My Time With Monk Watson!
By Hugh Frisbie: ”Like most boys in Colon, Michigan after WWII we biked, fished, swam, played baseball and watched or sold popcorn at magic shows. But mostly knew “Monk” as the magician that traveled in the “Casite” decorated station wagon. In the fall of 1948 I was a high school freshman and my less than 90-pound weight made it foolish to join my friends in going out for the football team. With time alone I started to learn to juggle some rubber balls after watching someone on those early TV shows. With about 5 weeks of after school practice in the backyard I could juggle three balls and practice continued with plates, knives, and 4 solid wooden clubs that would crack my knuckles if I didn’t catch them right. My classmates in Colon High were putting on a school carnival and to advertise it they put signs on a truck to drive around town. My contribution was to ride on the top of the truck cab juggling the wooden clubs. “Monk” saw this and came over to our house to talk to me. First about not riding around on the roof of a truck and then about juggling. I have since read “Monk’s biography of some dangerous things he did as a kid and I thank that may have been our initial connection.
With “Monk’s advice to my parents about where they could send for 3 real professional juggling clubs for my birthday, more practice and help from Monk and Fred Merrill, the former vaudeville juggler who worked in the paint shop at Abbott’s Magic, I had the start of a juggling act for high school events. Monk saw one and came by with a costume and asked if I would come along on his shows. So in 1951, 1952, & 1953 I went with him to Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Fort Wayne, Sturgis and places in between in his now “Miracle Power” decorated station wagon for all kinds of shows: Lion’s Clubs, American Legion, Company picnics and some for his sponsors A-P Parts Corp., Miracle Power clients or potential customers. The audiences were from after dinner shows on a stage the size of a table or several thousands in auditoriums. I sometimes did 4-6 minutes of juggling and sometimes I only helped bring his props and set-up for his 45 to 75 minute show. Although I liked showing off my juggling of 3 & 4 balls, knives, plates and tennis rackets, the best part was watching Monk’s show as no two were ever the same. Sometimes there was 10-15 minutes of jokes, music, pantomime or magic I had never seen before.
The Monk Watson Show was so much more than magic because of the comedy pantomime and Monk’s unique ability of adapting to any audience from farmers, little old ladies, businessmen and waitresses with the result being a true standing ovation at the end of every show. The jokes about his time in the military were as funny and as rapid as any big time comedian and the unique pauses and facial expressions in the delivery were enough to incite laughs well before the punch line. The facial expressions during his pantomime of a lady putting on her make-up while driving a car would always cause some lady in the audience to go into uncontrolled laughing spells, thus doubling the enjoyment to the rest of the audience. There were laughs in all the magic sequences, but the comedy and pantomime segments were so well placed throughout the show that the result was that the audience had no idea what to expect next. This element of surprise was also displayed in magical effects thus increasing the “ooh’s” and applause that many other magicians would not receive.
Absolutely nothing about Monk’s show was unrehearsed, thought about and re-practiced. In fact, right up to show time his whole thinking was about entertaining that audience. My first real “lesson in showbiz” occurred when Monk was nervously pacing backstage before the show and I told him, “Why don’t you just relax, you know you’ll be a big hit.” Monk paused and let me know that if you don’t think about doing everything for your audience, you should not be in showbiz.
One night we arrived to set-up on stage and a 5-piece orchestra that was hired to play before and during the banquet dinner was on break behind the curtain and Monk talked to the leader and asked if they would also provide opening music for the magic show. The answer being a definite “No, we were only hired to play until the end of dinner.” Monk said, “Well I hate to have to play myself on stage.” He picked up a clarinet and played the heck out of it to the obvious amazement of the leader and the band members who then agreed to do anything he wanted.
Certainly one of the toughest shows I saw was for a national salesmen’s meeting for Kirsch Curtain Company at Klinger Lake Country Club near
Sturgis, Michigan. The printed schedule stated 5:30 to 6:30 for drinks, 6:30 to 7:30 dinner, 7:30 Sales Manager’s Review, 8:00 entertainer Monk Watson, Magic.
We arrived around 6:30 and found a very small stage in one corner of the room, which was mostly filled with drinking, talking and laughing. We were set-up and ready at 7:30 with drinks and laughing the only thing happening in the room, same thing at 8:00, 8:30 and 9:00. at 9:00 dinner was served with more drinks and around 10:30 many were under the tables or had a face in their plate.
The manager strode up and with less than 25% of them listening said he would be brief so we could start with the entertainment. He said a few things and introduced “Monk” at a little before 11:00.
“Monk” stood up, put his fingers in his mouth and blew the loudest, shrillest, longest whistle I have ever heard. Some heads rose from plates and some came out from under tables. In a loud clear voice he said, “Hi!, I’m Monk Watson and I’m here to give you the best show you have ever seen.”
He started and continued at a very fast pace but as he went on more and more were applauding to the tricks and by the end of a shorter than normal show, 90% of the audience gave him a resounding applause and the manager came around to sign up for another show next month. WOW!
As good as Monk was a performer, he was also one of the first to be fully sponsored by a product company. First by Casite, then by A. P. Parts, and then my Miracle Power. These appearances consisted of a rented auditorium, advertising for an audience of 1,000 to 5,000. The shows would start with a raffle of cases of the products and proceed with Monk’s solo 70 – 90 minute magic show, which included about 10 minutes of magic with direct reference to Miracle Power and improved performance to your automobile. Think about it. Monk was the only person on stage. Most of the time there were no assistants, no orchestra, no scenery, lights “on or off”, no sound man, no curtain openings/closings, and no props from the back of a station wagon.
Monk’s use of some standard magic effects like “Linking Rings” and “
Free Card Repeat” while boring by many magicians, his perfect execution and pauses as thou something had gone wrong always increased the impact of the tricks. The main reason he perfected the execution of magic effects was not to show off his skill, but to allow him to watch and interact with the audience during every effect. This became a very important element in my later development of kid’s shows. The most difficult effect was probably the “Think Of Any Card” trick that even the most skilled magician can’t always be effective. He used it mostly in small offstage gatherings to impress potential clients, businessmen or my college fraternity brothers who talked about it a long time afterwards.
To this day, I have never seen a performer better than Monk Watson who had the multi-talents of Jackie Gleason, got an audience’s attention and response as quickly as the Las Vegas show of Sammy Davis, Jr., or had the music and miming comedy of Victor Borge. In addition to profiting from his advice to go to college, then helping me get my first engineering job in San Diego with Convair working on the Atlas Missile, which would put the first U. S. Astronaut into space. His inspiration provided much benefit in turning my part time Southern California juggling into over 3,000 clown, magic and juggling kids shows, many from my own designed, fully portable McDonaldland stage.”
Hugh Frisbie has appeared with T.V. stars Jerry Vail, Mr. Rogers, and Bozo the clown. He was recognized by the San Diego Fire Department for his in-school Fire Safety Shows as well as the San Diego City & County award for outstanding contribution to San Diego schools, hospitals and special events.
Hugh is one of the few clown acts that have appeared at the Abbott’s Get together (1955 and 1994).