Kempton Komedy Company
Colon Express, March 17, 1965, By Monk Watson: “When you try to write about people who have gone for such a long time you just have to make a few mistakes. So, if I forget to mention some names or mention a few that some have forgotten, please excuse me. I’m just trying to give some thought to an entertaining story now and then. I’m going to cover a couple of shows that stand out in my memory that perhaps changed my whole life. I have asked several people if they remember this and that, and you’d be surprised the number of people who never heard of some of the things I’ll write about.
My first movie, and how it impressed me, I believe it was where our ballpark is now located, that a big black tent was put up. Maybe things looked bigger then, but as I remember it I believe about a hundred people could be seated at one showing. In order to get into the tent you had to go through about three folded doors of canvas. This was done to keep the light out. The power for the movie projectors was a couple of tanks of acetylene gas. This gave out enough light to throw the picture on the screen. There was no plot to the picture we’d see. Some tricked-up water scenery with a big frog on a lily pad, or more like a toadstool. This frog was a contortionist, whom I met later in vaudeville. He sat there on that toadstool with both feet licked in back of his head. For months I tried that trick .., Then there was the wire walker on a slack wire. Well, that put the idea into my head that perhaps I could walk a rope, so one was put up between two trees in my grandmother’s front yard. I might add that my admission to every show was earned by peddling handbills house to house (same practice is still being done by a pal of mine). I don’t believe I ever paid to see a show in my first twenty years. I was always working for the manager in some way. Dog shows would come to town and I’d water the horse or lead a dog in the big parade down Palmer Avenue, and down through town. The dog show were put on in back of our old school where the playground is at this time.
Now I meet a great Man and a great Lady; Mr. and Mrs. George Kempton. They were the first I ever met to put shows on in the Opera House. Most of the cast was made up of local people. Pearl Van Slyke was almost always the leading man; if not, he always had an important role in the production. My Uncle John was in a lot of shows, too. I’d try to attend all of the rehearsal, and dream of the day when I could be up there, too. I’ve got to go and visit with a lady whom I loved in those days, but she never knew it. Mrs. Wm. Kieffer (the leading lady and heroine in those days, Toisa Hovis) was happy to help me with some names I had forgotten. We recalled the best show that she did, Triss”. It was a Western, and she was the fastest gun in the West. One scene that I remember very well from that show was where the hero (Kenneth Legg, or Clint Garman, or Chet Wagner) was left hanging from a rafter, and just as he breathed his last, Toisa (Triss) jumped through a window and shot the rope and save the hero. (Sounds like some of our late, late shows on TV).
Hill Opera House in Colon
So I had seen a rehearsal at the Opera house and now I was ready to do the show myself, but not until I had gone to the LKG (Lamb Knit Goods) factory and watched another rehearsal. It seems that Pearl Van Slyke worked in the winding room and between this room and another room were several windows, open, used to pass yarn through. They were going to rehearse the scene where Toisa jumped through the window and shot the rope. This was during working hours, and just as Toisa jumped through the window, Jeff Hill walked in swinging his gold headed cane, and yelling, “What’s going on in here?” That was the cue for everyone to jump back to their work. He saw me and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Mr. Hill, I work here, too.” I was about ten years old at the time and I was turning gloves, for some of the regular turners, for TEN CENTS a day. My work was put on their ticket, I’m sure, so Mr. Hill had never known that I really did work there. As soon as he was out of sight the rehearsal went back into action again. The show was a smash hit and Toisa was the Queen of the Show and of Westerns, for sure. I loved that girl and used to eat more popcorn just so I could be near her. She worked at Hartman’s bakery at the time. Today, as I visited with her, I could still see that spark in her eyes that made men swoon. Do you know that she still has that dress that she played “Triss” in? I will have her show it to me.
Now for the gruesome ending of the story of Triss … I had a theatre of my own to do shows in, Side’s barn. Harold and Raymond and I put some red and white and blue bunting across the middle of the barn loft. Some chairs were put in front for theatre seats, and for a couple of pins you could see anything from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Ben Hur … So now I’m going produce “Triss”. Instead of a girl jumping through a window we dressed up one of the boys in a dress and told him to jump from off stage and shoot the rope that held another boy from a rafter. The rope was put around his neck and also around his shoulders and then we kicked the box from under him. The boy (Heroine since he wore a dress) jumped on stage and shot a real twenty-two just above the hanging boy’s head. Well, the rope didn’t break, but the boy (Hero) turned a slight blue … so help was called to get him down before he died. The last I heard of this Hero was in 1929 when I was playing the Paramount theatre in Los Angeles. A fellow came back to see me and told me that he had lived in Colon. Claude Mangel was his name. I often wondered how he lived so long.
Toisa corrected me about the first shows in the Opera house. There was another man who came to town and produced shows with the local people. His name was Fairchild. I remember him well, and how he used to dress in a big fur-rimmed overcoat, and now and then a cape. He wore a top hat part of the time, and drove a horse and buggy around town. She also recalled a fine doctor, Eck Doran, who used to take part in the shows.
Wish I had more time, but I’ve got a show tonight. Yes, that kid who peddled bills is still doing shows.”
Monk appeared in Abbott’s Get-Together in 1942. 1944, 1946, 1957, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, and 1979. He wrote a long running column in Tops called “The Professional Touch”. He died in 1981.