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Images of L.A. : History: Vast collection of former news photographer shows a century's worth of famous names, including William Mulholland, Charlie Chaplin and 'The Black Dahlia.'

July 28, 1994|CAROL CHASTANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Delmar Watson narrows his eyes, looking through the row of binders for the one labeled gore.

He finds it and flips through the photos--a catalogue of mayhem shot almost 50 years ago. As the former news photographer points to a picture of a bloody and dismembered body, or a pair of ankles dangling over train tracks, he says: "Look at their shoes. Whenever I shot a corpse, I'd wonder if, when they put on their shoes in the morning, if they knew this would be the last time."

Watson, 68, puts the binder back, and quickly grabs another. "Hey, let me show you these. . . ."

Watson can go on and on, and will do so if you give him the chance. But, with the exception of a photo exhibit here and there, few have had an opportunity to enjoy his private collection. Some of the photos were shot by his uncle, George Watson, a pioneer photojournalist. Others were willed to Delmar by colleagues, who knew he would take care of their treasures.

Watson's dream is to find the money, hopefully from corporate sponsorship, to open a "Photographers Hall of Fame"--a museum that would be a fitting place for his archives.

For now, he keeps his memorabilia in the office of his company, Images of the Past Inc., His home away from home is situated in a drab, green two-story house in Hollywood that he bought in 1967.

Over the years the place has become a cluttered vault, containing nearly 2 million photos, turn-of-the-century cameras, newspapers yellowed with age and old maps--priceless records of 20th Century Los Angeles.

There are photos shot by George Watson of William Mulholland's anguish over the failure in 1928 of the San Francisquito Dam near Castaic, in which more than 400 people died. Among George Watson's thousands of celebrity photos is one of a smiling Albert Einstein posing with a young Charlie Chaplin, both dressed in tuxedos. In the gore file are photos of the mutilated nude body of the aspiring actress known as "The Black Dahlia," whose murder almost 50 years ago remains one of Los Angeles' most famous unsolved cases.

Delmar Watson's dry sense of humor is evident even before he opens his mouth. Above the office entrance are three photos--a former mayor of Los Angeles and two former Presidents with appropriate ID's underneath: "Tom, Dick, Harry." Although his hair is gray, his eternal enthusiasm and energetic manner make him appear 10 years younger.

Watson wears a rumpled white shirt and a loosened tie, and he has an amazing capacity to talk and talk--dishing out anecdotes about his days as a photographer for the now-defunct Los Angeles Mirror, bemoaning the loss of family values in society and telling of growing up as a true child of Hollywood.

His five brothers and three sisters all worked in the movies. "I was born 800 feet from Mack Sennett's studios (near Silver Lake). They made a lot of comedies, and whenever they needed kids, they called us," said Watson. He said he had a lot of fun acting in about 300 films during his youth, playing Shirley Temple's goatherd friend in "Heidi," as well as a small part in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

But their father, Coy Watson, a casting director who got his start in the business training horses for Westerns, kept his children from signing contracts with the studios.

"My father knew the business, and he knew that long-term contracts would ruin the kids," Watson said. "In those days, the studio owned you, and when you reached puberty, they didn't want you anymore."

Photography--and the ways of the pack rat--seemed to be a hereditary trait in the Watson family.

Uncle George Watson in 1917 became the first full-time photographer hired by the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, he shot the first aerial photos of Los Angeles, one of which ran the next day on the front page below a banner headline. In addition to shooting some of California's most spectacular news events, such as the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, he founded the Los Angeles Press Photographers Assn. in 1935. In 1913, he invented the process by which pictures are put on microfilm, selling the rights for $250.

"His mind was inventive," Delmar Watson said of his uncle. "He didn't know how to take a picture of the city from 2,000 feet because it had never been done before. But nothing would stop him. He would try anything."

His uncle kept everything, said Delmar, from old cameras to press credentials from every major assignment that The Times sent him on. The other Watsons, meanwhile, were hoarding publicity stills from the movies they worked on, as well as memorabilia such as party invitations from Fanny Brice, Christmas cards from Lionel Barrymore and a hand-written thank you letter from director Frank Capra.

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