Monk Watson Goes Home

‘Monk” Goes Home


From “The Colon Express”, December 1963, By Monk Watson: “Really, my home is right here in Colon, and how glad I am that we live here and not in the city of Detroit. Getting in and out of that city via the rat race of the heavy freeway traffic is not worth the effort anymore. However, on this last trip, I took Neil Foster with me for a show, and we made it a sightseeing trip as well as business. So that is the reason I said that I went home again.

Home, in this case, meant that I returned to the place of my great success on the stage in Detroit. We visited the Riviera theatre. Known in the Twenties as the Grand Riviera.



Grand Riviera Theatre Detroit, Michigan in 1970. It was demolished in 1996.

How it has changed, not on the outside, but on the inside! When I went there in 1926 it was the most beautiful theatre in the Midwest … nothing like it west of New York City. It was the first of the large movie theatres and money meant nothing in making it a place of beauty. Two thousand seats, and all were filled every night of the week with many standing in lines waiting to see a good stage show with a big band and lots o people working front of it. In those days I had a band of 18 men and a line of 12 dancing girls and three or four acts, so it was a fine show to look at and enjoy. I first signed a contract to work a two-week engagement and it turned into more than four years so you see it was like a home in the theatre.

My dressing room was a thing of beauty, with a full-length mirror as well as one on the dressing table. Pictures of acts were hung on the walls, and a couple of easy chairs welcomed visitors. I had it painted to my liking, and that means that it wasn’t drab but very bright to brighten every day that I had to spend in it. Those were the days of the first radios, and I had to run a wire from my car through the window to a speaker on my dressing room table. Programs were not too good, but I was doing a radio show at the time, so we had to listen to see what the people wanted. My radio program was broadcast from the Fisher building, WJR, and we’d have to make it a hurried trip to the studio once a week, and back again, for the evening show at the theatre, so that meant a real fast drive. In order to make such a trip, I had to have a police escort, or a motorcycle policeman in front and one in back of my group of three or four cars. The police department was very glad to do this for me because I was always willing to help out with the Police Day benefits. So, with sirens screaming, we’d make the run each week until “Here Comes Monk and his Gang” was a household password. Another household slogan was, “Let’s go and see what Monk is doing tonight”, not just, “let’s go see the show”.

Neil Foster had heard me talk about the Good Old Days, and I’m sure he could hardly believe all of the stories I told, but they were all true and that is my reason for taking him to this fine old theatre where I could show him around. I had a few lumps in my throat as I walked across stage (in back of the movie screen). Of the many young men I had in the band only three or four are still living. These boys were like my own family. It was a great, great band that made records whenever we played THE LONGEST RUN IN SHOW BUSINESS – that’s ours to look back on!

As I walked on the darkened stage I could hear the Boswell Sisters singing in their dressing room, and I remembered how I told them that they should do a singing act and not an instrumental act, as they were then doing; how they went from there to the Paramount theatre to follow me across the country where I was playing a short engagement of 12 weeks. Their success is history now.

Boswell Sisters, Martha, Vet and Connee


I could hear Martha Ray singing in a family act, and how I told her that she was too good for this act and should do a single. She did, and her success is history.

I could hear Joe Penner asking me for a chance to go out on my show and sing his little song and do a little dance, and I remembered how we worked up a talking act to do together for several weeks, and then how he went to the highest paid act on radio.

I could see a dancer doing the very funny dance, and not speaking a line, until we worked up a couple of running jokes together (and he has never forgotten). He has done pretty well, Bob Hope has.

I could go on and on namedropping because many more played in that good old theatre in front of my band in my stage show.

With Christmas coming along in a few days I also recalled one of my Christmas shows. I had the painters make a lovely stage set with candy canes and fireplaces, with steps coming down from the back of the stage, with some beds across the stage with children in them (my chorus girls dressed as little girls). With the lights dimmed we’d play Christmas music and you could hear the sleigh bells come closer until down into one of the fireplaces would come old, fat Santa. I’ll never forget one night when he couldn’t get out until some of the boys helped him. Each of the girls got a big doll as a gift, and as they would dance, these dolls, dressed like the chorus girls, would dance along, too. They were the most beautiful dolls I have ever seen, and could only be rented from the theatre supply house in Chicago. I have never seen any like them since.

Christmas was just another day of hard work for everyone in the show; acts, hands and all. So, after the last show we’d have our own tree and gifts were exchanged. I made an effort to get each of the boys something that they’d keep as long as they lived, and all these years we’ve remembered, I’m sure, each other, and these wonderful good times. Each year would find every member of the band marching in the Old Newsboy parade, and I’m still a member of the Old Newsboys of Detroit. Each year I would see to it that the policeman of my precinct received a gift of a box of cigars, or candy for his family, remembering how they made it possible for me to race through the streets, to do charity shows, so others could have a nice Christmas.

They have roped off the first five rows of the theater and the entire balcony now, so that the kids won’t tear the picture screen apart and rip up the seats.”










Grand Rivera Rotunda 1970

Hill Opera House


From The Colon Express newspaper, August 11, 1981: “Hill Opera House is no longer in use, but on center stage are the memories of many performers.

Located on State Street on the second and third floor above Citizens State Bank, the opera house was a popular stopping place for companies traveling between Chicago and Detroit.

Local resident Charles Williams remembers 1912, when he was in his teens and he and friends peddled handbills to local stores. The handbills described actors and told the price.

In turn, they earned their admission. Side balcony seats cost 25 cents; front balcony, 50 cents; and the main floor, 75 cents and $1. The $1 fee guaranteed soft plush seats roped off with a brass railing. Ross Lewis was ticket taker.

“I always sat in the balcony.” Williams said with a chuckle. “I never could afford to sit in the section reserved for the rich people.”

Harry Blackstone Sr. often tried out his acts at the opera house before taking them on the road. Another company performing there included Kempton Comedy Kompany, which contained several local residents.

“I always had a passion for live acting,” Williams related, “I remember the play ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and “Trail of the Lonesome Pine.’

“One thing that always fascinated me was the curtain on the stage that had all the advertisements from local merchants.”

Williams said high school shows and minstrel shows also were performed.

He remembers Memorial Day in particular.

“The street was then a dirt road and the fourth and fifth graders were dressed in their best attire. We walked from the elementary school, which was then the old high school on State Street, to Lakeside Cemetery on Farrand Road (about four miles round trip).

“Upon returning to the village, we went to the Hill Opera House where we sat for 45 minutes listening to the Memorial Day address.

Williams said he remembers another day at the opera house. “My graduation in 1925 was held in the opera house,” he said. Williams was salutatorian and gave the speech.

Exercises were conducted there until the new high school was built and the ceremony was transferred to that location on Dallas Street.”


The Hill Opera House was destroyed by fire in 2006.

Pete Bouton by George Johnstone 1968

From the ‘TOPS” Magazine, June 1968. By George Johnstone: “Golly, it’s hard t realize that ole Pete is gone. He was the fun-type character that you thought would always be around.

Pete Bouton used to be my “grandpa” image when I was a kid on the Blackstone show. With his wonderful sense of humor he used to turn my problems into laughter as he showed me the solution. He had been with the show so many years and had run into so many varied situations that he just knew all the answers.

I can see him now, bustling around the stage with his funny little hop-and-skip walk. Pete was the union stage carpenter with the show and I had the depression-days awe of his wage scale of over $100 a week. He was a hard worker and being Blackstone’s brother was no excuse to pick the easy jobs or sluff off the rough assignments.

On opening day Pete was usually up by five so that he could get out to the freight yards to unload the crates and trunks from the baggage car onto the trucks for transportation to the theatre. After this backbreaking task was completed, usually about 10 a. m., then came the job of setting up the illusions, which ran practically right up to show time.

Pete’s first job before any illusion could be set up was to lay the rug. Few people remember or even know that our stage was completely covered with a sound-deadening rug that ran right up to the opening curtain (the traveler). When folded and rolled it made a bundle about five feet high and about three feet across and weighed close to 600 pounds. It had to be laid just right to compensate for the stage traps. While Harry worked in ‘one’ the heavy illusions could be rolled and set up without distracting noises.

The rug was old and Pete could always be found between shows, sitting on the floor in the semi-darkness while the motion picture was on, sewing his rug. “Mother” Bouton, we used to kid him.

Pete was also responsible for the largest and the smallest tricks on the show, the Floating Lady and the Dancing Hanky. The Dancing Hanky setup did not take too long and he also worked it, during the performance. The Levitation (or ‘levi,’ as we called it), took anywhere from three hours on to set up … depending on the condition and layout of the theatre.

Pete also worked the ‘levi’ during the performance, winding the winch to make the lady ‘float’ to Harry’s gestures. Maybe once or twice a season the cables in the flyloft would jump a pulley and the curtain would have to close in with the lady remaining “suspended in mid-air.” Pete was always a pretty frantic fellow when this happened. The ‘levi’ was Harry’s baby and Pete was always given a beautiful “chewing out”: when this happened, tho it was no fault of Pete’s.

Pete also caught hell occasionally when one of us fellows fouled up on the job. While Harry was bawling one of us out and Pete happened to walk by or was within earshot, Harry would say, “Dammit, Pete, why don’t you watch these fellows. If I can’t depend on them at least I should be able to depend on you.” Later, after Harry left, Pete would wink at us and say, “C’mon, you goof-offs, do you want me to get fired?”

Harry and Pete got along like any two brothers. There was mutual love and respect but there was the occasional flare-up, which always concerned an illusion or the show, never personal matters. These things died a natural death after a day or so, neither apologizing to the other or admitting one was right or wrong.

As a whole it was a smooth running, very efficient show, both troupe and illusion-wise. I had heard reports on some of the other big illusion shows, both from magic old-timers and the theatre stagehands … Some shows had crew dissention, fights, firings and tricks falling apart for lack of care, from opening day to the end of the season.

Last fall Pete took me out to Harry’s grave. As he stood there with his head lowered and a tear streaming down his cheek I wondered now many wonderful memories of the golden days of magic were flowing through his mind … the early days, the struggles for recognition, the salad \days of Bouton & Co., 10.000 Laughs as they present Straight and Crooked Magic. A 1913 review of this act reads: “With banty roosters, a duck, a rabbit and a cat moving about the stage, the act of Harry Bouton and his well selected company of one, closed the present bill at the Varieties, leaving the audience in a rather pleasant state of mind. Mr. Bouton is a magician and a comedian. His associate is somewhat of a magician, too, and he does funny falls and cuts other capers to add to his value as an entertainer. It isn’t exactly the mystifying nature of the stunts enacted by Mr. Bouton and his associate that makes the act a winner, but rather the manner of their doing.”

Later came the many changes of name, eventually ending up with The Great Blackstone & Co. the building of the show, the larger illusions, the increasing of the troupe. The hectic vaudeville struggles, always working in the shadows of Houdini and Thurston … The day Houdini sent a stagehand over to warn Blackstone that if he went through with a proposed publicity stunt involving an outdoor escape that a few boys would “come over and take care of him.” Harry threw the fellow out the stage door and Pete picked up a two-by-four and told the fellow to tell Houdini to bring his boys over and “we’ll be waiting for ‘em!” Needless to say, Houdini never showed up and the gutsy Blackstone went through with his publicity stunt.

Thurston also warned Blackstone of legal action if he continued to us a “rabbit tray” similar to the one used by him … I guess you’re bound to trod on a few toes, create a few apprehensive hostilities as you battle towards the top rung.

Pete used to spend his summers in a small cottage near the ‘barn.’ This was the old storage place for retired and unused illusions. The lower floor was the workshop that used to hum with activity the last two weeks before the show went back on the road. Crates and trunks were fixed and repainted. The illusions were refurbished, new ones built and painted. Pete worked from dawn to dusk and then some. His wife Millie, the wardrobe mistress on the show, would send the costumes to the cleaners, then sew spangles, repair wear and tears, all in time for the opening.

The whole area was a beehive of activities. Pete took pride in his work, as if it was his show … and I guess it was, in a way. If I did a partic8ularly good job of painting or decorating an illusion, he never got through complimenting me … Even in the middle of the season, as we were rolling an illusion out on the stage he would look at my handiwork and remark, “Damn, you did a good job on this thing … you must have been drunk!”
Talking about drinking, Pete was a great party-goer. Over the years he made many friends around the country and they always waited for him and Millie to come back in town. Harry was a very moderate drinker and Pete used to say, “I have to drink to make up for Harry’s end.” Outside of an occasional Beer Box illusion, Pete never drank during the working day, but at night, if there was a party, he swung pretty good. He was a happy drinker, fun to be around; the more he drank the funnier he got … the next day we had to put up with his moping around and “never agains.” That is, until a couple of weeks later we’d hit a town and some old friends would show up at the theatre … I used to love to sit with Pete and Millie and let him ramble and reminisce over a glass of beer. Millie would be the incident reminder and Pete would be the elaborator. I wish I had taken notes … we’d have a couple of volumes of magical nostalgia.”



Percy Abbott

Percy Abbott lived an illusion most of his life. It wasn’t discovered until after his death. In 1960.

From a page clipped out of an Australian Magazine; no date or identification:

“Marjorie Abbott and her mother, Rose, strolled along the busy Oxford St., Sydney, sidewalk.

Passing by a newsagent, Rose glanced at a poster advertising the Pocket Book Weekly’s stories.

Australian starts wackiest town in America” It proclaimed.

‘That’d be your father,’ Rose remarked calmly.

‘You’re joking!’ Marjorie, 20, laughed. Her dad, magician Percy Abbott, had left Rose and moved to America when Marjorie was seven and her sister, Vida, eight.

Marjorie bought the book and opened it. ‘It is Dad!’ she gasped.

The story said Percy, 50, had turned the township of Colon in Michigan into an illusion trade fair, where magicians could buy and sell tricks ranging from a magic wand to a box that could make an elephant disappear.

It was the first time Marjorie had heard any news of Percy since he’d left 12 years earlier. The girls hadn’t missed him at all. Their doting mother had more than made up for his absence.

But, as she read in the article, the few memories she had of Percy flowed clearly into her mind. He was an eccentric magician and loved performing. He was always dreaming up a new illusion…

Marjorie, four, crouched inside the box with Vida, five. It was covered in thick chains.

Percy carefully wheeled the box onto the stage and opened it to show the crowd that it was empty.

‘When I clap three times, two girls will magically appear in the box,” Percy announced.

Vida and Marjorie were hidden in the box’s special compartment.

Then Percy turned back to face the audience and clapped once.

Using the secret door, Marjorie and Vida stuck their heads out of the box and appeared to the crowd.

The crowd cheered, but Percy swiveled round. “Wait until I clap three times,’ he reminded the girls.

This was the first time her father had used Marjorie in his magic act. He was touring from Sydney to Cairns, Qld, in a horse-drawn caravan. In every small town Percy found a hall to perform in. People flocked to see him.

After the show had finished, Percy said to Rose. ‘I won’t use them again. They’re too young.’

A few month later Percy winked at Marjorie. ‘The audience is quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you three pence if you’ll go out there and sing Twenty-one Today.’

‘OK,’ Marjorie said, her eyes lighting up. Percy ushered her out onto the stage.

The crowd clapped as Marjorie shyly stepped forward and sang: “I’m 21 today …’

As she sang, the crowd threw coins onto the stage.

Elated, Marjorie picked up fistfuls of coins. Then she ran offstage with the delighted crowd’s cheers in her ears.

‘We’ll never see a cent of the money he’s making,’ Marjorie heard Rose say as they stood in the street. Her memories vanished and she turned to her mother. The Great Depression was at its height and Marjorie and Rose lived on Marjorie’s modest wage as a seamstress.

They walked home to their Paddington terrace. Marjorie tossed the book down and forgot all about it.

Marjorie’s boyfriend, Peter Rice, proposed three years later. At the small wedding her mum gave her away.

Over the next 10 years Marjorie had two daughters, Marilyn and Susan. With the years, Percy’s fame grew and Marjorie saw countless newsreels that featured Percy performing levitations and putting swords through women in boxes.

‘That’s your other grandpa there,’ Marjorie pointed to Marilyn and Susan. ‘He’s a famous magician.’ The girls would chuckle at his tricks and antics.

One morning, when the girls were teenagers, Marjorie read in the newspaper: Percy Abbott, 77, renowned magician, has died from natural causes in Colon, Michigan. The obituary gave the name of Percy’s solicitor.

‘Maybe he left something for Mum,’ Marjorie suggested to Vida that day. Neither woman felt any grief for the eccentric father they hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.

‘Let’s find out,’ Vida agreed.

Marjorie wrote that week. The solicitor replied, saying Percy had left no provisions in his will for them … or for his four kids by his second wife, Gladys!

Marjorie and Vida stared at each other in amazement. ‘He’s got another family!’ they said almost in unison.

Neither had any idea Percy had remarried, but both were excited to learn they had half-siblings.

Soon after, Marjorie received a letter from Gladys: Percy told me he had no obligations in Australia. So I was surprised to hear about you and Vida. You have four half-sisters and half-brothers: Marilyn, Linda, Sydney and Jules.

Thrilled to have heard from Percy’s second wife, Marjorie wrote back without delay.

Soon the pair was exchanging long letters about Percy’s life in America and Australia. Marjorie learnt Percy’s other children had also participated in his illusions.

‘I corresponded with Gladys for many, many years,’ Marjorie, now 85, says from her Tuggerwong, NSW, home.

‘Gladys even visited us in Australia and, after she died, I began writing to my half-sisters.

‘Our father was a born magician – definitely the wackiest Australian in America!’

Monk Watson

Donald (Monk) Watson was born in Jackson Michigan in 1894. When his mother became terminally ill, he was sent to live with his grandmother here in Colon. It was through magic that he got into show business as a boy. “My first show was almost my last,” Monk once said. “The druggist who sold me the ingredients for the “wine to water” trick forgot to tell me not to drink the stuff. I darn near died!”

Donald Watson (March 23, 1894 – March, 1981), was a vaudeville performer, acrobat, magician, radio personality, musician and emcee. Monk Watson fought on each of the five fronts in World War I. It was during his time as a soldier that he first met Elsie Janis while she was touring Europe. He joined her “Elsie Janis and Her Gang” for two years and then spent three years doing a farcical skit with a man named Benjamin Kubelsky (Jack Benny).

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. Another he helped along was Ginger Rogers.

After his band disbanded (in 1932) and he left the stage in 1940, Monk 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. Monk took up Magic again, and put it to work by selling. He played every high school and also every good-sized garage in the country with the Casite Corporation

Monk returned to Colon and spent his last years in the small town where he grew up.

Blackstone and Colon

Harry Blackstone’s wife, Inez, drove her car south (by chance) from Kalamazoo through Leonidas and into Colon. At the western edge of the village she noticed an Island on Sturgeon Lake. Upon investigation, she found that the island was for sale, and she placed a down payment on the property. Harry found that the island was ideally suited for his purposes. In those days there were no summer shows (no air conditioning) so that was the time to prepare for a new season.

There was a frame house and a large barn where the stage equipment could be stored and many animals that were used in the show could be kept. The barn would also serve as a workshop. There were several cottages that could be used to house the crew. Blackstone purchased the island that summer and from then until 1949 Blackstone called Colon his home.

There was a railroad station in town. Blackstone utilized a Pullman car for the crew and one or two freight cars for his equipment. The town also had an opera house for rehearsals. Of course, it helped that Harry liked to fish and there was a river and lake in the front of the house.