Monk and Mary Watson
Clipping from a newspaper, source and date unknown (1977): “COLON, Michigan – “From the time I was two years old, I would do anything to get attention,” admits Donald “Monk” Watson.
Since then he’s played every big time U. S. Theatre, hosted his own radio show and appeared on television and in night clubs as a magician, comedian, band leader and emcee.
Now “retired” Monk, 83, entertains service clubs and conventions and is considering college request to “tell kids about show business they’ll never see again,” he says.
At an elaborate recorder in his office studio, Watson peels away 50 years of entertainment history with a flick of his wrist. Music and voices of vaudeville phantoms and show business greats echo from walls framed with their faded photos, many inscribed endearingly … “To Monk”
Here he recalls his razzle-dazzle acquaintances with Beatrice Lillie, Will Rogers, George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope while recollecting highlights of his own career.
“I climbed on stage as an eight-year-old magicians, at 16 I joined the circus as an acrobatic tumbler, but I got underway as a performer in World War I,” recalls Watson. “I was a nut and my outfit nicknamed me “Monk.” While carrying stretchers or driving the soup wagon mules up to guys on the front lines, I’d dress in a red wig and tall silk hat. Somehow it lifted spirits to see such a crazy sight.”
After the war, Monk toured vaudeville theatres throughout the country with the “Elsie Janis and Her Gang” show, sharing billings with yesterday’s top stars. He remembers W. C. Fields as “the greatest clown.” Edgar Bergen for his stock of dirty stories and Milton Berle as “Mechanical – he always had to have a costume or prop to perform.”
Before Jack Benny became a fiddling comedian, he was Ben K. Benney, Watson’s partner in a farcical skit for three seasons. In 1926, after Monk assembled his 18-piece stage band, “The Keystone Serenaders,” he hired Bob Hope (“then a poor prize fighter known as Packy East”) to work in front of the band as a dancer.
Monk and his band played a record-breaking four years at the Riviera Theater in Detroit where local merchants awarded him a new (1931) automobile, jewelry and other gifts on the group’s 5,000th performance. Comparing his band to a modern day counterpart, he says, “it was akin to a jazzy Lawrence Welk.”
Besides playing the LaSalle and Riviera Theaters, Watson had his own radio show on WJR. “All together, I earned about $1,800 a week – a fortune in those days.”
After his band disbanded (in 1932) and he left the stage in 1940, Watson spent two years as an Air Force morale and entertainment director during World War II. Later, he had a television show in Cleveland on WNKB-TV, and appeared as a guest star on television shows across the country.
Still in demand as master of ceremonies for conventions and large gatherings, Monk says “I haven’t decided to join the college circuit yet, but have nice letters from three Michigan universities, asking me to share my vaudeville experiences with students.”
In the town that bills itself “Magic Capitol of the World,” Watson lives in a pleasant frame house with his wife of 49 years, Mary. The couple has four children, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and part of Colon’s magic is Watson, who worked with Harry Blackstone and is godfather to the famed magician’s son, Harry Jr.
At a typewriter surrounded by memorabilia like a Will Rogers rope, a sequined costume worn by Elsie Janis, his old show bills and theatre trunk, Monk says, “I’m working on a book that will capture my memories before they’re gone. I think I’ll call it – “To Vaudeville .. With Love.”