”Monk” Watson Remembered
From Magicol magazine, May, 2008, by Dan Waldron: “Donald “Monk” Watson was a perennial at Abbott’s Magic Get-Togethers. He lived in Colon, and ads for new Abbott products often bore his endorsement: “I’ll take one!” says Monk Watson. “To show how easy it was to do some new trick, Abbott’s had Monk saying things like “I got it in the morning and put it into my show that night!”
Such lines notwithstanding, Monk’s performing style embodied the old truth that “It’s not the trick, it’s how you do it that counts.” He was aces at hocus pocus. His first foray into magic, however, turned out to be almost his last. “I was hardly more than a kid,” he said, “and I had just learned the Water-to-Wine trick. I thought it would go over bigger if I drank it. Of course, it wasn’t wine at all – just chemicals – and it almost killed me!”
Monk wrote a column for The NewTops called “The Professional Touch.” The name came from the presumed showmanship and know-how, based on his many years as a professional entertainer. He had indeed been one, or rather, many – magician, vaudevillian, hoofer, traveling showman, bandleader, producer, writer … he had done it all. He got the name “Monk,” he said, from his shenanigans as a soldier in World War I, when a fellow doughboy seeing him do an acrobatic flip-flop into a shell hole, said, “Look at that monkey!”
A running feature in his Tops columns was a supposed feud with Dorny. Werner Dornfield wrote a column, too, and they were always taking potshots at one another. Actually, they were good friends, both having trouped with “the sweetheart of the AEF,” Elsie Janis. Janis was as big a star as they came in her day, although Monk’s and Dorny’s frequent references to her must have left us young Tops readers mystified. We all knew about our current stars, like Judy Garland, but our education had woefully not included Miss Janis.
Monk and his wife, Mary, lived on Colon’s Main Street in a neat white frame house with a tidy green lawn. Apparently the house was the domain of Mary, for there was not one shred of evidence that a show-business veteran lived there. But in the back yard Monk had a small building crammed with relics from his career. It held vintage photos (many autographed by famous vaudevillians), posters, scrapbooks, albums, yellowing theatre programs, folders of sheet music and other memorabilia of his days as a Janis trouper, his time with dancer Irene Castle, his vaudeville days – both with a partner and as a single – his later stint in Detroit, where he had a band called “Monk Watson and his Serenaders.” There was also magic apparatus, some theatrical props and an old L. C. Smith upright typewriter on which he wrote his columns.
In Detroit, in addition to his band, he produced “Prologues” at the Riviera Theatre. (Like regulation Detroiters of the day, he called it the “Grand Rivera.” What else could you call a theatre located on Grand River Avenue? The second “i” in Riviera was completely ignored.) “Prologues” spanned the gap between the vaudeville and the talking pictures. They were often elaborate stage shows presented before the motion picture was shown. They usually had a line of showgirls, a theme such as “Hayloft Follies,” complete with scenery and costumes and generally a monologist or what we would call today a “standup comedian.” Monk hired Bob Hope and Jack Benny early in their careers or so he said.
“Prologues” faded away as talking pictures proved a big enough draw by themselves. They are memorialized in a wonderful Busby Berkeley movie called Footlight Parade.
Monk proved to be a popular figure in Detroit for a time. It was during Prohibition, and I rather think he lived it up in that era of flappers and bathtub gin. But times changed, and Monk retired to the town of his birth, Colon, Michigan. He must have thought heaven had arrived when Harry and Inez Blackstone settled there.
Monk appeared on every Abbott Get-Together program I can remember. He did magic, of course, but also some of his vaudeville routines. They seem curiously unhurried compared to today’s quick-cut-instant-everything society, but they were funny conceptions and funny to watch. One of them involved conducting an (unseen recorded) orchestra in one of the classics. Monk at the podium turned the pages of the score. Finally, he held it up for the audience to see, revealing, not a music score, at all, but a girlie magazine. He grinned wildly as he showed the old fashioned picture of the skinny-dipping lass in a lake entitled “September Morn.”
Another gag also involved conducting an orchestra. Midway through the piece a railroad train was heard approaching. Monk whipped out and donned a brakeman’s cap, grabbed a signal lantern, and waved through the roaring, but unseen, train. Then he ditched the cap and lantern and resumed conducting the music where he had left off.
In his late seventies Monk underwent major surgery. He had scarcely recuperated when he took a booking for a magic show at a reunion of war veterans. Maybe he needed the money. Maybe he simply felt the need to perform. In any case, he took me with him. To my horror, the hall was filled with raucous, unruly, liquored up GI’s. The last thing on their mind was watching an old man do magic tricks. Yet Monk went on and faced the crowd. From backstage I could hear the ruckus. Then it quieted down a bit. About 30 minutes later I heard a thunder of applause. Monk stumbled offstage. He was white as a sheet, soaked with perspiration and trembling like a leaf.
“I made ‘em stand,” he gasped, “I made ‘em stand!”
in Monk’s hands, that chaotic collection of rowdies had been transformed into an audience. They had given him a standing ovation. This was in the days when such an ovation was rare, not like today, when audiences automatically rise to their feet, whether the act deserves it or not. In Monk’s time, it meant something.
Monk was not your “kindly old curmudgeon.” He could be sour at times. But he never lost the dazzle of his trouper’s smile. Whenever he sensed a camera within 20 paces, on it came.
In his last days, he and Mary moved to New Jersey to be with his daughter. He died there in 1981 at age 87 – but not before he had scored a life-story interview on the local newspaper.