit of good luck, in 2000 the Getty Museum bought 93 choice, vintage prints from the Watsons.
Asked about the ultimate fate of the archive, Antoinette, who clearly misses her husband as much as ever, says, “Researching pictures here is one of the things I was born to do, but I can’t afford to keep it going any longer. Delmar’s nephew, Daniel, and I have been slowly selling off the photos on eBay. But there are movie cameras here, scripts, memorabilia — the list goes on and on. Once our escrow closes, we’re outta here. It’s the end of a dynasty.”
How funny was Delmar Watson, veteran jokester, in his old age? When I asked him once to inscribe a book, he wrote the following: “To Tony — Ol’ Pals are the Best — and I’m Old.”
Once Watson learned he was dying of prostate cancer, he made sure he would go out in style, with one last practical joke. So just as he’d planned it, those who attended his packed memorial service at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in October 2008 were amazed to see that his coffin, as it was slowly being lifted by crane to be slotted into a wall crypt, had been adorned with a bright blue disabled-parking placard hanging off the gleaming metal bar at the foot of the coffin. People gasped, then they started laughing, and crying, then they laughed again; and then the crowd began to clap as Delmar Watson went in, victoriously pulling off one final joke for his one last round of applause, no doubt with a muted smile and maybe a laugh, from the unfathomable beyond to his friends. A Delmar Watson goodbye.