Watson's Drug and Soda Fountain

Clipboard researched by Kathie Bozanich, Susan Davis Greene and Rick VanderKnyff / Los Angeles Times. Graphics by Doris Shields / Los Angeles Times.

Walking or driving down Chapman Avenue, less than a block east of historical Orange Plaza, old-fashioned ice-cream parlor tables and chairs on the sidewalk will spark your curiosity. You'll have to stop. And when you do, you'll fall under the spell of Watson's Drug and Soda Fountain.

Inside, the long counter and old round swivel stools are reminders of Mickey Rooney and friends in his Andy Hardy movies. And the ambient music is also nostalgic--no rappers or heavy metal will you hear here.

Black-and-white photos show how Watson's looked in years past. Not surprisingly, it hasn't changed much in the last half-century. The old red-and-white Carnation milk signs spark the memory as well. Vintage Coke and Pepsi signs line the walls and collections of old typewriters, adding machines and odd pharmaceutical items accent an atmosphere that evokes a gentler, less frenzied Orange County.

Watson's is special for its bygone-era milieu, and one of its prime artifacts--an old Chesterfield sign with head shots of Arthur Godfrey, Bing Crosby and Perry Como selling cigarettes--gives smiling testimony to just how much times have changed not only in Orange County, but in the world around us.

Established in 1899 by Kellar Watson Sr., Watson's is the oldest continuously operated business in the city of Orange and the oldest drugstore in Orange County. Watson's son, Kellar Jr., in turn ran the store until 1965, at which point ownership passed from the family. The present proprietor, Scott Parker, bought Watson's in 1971. But these transitions have not changed or lessened the comfort factor.

"Some of the same people come in everyday," says Parker. "The Orange High School Class of 1943 meets here the first Saturday of every month. Another group of old-timers has been meeting here every morning for years."

What qualifies as old in "old-timer"? "I moved here in 1912," says Howard Wagner, 83, a regular.

Comfortable and different doesn't mean somnolent. Watson's is a mad house of activity at breakfast and lunch, catering to the work-a-day crowd from the surrounding businesses. So don't expect to walk in during prime time and knock down pancakes and sausage in 20 minutes.

Still, it might just as well have been set down here by a "Wizard" tornado, so out of place is it in sleek, chrome-and-mirrors Orange County. On the other hand, it does inspire a kind of refreshing simplicity foreign to the yuppified negotiations ("Let's see. Lance, you had the guacamole and Brie omelette; Muffy, you had the whole-wheat bagel

How do Wagner and his buddies settle up? "Every morning we flip to see who'll pay the bill."

The old ease, the old ways, the old wisdom. It's perfect for Watson's.

Address: 116 E. Chapman Ave., Orange

Telephone: (714) 532-6315

Hours: Counter and tables: 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Pharmacy: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Store closed on Sunday.

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