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Delmar Watson; was a member of noted family of child actors, news photographers; 82

Delmar Watson (top, center) and his five brothers were photographers in Los Angeles, starting in the 1940s. Delmar Watson (top, center) and his five brothers were photographers in Los Angeles, starting in the 1940s. (Photos by Associated press)
By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times / October 31, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Delmar Watson, a member of a family of child actors who appeared in more than a thousand films in the early 1900s, has died. He was 82.

Mr. 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 when he was 6 months old. The family home near Mack Sennett Studios in Edendale, an early movie mecca, was a ready-made casting office, with nine children: six boys and three girls.

The studios "knew we had kids of all sizes," Mr. Watson told the Los Angeles 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 appeared in more than 300 films during his youth.

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

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

Mr. Watson 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 in Los Angeles in 1904. An uncle, George Watson, was the first full-time news photographer hired by the 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.

In 1948 Mr. Watson 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 Watson 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 Mr. Watson had jacked up the wheels of his car.

One of Mr. Watson's more memorable newspaper assignments was covering the attempted rescue of Kathy Fiscus in 1949, he once recalled. Fiscus was a 3-year-old who fell 90 feet into an abandoned well 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," Mr. 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, Mr. Watson left the Mirror and later said it was because he thought that television would diminish the importance of still photos. He joined his brothers' commercial photography enterprise, the Six Watson Bros. Studio. He 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.

Mr. Watson 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 collection of 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, a northern suburb of Los Angeles, last year.

The collection has been used 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.

Mr. Watson leaves his wife of six years, Antoinette; and four siblings, Coy Jr., 95; Louise Roberts, 88; Billy, 84; and Garry, 80.

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