Donald “Monk” Watson “Cheer-Up” Boy of 32nd May Enter the Movies
From the Jackson, Michigan Citizen Patriot, circa 1919.
Jackson Soldier, Back From Overseas, Praised by Army Officials As An Entertainer; Was a “Gloom Lifter” Among the Soldiers.
When a full-fledged colonel and a lieutenant colonel praise a humble corporal as being one of the biggest contributors to the morale of the men of the 32nd division, why one must naturally have a look at the man who caused all the comment. So when word reached Jackson that Colonel Edward J. Heckle, of the 125th infantry had said in a speech down at Battle Creek, “There’s only one ‘Monk’ Watson,” and after the praises given him by Lieutenant Colonel Gansser at the Elk’s temple Wednesday evening, a Citizen-Patriot reporter decided to get the high spots of Watson’s career from his own lips.
When the Citizen-Patriot’s representative reached the home of Donald Watson at 105 North Van Dorn street he found “Monk” just packing up his theatrical belonging preparatory to making a trip. Just at the moment he arrived “Monk” was standing in the hall regarding a Boche bayonet with a rather wistful look in his eyes.
“Say,” Watson confided, “did you ever use one of these for a candle stick? They make dandies. Just stick your candle on the end, and when a Hun airplane comes over – Whoosh – and your lights go out.”
Then, with a more earned expression hiding the merry twinkle which habitually plays in his eyes, Watson sat down and told some of his unique army experiences, as an actor, a musician, and general gloom lifter, that caused him to get the name in the 32nd division of the “Skylark, who had guts.”
When Watson was in Texas he organized a jazz band and played at the different “Y” huts and auditoriums of Waco and Camp MacArthur. But it remained for him to demonstrate his real worth in later days to follow, when the 32nd division was piercing all points and when it at last emerged a victor to take-up its position as one of the division in the Army, of occupation.
But those glorious days when the 32nd was fighting all the time were not then as grand as now, looking back, and the “Buddies” used to get pretty blue after they had just taken a town. They would be sitting around a fire if they had one, or in a damp old barn, grousing quite a bit, until one would yell, “Here’s Monk.” And then Monk would come in and perform some of his “darn foolishness” as he calls it, until the gloom would be lifted and the Germans would wonder next day what made those Americans fight so.
During the Soissons drive Monk found an old battered piano in a little town just as it had been abandoned by its owners. It was lying in the water so that it had to be propped up by boards before he could play it. But they fixed it up and the “cheer up boy” played “The Strutter’s Ball” on the rusty piano, practically in the water.
In July, 1918, Watson had the pleasure of meeting Miss Elsie Janis and appearing with her in a skit in which he did some of this pantomime wire walking. A friendship sprung up between the two “morale” builders and now Watson is the proud owner of several autographed photographs and quite a few letters from Miss Janis. She has recommended him to her American manager in New York.
During the five months the 125th infantry was stationed at Horhosen, Germany, in the army of occupation, Watson went around to all the towns where the division was stationed giving his pantomimes and musical stunts. He appeared in the Hohenzollern Hotel at Neweid, one of the larger of the German music halls, and also in places so small the entertainers had to perform on tables, which often broke under them.
Some time before the division returned Watson went down in Aixles Bains and took part there in a show entitled “The Pirates.” Miss Grace Sherwood of Providence, R. I. a Y.M.C.A worker, was the author and manager of the production. The entertainment was even in the casino, formerly the property of Harry K. Thaw, which had been gambled away over the roulette table.
Even on the way home the Jackson boy continued to make the men merry. He put on some of his stunts while on board the Great Northern, which so pleased the captain of the ship that he asked “Monk” to repeat them up in the officers’ cabin.
This optimist confided the fact that he sort of hated to leave the army. “They were just like a big family. Everybody would do anything he could for the other fellow.” And then he proceeded to tell another story of how he used to help the boys cut wood by getting out and playing for them and having them keep time to the music with their saws.
Just at present Watson’s ambition lean towards vaudeville or the movies. He has an offer from the World Film Company of New York to join its list of entertainers. “But,” he added, and polished the little medal given him for being a prize entertainer in the division, “First I’m going to stay and have a talk with dad, here, and tell him some about army life.” And dad seemed perfectly willing to listen.