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DELMAR WATSON, 1926 - 2008

Child actor turned photographer

October 28, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Nelson is a Times staff writer.

Delmar Watson, a member of a family of child actors who appeared in more than 1,000 films in the early days of Hollywood, has died. He was 82.

Watson, a former news photographer who oversaw a private archive of news photographs and related memorabilia, died Sunday at his Glendale home of complications related to prostate cancer, his family said.

His movie career started six months after he was born July 1, 1926, at his family home near Mack Sennett Studios in Edendale, an early movie mecca near Alvarado Street and Glendale Boulevard. The home of the nine Watson children -- six brothers and three sisters -- was a ready-made casting office.

The studios "knew we had kids of all sizes," Watson told The Times in 1968. "When they wanted a kid, they'd come over and grab one of us. Pretty soon we were all working steady."

He once recalled that he had parts in more than 77 movies by the time he was 7 and had appeared in more than 300 films during his youth.

In the 1937 film "Heidi," Watson portrayed Peter, Shirley Temple's goat-herding friend. Watson and three brothers played several sons of the governor in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.

Watson's father, Coy, was a journeyman plasterer who started in show business breaking horses for cowboy stars and eventually got into special effects. In the 1924 film "The Thief of Baghdad," Coy designed Douglas Fairbanks' flying carpet, considered an engineering marvel at the time.

Delmar worked regularly in the movies until the early 1940s and was one of four brothers to serve as a Coast Guard cameraman during World War II. Eventually, he joined his brothers in another family business -- news photography.

His grandfather, James Watson, shot pictures of Buffalo Bill riding up Broadway in Los Angeles in 1904. An uncle, George Watson, was the first full-time news photographer hired by the Los Angeles Times, in 1917. He later left the paper to run Acme News Pictures, a forerunner of United Press Photos, and trained his nephews there.

After the war, all six brothers worked as press, newsreel or television photographers. In the 1940s and '50s, a Watson brother could be found at four of the five Los Angeles metropolitan dailies. The brothers were such infamous pranksters that no newspaper would hire more than one at a time because they feared mayhem would ensue, according to several accounts of the family's history.

Although his given name was David Delmar Watson, he was always known by his middle name, and in 1948 he embarked on a decade as a photographer for the Los Angeles Mirror, a newspaper sibling of The Times that was launched after the war. His workplace high jinks merited mention in his father's obituary, which ran in 1968 in The Times under the headline, "Father of Filmland's Famed 'Watson Family' Dies at 78."

The story reported that Delmar had startled passengers exiting City Hall elevators by yelling, "Stop!" and asking, "Do you people know why I've sent for you?" It also recounted a prank he pulled on a fellow Mirror photographer, who tried to hurry off to an assignment after Delmar had jacked up the wheels of his car.

One of Delmar's more memorable newspaper assignments, he once recalled, was covering the attempted rescue of Kathy Fiscus in 1949. Fiscus was a 3-year-old who fell 90 feet into an abandoned well in San Marino and remained trapped for more than two days. Millions watched the groundbreaking live TV coverage as her lifeless body was retrieved.

"Our paper was lucky because we got a shot of the parents, holding each other," Watson said in The Times in 1994. "A lot of people ran out to buy televisions just to watch this."

Daniel Watson, his nephew and a fourth-generation photographer, called his uncle "a newsman who used a camera to tell a story."

In 1958, Delmar left the Mirror and later said it was because he knew that television would diminish the importance of still photos. He joined his brothers' commercial photography enterprise, the Six Watson Bros. Studio in Hollywood, and opened his own studio in 1967.

He wrote or edited several books about early Hollywood, local history and sports figures. "Quick Watson, the Camera," published in 1975, chronicled nearly a century of Los Angeles history and included photos by various Watsons.

Delmar also bought a two-story home in Hollywood in 1967 to house a private collection of historical photographs of Los Angeles now known as the Watson Family Photographic Archive. The turn-of-the-century cameras, old newspapers and maps, 60 years of press credentials -- and hundreds of thousands of news photographs, many taken by family members -- was moved to Glendale last year.

The collection has been accessed by filmmakers and its images will continue to be licensed for movies, books and other educational uses, said Daniel Watson, who now manages the archives.

Inside the Hollywood archive, Delmar's sense of humor was on display above his office door. He had labeled photographs of a former Los Angeles mayor and two former presidents "Tom, Dick and Harry."

Watson's survivors include his wife of six years, Antoinette; and four siblings, Coy Watson Jr., 95; Louise Roberts, 88; Billy Watson, 84; and Garry Watson, 80.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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latimes.com

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Historical lens

A sampling of photographs from Delmar Watson's archive of Los Angeles news events is on The Times' website.

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