Politics & Policy

Funny Paper

Missing the Herald-Examiner.

My father often complains that it’s really a bit harsh, this business of people dying and then you never see them again. Couldn’t they come back for lunch once a year? Or at least ring up occasionally?

#ad#I get the same feeling whenever I remember the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, which folded 15 years ago next month. These have been years in which the monolithic Los Angeles Times, deprived of even a much smaller urban rival, grew noticeably more complacent. Equally sad is that the city lost its last remaining living example of its L.A. Confidential-era past.

The Times interior has been indistinguishable from an insurance company since at least the ’70s. But until the day it closed in 1989, the retro-style Her-Ex looked the way scrappy, tabloidesque papers are supposed to look: grimy phones; old wooden desks piled so high with debris the fire marshal would periodically complain; drunken, brawling reporters; editors who knew that when a hippo escaped from the zoo, the story could (and should) be played on the front page for weeks.

The grand, empty dinosaur of a building–designed by the same architect who built William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon (the Her-Ex was a Hearst paper)–is sometimes rented out for Hollywood parties. When I got invited to one not long ago, I immediately snuck upstairs to take a Her-Ex mailing envelope as a souvenir (the hastily abandoned executive offices still contain a few relics).

Then I looked around the ghostly city room and thought: Couldn’t just once a year it be a real newspaper again? Just one annual daily edition–delivered customarily late and tossed in the traditional puddle–for old time’s sake?

Only on Film Nowadays

The one-paper town is a national situation, but the handwriting on the wall was first visible here in 1949, when the newspaper business was still going strong. That was the year that three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell down an uncapped well in San Marino (a suburb near Pasadena) and kept a horrified public enthralled for three days while rescuers worked to retrieve her. The event was loosely fictionalized in 30, the ultimate noir newspaper movie, complete with bongo-playing copy boys and Jack Webb as managing editor.

At the end of the film, which was shot entirely on location inside the Herald-Examiner building, the child is rescued and Jack Webb cheerily tells his newly adopted son, as they listen to the presses roll, “they’re printing the funny papers!” In real life, Kathy Fiscus died. And of the four major L.A. dailies that competed furiously over the story–the Herald-Express, the Examiner, the old Daily News and the Times–only one still lives to print the funny papers.

The Fiscus tragedy also marked the first time a news event had continuous TV coverage–some 28 hours from the fledgling local station KTLA–at a time when there were no more than 20,000 TV sets in the whole city. Delmar Watson, then a photographer for the Herald-Express, can still remember driving down some L.A. street at 3 A.M. during the attempted rescue and seeing, gathered outside the window of a hardware store, a small crowd watching the latest televised Fiscus update. He realized later that he was also seeing the beginning of the end of a whole way of life.

Watson talked about all this at an L.A. symposium I attended a few years ago organized in conjunction with a book, curated by actress Diane Keaton, called Local News: Tabloid Pictures from the Los Angeles Herald-Express 1936-1961, and an accompanying photo exhibit. (You can see some of the pictures here and here.) Now 77, he’s one of the six fabled Watson brothers; they all started out as child actors and then became newspaper cameramen. Delmar Watson maintains an extensive collection of vintage photos and just signed a contract for a book, a photographic history of L.A. beginning in the 1800s.

The Herald-Express–which merged with the Examiner to become the Herald-Examiner I knew–was even grittier than its later incarnation. A former assistant city editor recalls it in Local News as “aimed at the underside of the community, the barely literate, the bored, the poor, the people who just want to know about murders and UFOs and sports results, and damn little else.” Newsroom characters like Aggie Underwood–first woman city editor of a major metropolitan daily–once dropped a white carnation on the body of a slain waitress just so she could hype the story as “THE WHITE CARNATION MURDER.”

Old newspaper pictures offer a fascinating view of this vanished world, from steely murderesses right out of James M. Cain to that perennial filler, the cute lost dog. (A notation on the back of one old Herald-Express lost-dog photo reads: “Mrs. Grace Monroe found dog. She likes to look for dogs, so she can bother the lazy photographers with her found dog who pisses all over the floor.”)

Delmar Watson began working at the Herald-Express during the postwar, L.A. Confidential years. But his roots go back further than that. His grandfather, James Watson, was a chaplain and amateur photographer who took pictures of Buffalo Bill visiting L.A. in 1904. His uncle, George Watson, invented an early aerial news camera and became the first L.A. Times staff photographer in 1917. Delmar’s father was George’s brother, Coy Watson Sr., a stuntman and assistant director who lived across the street from Mack Sennett’s studio with his wife and nine children–which came in handy for casting directors looking for a child of pretty much any age.

A few years ago the Watsons finally got a star on Hollywood Boulevard for their contribution to movie history, which includes an opus of about 1,000 films. Delmar was Peter the goatherd opposite Shirley Temple in Heidi. The late Bobs Watson was the boy who melts delinquent Mickey Rooney’s heart in Boy’s Town. Four Watsons appeared with James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Coy Watson Jr. became a newspaper photographer in the ’30s, and his younger brothers went into the same line of work once they too grew out of child acting. Watson pranks are still the stuff of legend. At a Forest Lawn funeral with a 21-gun salute, they had a dead duck fall from the sky just after the shots were fired. Outraged by the eviction of families from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium (and annoyed by competition from TV helicopters), they ruined all the TV footage by getting fellow photogs to lie on the ground spelling out the f-word.

Delmar Watson noted that “only a very small minority” of his old colleagues carried bent tricycles and broken dolls in their car trunks as set dressing for accident scenes, adding that he and his cronies knew all the police codes and what they meant in the way of likely photo ops: “Drunk woman disturbing the peace naked–that was the one we all listened for.” But speaking of the police, it’s worth noting that for all the fondly remembered newsroom hijinks in the good old days, the cozy relationship newspapermen used to have with their friends on the force probably should not be so fondly remembered.

“Make It Good…Make It Up.”

Still, there’s something about the ethics-obsessed contemporary newsroom that borders on the priggish. Several years ago, an L.A. Times photographer lost his job when it turned out that the prize-winning Malibu fire picture he’d shot of a fireman dousing his head with water had been staged. (The fireman had been dousing his head; the photog had just asked him to do it again.)

Watson laughed about the fuss made over that. He recalled a colleague from the old days who, while covering a mudslide, found a stuffed deer’s head on someone’s living-room wall and took it outside and buried it, as if the deer were discovered stuck in the mud: “Now, that’s doctoring.”

The old newpaper photogs used to have a couple of mottos. “F8 and be there,” and “Make it good, make it right, and when all else fails, make it up.” At the Times these days, editors became known for a different motto once the Her-Ex closed: “Don’t start until you’re ready,” they often tell writers. The paper is now the only game in town, so it can afford to run on what I’ve long thought of as L.A. Times time.

But I often think about Delmar Watson and what he remembers. “Whenever you lose a newspaper, I don’t care if its good, bad, or whatever, you’ve lost one hell of a thing,” he said. He choked up a little at that point, and the truth is, so did I.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine Seipp — Catherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.

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