Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –


 Coy Watson (left) co-starred with Jackie Coogan in Buttons (1927) 

By Rick Marschall

When I began these “Crowded Life” memoirs for Yesterday’s Papers almost a year ago, I promised, or threatened, that the stories would not all be about cartooning and comics history. One of the byproducts of a long life and careers in several fields has been to accumulate many acquaintances; make many friends; and thank God for the consequential people I have met along the way.

I could actually call it a hobby to have collected friends and acquaintances – never my intention, but I am grateful for the fact. It has almost been a Forrest Gump-like existence, during which rambles through cartooning, politics, music, religion, and old-fashioned luck, enabled me to meet great and/or significant players in fields of culture and popular culture.

So: not strictly cartooning this week, but people who populated some of my Crowded Hours.

In 2001 I took a job with Youth Specialties, a company that provided resources for church youth workers. I was editor, occasional speaker, and Director of Product Development. YS was located outside San Diego – friendly territory for me; I had attended Comicon since 1976, and had many friends in Southern California. I found a condo in Alpine, 30 minutes west of the Pacific coast and 30 minutes north of the border. It is the last major (?) town west of San Diego before the faraway El Centro, in the “high desert.” I chose it partly because my wife was born in Alpine NJ; but also because the beautiful setting combined the flavors of frontier life and the atmosphere of gated celebrity neighborhoods.

When I became acquainted with locals, enough of them asked or assumed whether I knew Coy Watson Jr. I admit I had never heard of him. I did a little research and remedied that situation. The modest man who lived two streets from me was in fact a Hollywood legend and was a motion-picture pioneer in several ways. It was not difficult to become friends with Coy.

He was in his 90s when I met him. His kind manner and youthful smile, dimples and all,  made him look younger than his years. The early history of Hollywood is inextricably related to the story of the Watson family – which has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – including the father, five brothers, and three sisters. A virtual cast of thousands.

– In later years, Coy Watson Jr., at the monument on the grounds of the Edendale (Hollywood) lot where film comedy was born… and so was Coy. The plaque reads: This is the birthplace of motion-picture comedy. Here the genius of Mack Sennett took root and grew to laughter heard around the world. Here movie history was made – here stars were born – here reigned, and still reigns, “The King of Comedy” Mack Sennett. 

Coy Senior was a prop man for Mack Sennett, therefore often in demand at the laugh factory. So much so that the Watsons’ home was on the actual Sennett lot. Coy Junior appeared in a Sennett comedy when he was only nine months old – much as the baby Mendel Berlinger (eventually Milton Berle) was a baby in Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler only a year later.

Coy’s movie debut was followed in quick succession when babies and toddlers were needed in Sennett’s Keystone comedies, leading to the nickname he had ever thereafter: The Keystone Kid. He was co-star to Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Billy Bevan, Wallace Beery, Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling, Lloyd Hamilton, Fatty Arbuckle, and Marion Davies. Eventually he appeared in feature films with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jackie Coogan, Thelma Todd, John Barrymore, Mae West, and Cary Grant.

His father (and uncle) graduated from props and carpentry to acting (mostly in Westerns)  and even directing; but Coy Senior’s major contributions to early movies was inventing special-effect tricks and illusions. His handiwork enabled Fairbanks to “fly” the magic carpet in Thief of Baghdad.

In 1921 little Coy starred in his own comedy, A Nick-Of-Time Hero. Otherwise, through the years, Coy appeared in more than 60 movies, including Stella Dallas; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Puttin’ On the Ritz; and I’m No Angel. Counting the credits of all the Watson Kids, as they became known, they collectively appeared in a thousand movies.

Eventually Coy moved from in front of the camera, and exercised the inventor’s genes of his father, and developed cameras and lenses. In the early days of television in Los Angeles, he invented equipment that allowed for remote broadcasting. For a while he served as one of TV’s first cameramen, assignment reporter, and mobile weatherman.

Many cartoon fans are interested in early movies and film comedy. So when I got to know Coy I invited him to address the Southern California Cartoonist Society when I was Program Director. The show-and-tell, and Q+As, went on forever; and Coy loved every minute of it. And so did I – my neighbor was History Before My Eyes. Amazing.

After California, I moved to Michigan; our daughter, then a youth pastor, hoped we would move nearby, and we did. We joined a little Assembly of God church most of whose members were from the South – or whose parents and grandparents were, yet every member retained thick accents of North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. “Automotive Alley” had many such migrants, white and black alike, who had been drawn north by the auto booms of World War II and the ‘50s and ‘60s.

After a few Sundays I got to “visitin’” with a white-haired fellow and his wife in the pew next to me. He was older than Coy back in California: 97 at the time; and I dared not believe the coincidence when he told me his name – Wade Mainer.

Yes, it was Wade Mainer, who back in the 1930s was a major RCA Victor recording star; he and his brothers fronted Mainer’s Mountaineers, after which Wade struck out as a solo artist. He was a famous banjo player, in the old-fashioned three-finger drop-thumb style. Back in North Carolina in the early ‘30s his style was popular, and he influenced a local picker, Smith Hammett. In turn, Smith influenced his cousin who developed a variation.

That cousin was named Earl Scruggs. His variation of Wade’s picking became the “sound” that gave birth to Bluegrass.

Wade never changed his style, and in fact rejected the term Bluegrass: he was proud to play Traditional or Mountain music. After RCA, he recorded on other labels; formed ensembles with other pioneers (once he declined a feeler from Mac Wiseman, who wound up with Bill Monroe’s original Bluegrass Boys); performed on Broadway with Woodie Guthrie and Burl Ives; and was invited to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt.

Musical tastes changed, of course, especially when rock ‘n’ roll and folk music dominated charts, and Wade sought other work. He joined the migration north and took an assembly-line job with General Motors. He also got saved and his faith prevented him any more from playing secular music, in his view. Years later the legendary Molly O’Day (partly responsible for discovering Hank Williams) visited Wade and persuaded him that God would not have graced him with talent only to have it lie fallow. Afterwards he performed gospel music – locally, before he died at age 103, at grand birthday get-togethers – and he continued to record.

Serendipity again. I had written four books on country music, two with passages about Wade Mainer, never dreaming that he still was alive; that I would worship with him, become a friend, and pick and sing in his living room. His delightful wife Julia, by the way, still played a great guitar in the Mother Maybelle Carter  / Riley Puckett style. She had been a star in the 1930s also, under the stage name “Hillbilly Lilly,” at the mention  of which she would wince.

I usually drew portraits of Wade and Julia for birthday fans to sign, or as presentation pieces. Here is one I painted when Wade was past 100.

Forrest Gump was an amateur, ya think?…



  1. God bless you, John. Thank you for editing, and adding the extra art and the video. I should have known, since you are one of the fraternity who loves old movies and roots music as well as comics!

  2. So Rick can say he sang with Waid Mainer, albeit along with everyone else in their church ... that's almost as impressive as all of the cartoonists he's known and worked with. Mainer and his brother influenced an lot of musicians....