The End Of The Palace Theatre
From “The Detroit Free Press” newspaper, November 14, 1965. By Daniel Waldron. “A RED-HAIRED RUBE dived headfirst from the hayloft, disappeared into an old-fashioned well, and came up spouting water like a sass hose. Chickens cackled and a dozen gap-toothed farmhands kalumped to the rescue.
It was Monk Watson, and it was a perfectly normal entrance for him onto the stage of Detroit’s Grand Riviera Theater in the heyday of vaudeville.
The chickens were real, but the barnyard was a painted set, the farmhands were really bandsmen in overalls, and Monk Watson was just acting his role as music man, master of ceremonies, and “Jazz Jester” to a rollicking generation. From 1927 to 1930 Monk Watson and the Keystone Serenaders were star attractions at the Rivera Theater: it was a record-breaking run.
Monk was recently back in town reminiscing about those days. “They booked me into Detroit for 50 shows,” he said. “I ended up playing 5,000. The Roaring Twenties were at their peek and boy, how we helped them roar!”
You can almost hear the roar still. Monk’s shows featured big name vaudeville acts (Jack Benny, Van & Schenk); a roster of ukulele players, comedians, and specialty acts; a snappy line of chorus girls (“I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”); and upbeat music full of banjos, saxophones and joyous rikki-tik.
The band performed on stage, never in the pit, and every show had a theme. One week it was “Hayloft Varieties” (with that diving entrance) and next week “Watson’s Inferno,” set in Hell with Watson sailing through the gaping jaws of Satan and out over the audience by means of an invisible wire. The next week it would be “Circus,” with the band dressed as clowns and a part of the audience seated on bleachers onstage. In “Toyland,” the girls were dressed as dancing dolls. “Harem-Scarem” was a zany version of the Arabian Nights.
Skits were intermingled with the music and acts. “Hayloft Varieties” featured one that capitalized on the growing interest in the sensational new medium, radio. Watson, of course, played it anything but straight. The broadcast took place from the roof of a chicken coop. The announcer ended up eating the microphone, which happened to be a doughnut on the end of a fork.
With Watson in that skit was Pat Barrett, who later became “Uncle Ezra” of WLS Barn Dance fame. Another promising performer booked by Watson (who was responsible for staging the shows and obtaining the talent) was a youthful unknown named Bob Hope. Another was Ginger Rogers.
But it was mostly Watson and his chuckling, mischievous grin, his twinkling eyes and his dancing feet (he could do trick steps with ease) that captivated and packed them in for four straight years.
Robert Casemore, then of Detroit and now of Lathrup Village, recalls, “I didn’t feel my life was complete unless I’d seen the latest Monk Watson production. And I saw quite a few because the bill changed every week.”
Allan Wilson, another frequent member of the audience, remembers the Watson timing and his topical humor. “He had the unique faculty of appealing to men and women, youngsters and grown-ups alike. The young set, especially, idolized him. He was an institution.
Monk’s offstage antics had something to do with it too. He had a chauffeur-driven Packard that was fire engine red – a daring thing in those days – and a police escort to clear the way from the theater to the radio station WJR where he also performed. His hi-jinks at the Tuller Hotel, where he lived, were legend. One night the “Serenaders,” bent on a little Prohibition fun, gathered in his suite. When he arrived he found the room filled with potted palms from the hotel lobby — and the “Serenaders” well on the way to joining them. Before he had recovered his privacy a tree had plummeted to the street and the commotion had grown deafening. “The ironic thing,” he observed, “was that I don’t even drink!”
When did the Monk era end? In the upheaval of the Depression years when show business was knocked for a loop. The days of the big theater bands were over and he moved on.
Monk Watson left Detroit but he never left the stage. Today he does an act featuring comedy, music and magic. It was through magic that he got into show business as a boy. “My first show was almost my last,” he 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!”
He now lives, with his wife, Mary, in Colon, Mich., the “Magic Capital of the World” because Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest builder of magic apparatus, is located there. For many years it also was the home of the famous magician, Blackstone, whom Watson knows well.
Watson performs for theater and private shows, conventions, sales gatherings, clubs and sponsored programs. He still is an active AGVA member. He still commands a respectable fee. And he still can bring an audience to its feet in a storm of applause at the end of a show. Though his hair is pure white and he is close to 70, his laugh is still as infectious and his manner as genial as ever.
Like every showman, he loves to talk about the past: Such as the year he played three separate engagements at that pinnacle of vaudeville success, New York’s Palace Theater. Or like the days of trouping with
Elsie Janis, the Broadway star who took entertainment to the trenches during World War I, and earned the nickname of “Sweetheart of the A.E.F.”
It was in World War I, and under fire, that Donald Watson became Monk Watson. When one of his buddies saw him dive for a shell hole wearing a red wig with the same acrobatic flip he later perfected on stage, he hollered: “Look at that monk!” and so Monk he’s been ever since.
During World War II the same kind of monkeyshines helped make life a little pleasanter at five Air Corps bases in Texas where Monk was morale director. “Today,” he will tell you, “it never ceases to amaze me that no matter where I play there’s usually someone in the show who remembers me from my Army, Air Corps, or Rivers days.”(He calls it “Rivers,” omitting the second “i” as do so many native Detroiters.)
But even though he loves to talk of the past, he lives entirely in the present. “My next show …” is always on his lips.
A recent engagement brought him to Detroit, and before the performance he drove out to Grand River and Joy Road to look at his old stamping grounds.
He eyed the “Open All Nite” signs, studied the gaudy marquee, and quietly drove back downtown to the hotel where he was entertaining a reunion of the 32nd Division. Many of the older veterans in the audience had seen him perform in the front line in France during World War I.
As the welcoming applause died down he went into his routine. A pantomime sketch with music, where a fright-wigged symphony conductor guides an invisible orchestra through a concert in – of all places – a railroad yard! In the middle of the music a train is heard approaching: the maestro frantically changed into a switchman’s red-necked railroader’s gear, calmly taps his baton, resumes the music where he left off, and leads to the feverish finish of what must surely be one of the most oddball concerts in symphonic history.
There were no “Keystone Serenaders,” no shining spotlights, no vaudeville troupers waiting in the wings. But Monk Watson still was going strong, smiting the air with his baton, grinning and mugging and putting it across just as he used to do at the Riviera. Five thousand times.