Silents are Golden: Fresh From The Vaudeville Stage: Buster Keaton Joins The Movies

Buster Keaton Joins The Movies

Even compared to his fellow stars, Buster Keaton’s early life was uniquely colorful. Born to medicine show performers in 1895 and first appearing onstage when he was barely old enough to walk, he became the star of his family’s vaudeville act when he was a child, made a savvy move to films by his early twenties, and directed and starred in some of the finest comedies of the 1920s. The story of why he left the stage for motion pictures reminds us what a vast, busy, and colorful world of entertainment there was in the early 20th century, and how it proved to be an invaluable training ground.

An ad for The Three Keatons vaudeville act
An ad for The Three Keatons vaudeville act.

Keaton’s earliest days are a bit shrouded in myths and legends–some that were admittedly helped along by his irrepressible father Joe. Joe and Myra Keaton were both traveling performers and worked for medicine shows like the Umatilla Indian Medicine Company, just managing to earn a meager living. Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born on a night they happened to be stopping in little Piqua, Kansas for a week’s worth of shows. Various stories have circulated about the“Buster” nickname (one even said it was bestowed by Harry Houdini himself), but it likely came from an English comedian named George A. Pardey, who saw baby Buster fall down a flight of stairs and exclaimed, ”He’s a regular buster!”

Practically since the day he was born, Buster and his parents were on the move as the medicine shows traveled from town to town throughout the Midwest. Joe and Myra specialized in song, dance and comic routines, with rubber-limbed Joe also performing acrobatic tricks. Baby Buster was a ball of energy, and it wasn’t long before he was crawling around on the ramshackle wooden stages–often in the middle of his parents’ performances. By the late 1890s, Joe had figured out how to make Buster part of the Keatons’ act, usually by dressing him in costumes that were a diminutive version of his own. He quickly became a hit with audiences and Joe would claim he could do a whole act by himself at only three years old.

Buster as a toddler
Buster as a toddler.

With their precocious son in tow, the Keatons worked their way up into the thriving world of vaudeville. Vaudeville shows were the most popular form of family entertainment in America at the time and featured a seemingly endless variety of acts that changed every week in hundreds of busy theaters. Buster’s childhood was spent in a whirlwind of singing, dancing, recitations, stage magic, trained animals, clowns, contortionists, comedians–even guys who swallowed and regurgitated live goldfish.

A typical vaudeville house
A typical vaudeville house.

The Three Keatons, as they called themselves, were very popular, specializing in comedy with plenty of wild slapstick. Their act usually capitalized on the common trope of the mischievous boy “pulling one over” on his pa, with little Buster gleefully antagonizing Joe until he gets punted like a football. (Handles were sewn into the back of his jackets to make the tossing easier.) Buster not only had a natural knack for performing pratfalls, but he quickly learned that audiences laughed the most when he kept a straight face through all the mayhem–the famed “stoneface” he’s still known for today.

the Keatons

By the time Buster was in his teens, the Keatons had more of a general roughhouse act, with Buster and Joe squaring off against each other (usually while wielding brooms) while Myra tended to play the saxophone (a comically large instrument for the diminutive gal). By now there were also two younger siblings, Harry and Louise, who sometimes appeared in the act, although they were eventually put into boarding school during the busy theater seasons. Buster would remember fondly how perfectly they all timed their various gags and jokes, and how they knew exactly when the audience would laugh.

A wonderful photo of the Keatons circa 1916, with Buster’s inscriptions
A wonderful photo of the Keatons circa 1916, with Buster’s inscriptions.

This made it alarming when Joe’s temperament began to change. He started drinking heavily, which Myra would explain as “Some can take getting old, some can’t.” A feud with a theater owner led the Keatons to doing three-a-day shows at a less prestigious chain. Once Joe starting taking out his frustrations on Buster onstage, it was clear that the act wouldn’t be able to continue much longer.

Fortunately other changes were in the air, too. Motion pictures, which had frequently played as a part of vaudeville programs, were now wildly popular and movie houses were beginning to take the place of regular theaters. Charlie Chaplin was becoming the biggest star in the world, and everyone was familiar with Mack Sennett’s zany Keystone comedies. Buster himself was definitely a fan of the movies–he recalled seeing Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and Intolerance (1916) multiple times. Little did he know at the time that a new future was just over the horizon.

An early movie theater circa 1911
An early movie theater circa 1911.

By 1916 Buster officially broke up the act, a difficult move for a family as close as the Keatons. Now the sole breadwinner, he decided to find work on Broadway. He was signed for the extravagant revue The Passing Show of 1917, but as luck would have it, he also got an opportunity to tour Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique film studio. Some sources say Buster ran into vaudevillian Lou Anger on the street, others say it was manager Joe Schenck or even Arbuckle himself. Whatever the case, he showed up at the bustling studio at East Forty-Eighth Street and instantly took a liking to both the friendly Arbuckle and the filmmaking process itself.

paramount arbuckle comedies

As Buster recalled, it was the mystery of the camera itself that attracted him the most. Having taken in the wonder of moving images his whole life, he was dying to know just how the machine worked, from the turn of the crank right down to the editing process. Arbuckle not only took a camera apart for him, but allowed him to take it to his hotel for further tinkering.

Excited that he knew the secrets of that camera at last, Buster was equally excited about its possibilities–how desert scenes could be filmed in actual deserts, and seaside scenes at actual seashores. The limitations of the stage were gone, and the infinite possibilities of the motion picture camera were balanced by the stable nature of the film studio itself. “One feature of the films did appeal to me,” Buster remembered, “ and that was that it would mean staying in one place for awhile.”

Buster on the right on his first day of filming
Buster on the right on his first day of filming.

And thus on the morning of March 19, 1917, Buster Keaton returned to the Comique studio and filmed a lengthy comic sequence with Arbuckle involving a can of gooey molasses. Thanks to his decades of vaudeville experience, the sequence was flawless–and he was sold. He would quit The Passing Show, sign on with Arbuckle, act in over a dozen Comique shorts and finally make the leap to having his own studio. In a sense, filmmaking would be an extension of the comedic skills and timing he had perfected on the vaudeville stage, a training ground the likes of which many performers may never see again.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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