Family and friends will gather Saturday in Fresno to remember Earl Watson, who traded a young man’s dream of rubbing elbows with famous Hollywood stars for the rewards of community service in Fresno.
Mr. Watson, whose nickname – “The Pearl” – was apt not only for its lyric qualities but also for describing his kind disposition, died Sept. 13. He was 90.
He would give the shirt off his back to a person in need.
He was a war hero who had trouble finding work back in the states until he answered an ad at the Hotel Knickerbocker in Hollywood. From 1945 to 1962, Mr. Watson was the self-proclaimed “Doorman to the Stars.” He left the hotel to spend 27 years in the liquor distribution business, a career that brought him to Fresno, where he worked for E&J Gallo Winery and later retired.
With his wife of 71 years, Melba, by his side, he was active in charitable activities for veterans and children. He has been described as a “jewel of Fresno’s African American community.”
“Earl was a very generous and caring person,” says Melba, 93. “He treated everyone with respect – he was a very good man. He would give the shirt off his back to a person in need.”
Mr. Watson grew up in poverty in Chicago. He was a great football player in high school, but in that era African American men weren’t known for getting college scholarships. He enlisted in the Army.
Mr. Watson fought in many notable World War II battles including Rhine River, the Bulge and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. He was one of three veterans honored before the 2011 Fresno Veterans Day Parade and given medals they had not previously received.
After the war, he decided to have a go at Hollywood.
One of the problems he faced was that many veterans had the same idea, which made work hard to find. But Mr. Watson was determined to find work instead of living on unemployment checks.
“I had taken two unemployment checks and I swore I would take no more,” Mr. Watson told The Bee in 1999. “I would either get a job or starve to death.”
He heard about an opening at the Knickerbocker as a men’s room attendant. He immediately discovered the awe of Hollywood as icons came and went through his men’s room. They, in turn, recognized that the man serving them was special.
“Gene Autry told the others that it just didn’t seem right to have a war hero working in the bathroom,” Mr. Watson recalled in 1999.
Celebrities convinced hotel management to give Mr. Watson the doorman position.
I really did all I could to be the best doorman in the world.
“You would look this way and see Bob Hope coming down the street and turn the other way and see Jack Benny,” Mr. Watson recalled. One of the power couples of the time, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, were greeted by Mr. Watson. And Elvis Presley was protected by him.
When Elvis stayed at the Knickerbocker, the screaming girls followed him back to where Mr. Watson worked. He would organize the fans and then bring Elvis down to greet the crowd.
He stayed in touch with Elvis and even served as a pallbearer at the funeral of his manager, Tom Parker.
“I really did all I could to be the best doorman in the world,” Mr. Watson said. In retirement, he penned an autobiography, “Earl, the Hollywood Knickerbocker’s Doorman to the Stars.” And he stayed true to his craft: “It’s tough writing books,” he told The Bee in 2008, adding some publishers wanted him to “put in lies and sex” – and he refused.
While in Los Angeles, Mr. Watson met the woman who would become his wife for 71 years. Melba Rose.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers remembrances be made to the Fresno Police Department/community collaborative Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life, P.O. Box 1271, Fresno CA 93715.
Earl Eugene Watson Sr.
Born: Jan. 1, 1925
Died: Sept. 13, 2015
Survivors: wife Melba; son Alan; daughter Coleen and her husband Fred Patterson; grandchildren Eric Wilson, Ashley Watson and Jonathan Watson; sister Grace and her husband Clynell Jackson; and many nieces, nephews and friends
Funeral services: 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, at Holy Spirit Church at 355 E. Champlain Drive in north Fresno. The repast will be at Pardini’s Banquet Hall at 2257 W. Shaw Ave. until 5 p.m.
Burial: Monday morning, Oct. 5 at St. Peter’s Cemetery, 264 N. Blythe Ave. in Fresno. The burial will include Honor Guard services.
Arrangements: Sterling & Smith