Austeene Cooper Watkins, a Los Angeles philanthropist who nearly 40 years ago began providing the magical world of theater for deprived children, is dead at age 98.
She died Sept. 14 at her Hancock Park home.
In 1946, with more than four decades of Red Cross service already behind her, Mrs. Watkins launched, through the Nine O’Clock Players of the Assistance League, a program of free theater for children living in the poorer sections of the city.
Since then tens of thousands of children have gone to the Assistance League Playhouse theater in Hollywood, where during the holidays Mrs. Watkins dressed as Santa Claus. She also acted in 38 of the child-oriented plays and, as a quasi-official mistress of ceremonies, distributed free candy after hundreds of other performances.
Although she took pride in the shows, describing herself as a frustrated actress “who loves everything about the theater,” she said in a 1969 interview that she considered her Red Cross volunteer work to be the prime accomplishment of her life.
During World War II she drove a Red Cross bloodmobile vehicle five days a week from 7 a.m. until dark and on weekends worked with the USO and for the Hollywood Canteen, where servicemen and women mixed with film stars.
She also was active in civil defense, was a director of the Boys’ Club of Hollywood and a longtime member of the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild and the Foundation for the Junior Blind.
Mrs. Watkins was the widow of John T. Cooper, chairman of the executive committee of the old Security First National Bank. She later married Warren Watkins, a candy manufacturer. He died in 1976.
Her survivors include two sons, John D. and H. Brand Cooper, and 10 grandchildren.