‘Monk” Goes Home
From “The Colon Express”, December 1963, By Monk Watson: “Really, my home is right here in Colon, and how glad I am that we live here and not in the city of Detroit. Getting in and out of that city via the rat race of the heavy freeway traffic is not worth the effort anymore. However, on this last trip, I took Neil Foster with me for a show, and we made it a sightseeing trip as well as business. So that is the reason I said that I went home again.
Home, in this case, meant that I returned to the place of my great success on the stage in Detroit. We visited the Riviera theatre. Known in the Twenties as the Grand Riviera.
Grand Riviera Theatre Detroit, Michigan in 1970. It was demolished in 1996.
How it has changed, not on the outside, but on the inside! When I went there in 1926 it was the most beautiful theatre in the Midwest … nothing like it west of New York City. It was the first of the large movie theatres and money meant nothing in making it a place of beauty. Two thousand seats, and all were filled every night of the week with many standing in lines waiting to see a good stage show with a big band and lots o people working front of it. In those days I had a band of 18 men and a line of 12 dancing girls and three or four acts, so it was a fine show to look at and enjoy. I first signed a contract to work a two-week engagement and it turned into more than four years so you see it was like a home in the theatre.
My dressing room was a thing of beauty, with a full-length mirror as well as one on the dressing table. Pictures of acts were hung on the walls, and a couple of easy chairs welcomed visitors. I had it painted to my liking, and that means that it wasn’t drab but very bright to brighten every day that I had to spend in it. Those were the days of the first radios, and I had to run a wire from my car through the window to a speaker on my dressing room table. Programs were not too good, but I was doing a radio show at the time, so we had to listen to see what the people wanted. My radio program was broadcast from the Fisher building, WJR, and we’d have to make it a hurried trip to the studio once a week, and back again, for the evening show at the theatre, so that meant a real fast drive. In order to make such a trip, I had to have a police escort, or a motorcycle policeman in front and one in back of my group of three or four cars. The police department was very glad to do this for me because I was always willing to help out with the Police Day benefits. So, with sirens screaming, we’d make the run each week until “Here Comes Monk and his Gang” was a household password. Another household slogan was, “Let’s go and see what Monk is doing tonight”, not just, “let’s go see the show”.
Neil Foster had heard me talk about the Good Old Days, and I’m sure he could hardly believe all of the stories I told, but they were all true and that is my reason for taking him to this fine old theatre where I could show him around. I had a few lumps in my throat as I walked across stage (in back of the movie screen). Of the many young men I had in the band only three or four are still living. These boys were like my own family. It was a great, great band that made records whenever we played THE LONGEST RUN IN SHOW BUSINESS – that’s ours to look back on!
As I walked on the darkened stage I could hear the Boswell Sisters singing in their dressing room, and I remembered how I told them that they should do a singing act and not an instrumental act, as they were then doing; how they went from there to the Paramount theatre to follow me across the country where I was playing a short engagement of 12 weeks. Their success is history now.
Boswell Sisters, Martha, Vet and Connee
I could hear Martha Ray singing in a family act, and how I told her that she was too good for this act and should do a single. She did, and her success is history.
I could hear Joe Penner asking me for a chance to go out on my show and sing his little song and do a little dance, and I remembered how we worked up a talking act to do together for several weeks, and then how he went to the highest paid act on radio.
I could see a dancer doing the very funny dance, and not speaking a line, until we worked up a couple of running jokes together (and he has never forgotten). He has done pretty well, Bob Hope has.
I could go on and on namedropping because many more played in that good old theatre in front of my band in my stage show.
With Christmas coming along in a few days I also recalled one of my Christmas shows. I had the painters make a lovely stage set with candy canes and fireplaces, with steps coming down from the back of the stage, with some beds across the stage with children in them (my chorus girls dressed as little girls). With the lights dimmed we’d play Christmas music and you could hear the sleigh bells come closer until down into one of the fireplaces would come old, fat Santa. I’ll never forget one night when he couldn’t get out until some of the boys helped him. Each of the girls got a big doll as a gift, and as they would dance, these dolls, dressed like the chorus girls, would dance along, too. They were the most beautiful dolls I have ever seen, and could only be rented from the theatre supply house in Chicago. I have never seen any like them since.
Christmas was just another day of hard work for everyone in the show; acts, hands and all. So, after the last show we’d have our own tree and gifts were exchanged. I made an effort to get each of the boys something that they’d keep as long as they lived, and all these years we’ve remembered, I’m sure, each other, and these wonderful good times. Each year would find every member of the band marching in the Old Newsboy parade, and I’m still a member of the Old Newsboys of Detroit. Each year I would see to it that the policeman of my precinct received a gift of a box of cigars, or candy for his family, remembering how they made it possible for me to race through the streets, to do charity shows, so others could have a nice Christmas.
They have roped off the first five rows of the theater and the entire balcony now, so that the kids won’t tear the picture screen apart and rip up the seats.”
Grand Rivera Rotunda 1970