James Watson, patriarch of the prodigious Watson family, and his wife, Amy Kate Ball were among the earliest settlers of Silver Lake, arriving in 1901. James was born in London, England in 1863. In his late teens, he became a follower of General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and in 1882 left England with Brigadier General Gideon Miller to help spread the word in Canada. There, James met his future wife, Amy Kate Ball, who was instrumental in starting the Salvation Army’s first home for unwed mothers in Canada. (In those days, the majority of the group’s followers were alcoholics, prostitutes, drug addicts and other “undesirables” not generally welcome in polite Christian circles.
As was typical of Salvation missionaries, James and Amy didn’t stay in one place very long; there mission was to reach as many souls as possible, believing that Judgment Day was close at hand. Before they left Canada, the first of their nine children were born: Herb, James Caughey, George and Ethel. After brief stopovers in Denver and Salt Lake City, they finally settled in Edendale, just south of Silver Lake, renting a home at 1717 Morton Avenue (the house is still standing).
When James wasn’t doing God’s work, he amused himself with playing the violin and practicing photography. Purchasing an early version of a Eastman Kodak camera and learning how to use it by reading a U.S. Army manual, he appropriated the family pantry for a darkroom. Most significantly, he would pass along the skills he had learned to ten of his male descendants, six of whom worked for the Los Angeles Times or Times-affiliated newspapers, recording a century of the area’s history.
His son George as the first professional photographer in the family, working first as a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times. George’s priceless legacy is archived I a collection of over 600,000 images at the Watson Family Photo Archive in Glendale, California.
Two other sons, William and Coy Sr. were the first to embark on careers in Hollywood. William had distinguished career as a film editor, writer and director on many films up to the 1950s. Coy Sr. was a jack-of-all-trades, working as an actor, stunt rider, special effects innovator, key grip, assistant director and for a time, casting director at Fox Studios. In special effects he is best remembered for engineering the famous carpet ride scene in the 1924 film, The Thief of Baghdad. He also managed the acting careers of his nine children.
Timing could not have been better for Coy Sr. and his progeny’s film careers. In 1911, he purchased a vacant lot on Berkeley Avenue at the border of Echo Park and Silver Lake, building a home for his ever-expanding family that eventually numbered nine children, six boys and three girls. In 1912, filmmaker Mack Sennett brought his Keystone Film Company to town, purchasing an abandoned grocery store on Glendale Boulevard, two blocks away from the Watson’s home. It wasn’t long before the studio took notice of Coy Sr.’s stable of horses and his attractive brood of children, both of which Keystone was wont to use for its comedy shorts.
After getting their start with Keystone, the nine Watson children would go on to appear in over one thousand movies and television shows. Delmar Watson alone appeared in more than 300 films. Bobs Watson is best remembered for his role as “Pee Wee” in the film Boys Town with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. A particularly moving scene in which Bobs is crying left Spencer Tracy complaining “There goes my chance for an Academy Award”.
Though there initial fame came as childhood movie stars, five of Coy Sr.’s sons—Coy Jr., Harry, Billy, Delmar and Garry—ultimately followed their Uncle George and became prominent photographers. By the 1940s and ’50s, four of the brothers were working for Los Angeles area newspapers. In the 1950s, the five brothers added Bobs to the mix and formed a commercial photography business acrobatically called the Six Watson Brothers. The Watsons finally received a long-overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 23, 1999. The star is located at 6674 Hollywood Boulevard.
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, Michael Locke with Vincent Brook, History Press, 2014. Please do not use this material in any media without my permission. © All rights reserved.