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Preserving L.A.'s Family Album | SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT

September 06, 1998|PATT MORRISON

By the time I got into the newspaper game, the fabulous Watson Brothers were gone from it. So, too, were most of the Los Angeles newspapers they had worked for.

But the legends, oh, the legends endured, of their pranks and practical jokes. They were great lensmen, but no newspaper could take the chance of hiring any two of the Watson Brothers at the same time; their puckish looniness, squared, might go nuclear.

I heard of the funeral at Forest Lawn where, a fraction of a second after a 21-gun salute was fired, a dead chicken dropped with pratfall precision at the feet of the riflemen.

There was the groundbreaking at Dodger Stadium. The O'Malleys were running late, and an impatient TV newsman huffed off to his 5 o'clock newscast, saying he'd send his helicopter to shoot the event from the air. When the news helicopter finally hove into view, it couldn't send back a single image. The newspaper photographers had laid themselves out on the ground to spell out the f-word.

All the handiwork of Watsons.

I heard these stories and more, yet I couldn't look at their photographs, one-shot wonders on the pages of vanished newspapers, images appearing and disappearing with the evanescence of sea foam.

Now, maybe, I can.

About 2 million prints and negatives and miles of newsreel footage, shot by the men who dominated the news images of Los Angeles for a half-century, have been collected by Delmar Watson, one of the six brothers. It constitutes nothing less than L.A.'s family album, perhaps the definitive visual history of a city that grew to dominate visual power in a visual century.

What the pictures show, and what will become of them--well, therein lies the tale.


James Watson was a chaplain who got shutterbug-bit early on. In 1904, he shot pictures of Buffalo Bill riding up Broadway in L.A. His son, George, invented early microfilm in 1913 and by 1917 was The Times' first staff photographer. When he couldn't find a camera that suited his purpose--like taking the first aerial news shots of the city--he invented his own.

Every event of the '20s and '30s, Olympians and aviators and film stars and murderers, found its way into George Watson's lens. He captured a triumphant Charles Lindbergh and, a year later, a devastated William Mulholland, the engineer who brought water here from the Owens Valley, climbing the rubble after the deadly collapse of the St. Francis dam in 1928.

George's brother Coy Watson Sr. was Delmar's father--a stuntman, assistant director and special-effects man who, with his wife and nine kids, lived across the street from Mack Sennett's studio. Whenever a casting director needed a boy, there was a Watson of the right size and age. All told, they appeared in more than 1,000 films--Delmar as Shirley Temple's goatherd pal Peter in "Heidi," brother Bobs as Pud in the tear-jerker "On Borrowed Time" and four of them in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

But the boys who started in front of the camera ended up behind it. Four of the brothers served in World War II. Harry brought back the memorable snap of MacArthur wading ashore in the Pacific. Their crime-scene news pictures are still hugely in demand. "This is a dumb thing to say," Delmar admits, "but the crimes in those days, it wasn't just people going by, shooting people. Bugsy Siegel--that was a class hit."

He and his Uncle George assembled a few of the best in a book, "Quick, Watson, the Camera!" but years later, he's still running across some doozies. A '40s shot labeled "Man Standing by Pool at Townhouse," the hotel on MacArthur Park, turned out to be of Walter Cronkite. Delmar recognized the "Underwater Expert" as Jacques Cousteau. The picture he was about to throw out, of two women voting, turned out to be the Hilton sisters, L.A.'s Siamese twins, voting for the first time. And that man crowning Miss Shutterbug 1947? Ronald Reagan.

The collection of war and peace, crime and leisure, politics and playtime, is matchless. "For a private place," Delmar says, "I've probably got a darn good collection of Los Angeles growing up."

Newspapers were different then; there were more of them, and they used feature pictures that were frankly contrived, setups that would get current-day photographers fired. The Watsons enlisted their nieces and nephews so often for cute-kid pictures that they finally had to begin using "Nostaw," Watson spelled backward, in the captions. Photographers back then might carry props--a broken doll, a mangled bicycle--to make a car-wreck picture more poignant. Lensmen at the old Herald were notorious for carrying dead dogs for the same purpose. "Sure," says Delmar, "half the pictures we shot, we helped them along. You wanted a picture to tell a story."

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