Stan at workMr Grosvenor, you and your wife visited my father, Stan Watkins, in his office at the NY Worlds’ Fair in 1939. I’d like to ask you some questions about your visit.

What did you talk about? Did you try out all the exhibits in the AT&T building? Did you have a winning number in the lottery which let you make a free phone call? Did you ask the Voder questions? I wonder if it could say “National Geographic Magazine” or “Welcome Mr Gilbert Grosvenor.”

I have a photograph of you three together. But I never asked my father what you talked about, or what he showed you of the exhibit he managed. If he had a Voder in his office, he could have showed you how it worked.

And did you ever have an article about the Voder in your magazine? I have boxes of them from 1926, so perhaps I should get out the 1939/40 ones and have a look. Google hasn’t come up with anything.

Or maybe I can find details of your trip to NYC and the 1939 Worlds’ Fair in the National Geographic Archives. Put that trip on my itinerary; you haven’t answered my questions, so I’ll have to come and see for myself.


80 Years Young

Young At Heart

Daily post – What are your thoughts on aging? How will you stay young at heart as you get older?

At my 80th birthday party a friend asked me for my ‘secret.’ Why do I not show my age either physically or mentally (except sometimes)?

I usually say it is the great genes from my mother’s side of the family. They all lived to be over ninety; my last two aunts died just before their 102nd and 105th birthdays.

But it’s not just that, and of course that isn’t a secret.

Many of my friends, my younger sister included, say that they don’t know that old wrinkly person they see when then look in the mirror. And it upsets them.

I, on the other hand, always smile at myself. Blow the wrinkles. I’m happy to see me.

One of my favorite songs is called The Middle Years. It comes from the musical Your Own Thing based on Twelfth Night. The Countess sings it when she is thinking about life. One line goes: I’ve got a few wrinkles, I wear them with pride. I’ve worked hard for them, I’ve nothing to hide.

That’s my attitude, exactly.

I volunteer a lot; usually dashing from one thing to another. One friend calls me a hummingbird.

And I do hum (the musical kind, I hasten to add); I sing all the time around the house. And laugh a lot. Find the funny side of things. I’m sure that’s a good thing to do.

So not really any secrets to my aging – reaching 80; what I’m doing is maybe more like ripening (I’ve never considered myself really mature).

The only hard part is seeing younger friends struggling with nasty illnesses and dying. But it doesn’t make me aware of my mortality; that isn’t me. When my time comes, I shan’t be aware of it anyway.

So, go ahead smile, laugh and sing. I wrote a song about that. Look for “Singing is a Better Sound Than Sighing” on my next blog.




What’s in a Name – finding a new title

Vitaphone synchronized camera

We have most if not all of the interviews recorded for the documentary of my father, Stan Watkins, first sound man of the Movies. However there is a lot to be done with the post-production that includes editing, adding photos and soundtrack, and finding a title which will encourage people to take notice, and perhaps donate needed funds.

My director has tried several different ideas but they may be a bit pedantic and overwhelming (Kinematography?) and unless you recognize his name, Stan Watkins doesn’t necessarily grab you. So I keep going back to Talking Pictures: A Sound Decision, which my dear departed brother suggested. Because of the initials of Stanley Sylvester Alexander Watkins, I have thought of A Man of all Seasons, A Well Seasoned Man, (Spring Summer Autumn Winter, get it?) or something like that. Any ideas? You might have to go and check out the story itself on Stan Watkins’ Documentary. https://www.gofundme.com/n3rpk-stanley-watkins-documentary 

My director has added lots of pertinent information about Stan and the early silent-to-sound  movie industry, so go into all the updates for an interesting, illustrated read.

MAN AT WORKimg001 (2)


Betsy Caroline Doughty, known as Bessie, was born in 1866. She was a concert pianist who gave up her promising career to marry watchmaker Sylvester Watkins. Her only son, Stanley, was my father. Perhaps because she was reduced to giving piano lessons, and discovered her husband was perhaps not what she had hoped for, she poured all her frustrations into smothering Stanley.

Bessie was a strong woman; in 1902, leaving Syl behind, she took her 15 year old son with her from London by ocean liner and train to San Diego where her brother, Will, had been offered a lemon ranch. For a year, before deciding that ranching life wasn’t for her, this small, intrepid woman kept house (and a piano) in the Cajon Valley, literally thousands of miles away from her elegant life in London where she had famous Victorian artist, Arthur Wardle, as a neighbor.

When my father was hired by the Bell Labs in New York in 1911, Bessie joined her son in Rye. Her husband was again left behind in London, though he did visit once, and eventually moved to Rye where he died in 1926.

Stan met and fell in love with a young dancer, Frances Cowles, who was determined to marry him “because Mrs Watkins was so against it.” That marriage didn’t last very long, perhaps partly because of pressure on Stan by his mother who didn’t like his new wife.

When Stanley’s work took him back to England, Bessie went too. She must have liked my mother, because Stan and Molly were married in London, November 14, 1930, and a few years later my sister and I were born. Mother never talked about having difficulties with Bessie, but I have heard her describe her father-in-law as “Poor Syl.” Bessie was often a guest at the dinners Stan and Molly held.

She was a small woman who wore a long skirt all her life, and sensible black shoes. When she was young her hair was dark and abundant, and she wore it bouffant; in later life her white hair was like a bowler hat, smooth over her head with a roll all around just over her eyes. That’s how I remember her. That and her black dresses, sometimes with a different neckline, and a long silver chain that held her glasses, but always the long skirt.

And she was always darning Daddy’s socks. I looked through the photo albums recently because I couldn’t remember many pictures of Granny. But there they were, from her early married days (although no wedding picture?), in San Diego, then London, then Rye, and back again to England.

She lived with us in the States and taught we three girls to read music, if not to become great pianists. Mary Ann complained she was not allowed to get beyond The Harmonious Blacksmith, and I often hid in our woods when I knew it was lesson time. She gave piano lessons to several local young people; Bunny Ferris bartered ballet lessons for the three of us from Aunt Bessie for her times at the keyboard.

Eventually her mind started failing. Granny was living on the converted porch of our big house on Forest Avenue. She began to (falsely) accuse my little sister of stealing from her cookie box. For some reason I was her favorite (despite avoiding my piano lessons) so I escaped her anger and eventually I inherited her baby grand piano.

Finally it was becoming too difficult to keep her at home, then she fell and broke her hip; after her recovery in hospital, Daddy reluctantly had her admitted to a home. As her senility got worse they couldn’t handle her either and Granny was transferred to the State Hospital in Poughkeepsie. It was about an hour’s drive away and every Sunday Daddy would drive there, often with me for company, to see Granny. When it was obvious she was dying, now totally mindless and bedridden, I heard the

doctor say “We’re doing all we can to keep her alive.” I don’t remember Daddy’s response, but on the way home he pulled over, stopped the car, and, saying “Poor Mother,” he just sobbed. Bessie died in 1942.


Frances Cowles was a dancer, and a member of the Neighborhood Playhouse. Stan met her there, fell in love (as he did with many of his girlfriends) and married her in 1923 in the Little Church Around The Corner in NYC. They worked together on the Vitaphone shorts including Al Jolson, but his business took him away too much, and then he got the London posting. Frannie didn’t like the weather over there and found the people unfriendly, so finally their marriage ended. At her 100th birthday party, she said she had been married to “The King of England.” I wrote The Ballad of Frannie & Stannie to the tune of Frankie & Johnny, and sang it to her that day. She was quite a character and wrote rather good doggerel verse in her later years. Here’s the one I wrote for her:

(With apologies to Frankie & Johnnie)

Frannie and Stannie were lovers.
Their affair went very fast.
They courted and married and parted
Then, remembering good times past
Each went his own way, but friends they would stay.

Frannie she was a New Yorker;
Mercy me how she could dance.
She was small, she was dark haired and pretty,
Stannie knew that he hadn’t a chance.
So he married Fran, he became her man.

Now Stannie he loved folk music,
But science was also his thing.
He worked days at the Bell Laboratories,
And when he came home he’d sing
The same damn songs, the whole night long.

While Frannie was at a performance,
And Stannie was recording sound,
They neither had much time for romance,
Travelling all around
Each to his or her art, and they grew apart.

Stan went to Europe on business
To introduce Talkies there,
While Frannie she carried on dancing
In the follies, around Times Square,
And in SoHo; they were both on the go.

Well, they finally knew it was over
So fondly they murmured “Goodbye.”
Frannie she started a dancing school
And Stan stayed on in Rye.
They had had a blast, but it just didn’t last.

Frannie and Stannie were lovers.
Their affair went very fast.
They courted and married and parted
But, remembering good times past
Each went his own way, and friends they did stay.

April A-Z Challenge: ERPI

In 1928 a company had been formed as a subsidiary of Western Electric to handle the record and talkie end of the business. It was called Electrical Research Products and was familiarly known as ERPI. Stan Watkins’ work for ERPI meant commuting from NY to Hollywood teaching the sound men at Hollywood studios how to use the Western Electric equipment.

April A-Z Challenge: DON JUAN

All the major Hollywood studios having been shown the Bell Labs test films with sound, only the Warner Brothers were interested. Sam Warner and Stan Watkins took a Warner Bros silent film in production, Don Juan, and added sound. John Barrymore played the swashbuckling, womanizer Don Juan, but you heard no dialog, only the sound of doors shutting, swords clashing, people falling down stairs, and a musical score played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra led by Herman Heller. It opened in 1926 and was the first successfully synchronized sound film, with Stan Watkins as head of Vitaphone.

April A-Z Challenge:The Central

The Central was what the students called the London college Stan attended in the early 1900s (now known as the City and Guilds Engineering College of the Imperial College of Science and Technology), and The Centralians was the organization the alumni belonged to. When he moved to New York to work, he became a member of The Old Centralians, along with other students who also moved across the Atlantic to work. Stan kept up his membership until the year of his death, l975.

April A-Z Challenge, AT&T

AT&T is now a cell phone company, but in 1885 it was a subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. The manufacturing department was the Bell Labs, and British electrical engineer Stanley S A Watkins worked for them from 1911 until 1948.

When he was retired and was living in London, he told me “I think the telephone is a good idea because it keeps people at home.” He wouldn’t say that these days when the first question on most cell phones is “Where are you?.”

Update on Stan Watkins Documentary

It hasn’t stopped; it is still going ahead, but slowly. And we still need funding. So if anyone knows of someone who would like to support a film that tells the story of my father, Stan Watkins, an Englishman who spent his working life in the United States and was instrumental in the development of Talking Pictures, please let us know. Of course if everyone reading this blog sent in $10, or even $5, we would be well funded. Very easy to do; just go to the link: https://www.gofundme.com/n3rpk-stanley-watkins-documentary And do view the updates.

The project doesn’t end with the Vitaphone system that heralded Sound Movies; After managing the installation of Western Electric equipment in Hollywood and European studios, Stan went on to teach a Bell Labs synthesizer called The Voder to talk – and don’t you think the Vodaphone takes its name from that original machine? It was the prize exhibit in the AT&T building at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, and simultaneously in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Exposition.

This multi-talented gentleman worked with hearing aids, perfected electrical recording, explored Visible Speech, was an artist, composer of songs, and musician in his spare time, and continued throughout his life to be involved in all sorts of projects, including in retirement as a science consultant for the Festival of Britain (1951).

The current President of the Bell Labs, where Stan worked from 1911-1948, says the story of this Renaissance man should be told. And that’s what we’re aiming to do. Will you help us?


One of the adages we learned as children, which I still quote in my 80s, is:Whether the weather is cold, or whether the weather is hot, we have to weather the weather, whether we like it or not.

Here in New Mexico we are blessed with four seasons, although being high desert country, we are often thought to be merely hot. Not so;  winter is cold, with snow, and the spring blossoms – fruit trees, wisteria, forsythia – prove otherwise.

By April it is warm, even hot, but the cool breezes make it very pleasant. However, this is not always predictable.

This week the University is having its annual Medieval Lecture Series. Scholars from all over the world are invited to give lectures on a given topic: this year it is Animals, and the talks vary widely – literature, art and much between. The community look forward to this week and come in great numbers.

I look forward to the first day, the Monday, when some of the lecturers have already arrived in the city but the first lecture isn’t until the evening, because it is my happy duty to take them on a visit to Acoma Pueblo, one of the nineteen Pueblo Indian villages of New Mexico; Acoma is also medieval having been continuously occupied for over a thousand years.

It is about an hour’s drive from Albuquerque through our desert landscape with rolling hills, mesas and juniper bushes dotted over everything. The colors change as we move through red rock and yellow sandstone, finally coming upon a huge monolith called Enchanted Mesa. But we must go a bit further before we begin to see the brown adobe buildings that blend in with the color of the next mesa – our destination: Acoma “Sky City”.

Although there are many buildings on the masa, only bout 50 people, some 20+ families, live full-time up on this mesa with no running water or electricity. They are the caretakers of the village which swells with hundreds of people every feast day as the Acoma people come to open up their mesa homes from where they live in the three villages below. Those down below do have modern facilities.

Acoma Pueblo sits at 7000 feet above sea level so it can be very windy and cold up on the rock, another 364 feet higher; if it rains (not often) there is little shelter. We always warn our visitors to dress warmly. But on that morning we were blessed with wonderful weather; perfect for the mesa-top tour. Bright, warm sunshine and a gusty breeze, which made us hold onto our hats.

A group of Roads Scholars, a national tour group, joined the four of us in the bus which took us from the Visitors’ Center up onto the mesa. The paved road was put in by a movie company in the 40s who needed to get their equipment up to the top, but in olden days there was no road, and to get water the women were obliged to go down some stone steps cut into the rock to collect water from a pool. They carried it up in thin-walled pottery bowls balanced on their heads as they needed to hold on with their hands in the holes carved into the rock. (I do like descending this way after a tour, but the strain on my legs means days of discomfort afterwards.) Now they take water up in their trucks.

A young Acoma man was our guide, explaining the history and rules (don’t take photos in the church or graveyard). The church, built by local men to the Spanish friar’s design is dedicated to San Sebastian, and the 2nd of September is the Pueblo’s main feast day. We follow our guide around the Pueblo noticing the one tree (Acoma’s National Forest, they call it with a smile). Vendors display tables of their handmade or molded pottery, decorated with beautifully painted symbols of rain, health, food, each vendor ready and willing to explain what the patterns mean.

One reason I love taking this tour is that many of the vendors have become good friends over time, and I go from hug to hug.

My little group wanted to stay behind and do some more shopping so the others returned in their bus to the Visitors’ Center. With our purchases carefully wrapped in bubble wrap to protect them on the way home, our guide called up another bus to collect us. As we were the only passengers, the driver slowed down to show us things – the corrals made of slim poles known as jacal using the natural rock as one ‘wall’, the rock smoothed by kids who use it as a slide, the bottom steps of the rock staircase, the huge rock shaped like a camel’s head, and the lonesome rock, so called because it stands alone.

Back at the Visitors’ Center we chat with the artists under the portal, more friends, more hugs, and another lovely pot purchased. Then into the Cafe for lunch. A short time looking at the exhibitions, and then the drive home, past Enchanted Mesa again, and the Locomotive Rock (that the bus driver had told us to look out for).

It had been a super day, with New Mexico’s famous blue, blue skies and just the right weather for an outing like that. And how lucky we were because the next day was cold, cold, and raining on and off. Puddles everywhere. We had to put on rain gear and sweaters to go to the lecture that evening.

And today is bright and sunny once again, so I’m going to hang out the washing. Hope you are having good weather, but as I said before, whatever the weather you’ll have to weather the weather. If you don’t like it, wait and it will change shortly.

Blue Skies!

N.B. this blog was written a couple of years ago but never published. The description of Acoma Pueblo never changes. This year (2019) the Medieval Lectures will take place in March and the topic is “Presenting The Medieval World”. Let’s hope the weather will be kind.