Monk Watson Remembers Show Business
From The “TOPS” Magazine, July 1968. By Monk Watson: “Another month and again I had several people write and ask me to write about the Show Business that I once knew. Gosh, it makes a guy feel good to know that some of my readers like that sort of thing, even if good old George John … something or ruther doesn’t want to hear about it. He just doesn’t know what he has missed. He picks on old men like Monk and Dorny, thinking that he makes them sore. Not me! We’re just a couple of old men whom God blessed by giving the a few short years in good, and I mean GOOD, Show Business. Oh to be able to sign that contract again for 5 weeks in Big Time theatres from Coast to Coast playing TWO A DAY to people not eating popcorn, or with their legs hanging over the seat in front of them. There was a News and a Topics of the Day movies made of jokes not heard on the radio … not too many radio sets around, one could sing a song for a year without hearing it on a juke box … none around.
Jokes were protected by the N. V. A. Club at the start of each year. Music was written special or regular … If an act wanted to do a song and knew another act wanted to do the same song on the bill, it was up to him to put his music on the leader’s stand early so as to get priority. I remember when I played the Majestic in Chicago and I was doing a number that a big star was also doing. I slept in the theatre all night and put the music on the leader’s stand about 4 in the morning. Rehearsal time came and my music came up first. The number, that was so important to me, was rehearsed and as the music started to be heard there was a yell from back in the theatre, “That’s our song and I want it in the show!!” The leader said, “Well, Mr. Watson is going to use it in his spot in the show and if you want to follow him that’s up to you.” Soon the star came on the scene and her man told her the story and you could hear her yell for a city block and I daren’t even write the words she used … ‘cause Foster wouldn’t print them…. I see her now and then on TV and she is a grand old lady of the stage, but I can’t help remember how she gave everyone hell before the first show … she did the number, but my band, and singer, were hard to follow.
Speaking of orchestras, and I mean pit orchestras, they were great. Made up of men who could sight-read music the first time through. The arrangements had to be good and clean so an act would do well to carry an extra set and also another one in another trunk … Some acts carried their own leader, and perhaps one or two key musicians. The Unions got a little tough on this and made you pay for ‘stand-ins’ (those who had been replaced) so it was costly. I had ten men and two girls in the act and all with trunks, plus four for our curtains and props … We had to slip the stage manager a tip, and perhaps the prop man, to get the best service. When you returned the next and next year, the red rug would be out for you. There were a very few very cheap stars who got ‘the works’ from the crew and, for them, life was a little hard during the stay. I look back at the time when a sandbag just happened to drop on the keyboard of the piano … just missing the star by inches.
The big thrill was the opening day at the one and only Palace, in New York. The manager would listen to the way the act went over, so the more truckers one could put in the top balcony, the better for the act. My first trip to the Palace was in 1920 and I didn’t know the ropes, so when it came time for the big applause I just had the first-floor audiences to put me over, a few boos from above, but the band was solid and the manager came back and said, ‘You made it pretty good, young man, and the Big Man liked the act.’ The answer? Got a full year but three New York cut some weeks … Palace, Riverside and the Colonial … the rest was for real money. I darn near killed myself that opening day by falling into the pit and taking bumps all over the stage. As I took my last bow I ran off that stage and 10 feet from the edge I dove, like a ball player sliding into a base … I was told that I didn’t have to do that … We were on in the second spot but were moved to closing the first half … back in the last half to work with some of the stars in just horseplay. These bits, as they were known, are now getting a big play in TV … Crazy, man, Crazy.
Then came the talkies … then went the Two-A-Day … but for a few years we had the Stage Band shows, called the Presentations … band on the stage and acts working in front of the band … a line of girls and some popcorn butchers, who soon became managers, then producers. Next went the Stage Shows, and the line of girls and acts in front of bands, I believe the Music Hall in New York City is the only one left … It was good while it lasted, I KNOW! I was the one who roared in the Roaring Twenties.”
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.