I came across a hilarious little article printed in 1925 recalling a few of Buster’s more unexpected contributions to the stage as a youngster. It seems that he would often decide a little something was missing in a few of the more dramatic acts, and then he would kindly oblige in filling the comedic void. With no warning.
Likely a climactic scene, the big moment for the villain of the piece- suddenly shot down by a little comedian, come out of nowhere, I’m sure cutting the dramatic tension to shreds. It became a comedy that night.
I can just imagine this prima donna – her whole life spent building up to moments like these before an audience. Perhaps having just delivered something moving and gorgeous like this:
And then little buster tramping on stage in a dress and mock solemnity, belting out his own performance. I’d guess the comedy came from his attire, his size and his “screaming out” vaguely Italian sounding gibberish with real heart. I can just imagine how hilarious that (hopefully) was for the prima donna.
The third came during a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo, an incredible and dramatic story. Edmond Dantes has endured betrayal and wrongful imprisonment for fourteen long years during which he thought of nothing but revenge. He has toiled and trained and studied, all the while nurturing his anger like a baby bird until finally, finally he manages to escape the horrible island prison, Chateau d’if.
He’s almost caught. He almost dies. He finally manages to swim the choppy ocean to his freedom. He proclaims his joy:
Luckily it seems that for the most part Buster was such a likable boy back stage that the performers didn’t mind these little additions to their work, and even on occasion gave him gifts of appreciation. I’ll bet they laughed – I sure would have. The audience certainly did and remembered it too, twenty or so years later.
I sometimes wonder what Buster would have been like with a different father. Would he have been more confrontational or less? Did Buster’s passiveness develop in the reflection of Joe’s active – even aggressive – influence? Or was creative passiveness just a part of his original personality.
Both Joe and Buster were very physical men, communicating much of themselves through action, but what different action! I have an idea it would be funny to list out all of the documented fights Joe Keaton was in (instigated). It would be a . . . very long list. And, I’m sure, still just a small sampling of his brawling lifestyle. It seems like a good quarter of what we know about Joe are the fights and feuds he got into.
And another, very understandable, reaction:
Buster mentions at least six fist/foot fights Joe participated in (instigated) and several of these describe not one skirmish, but a chunk of Joe’s fighting life: “My father got so many black eyes fighting with bigger boy bootblacks for the best street corners that he soon was nicknamed “Dick Deadeyes.” (My Wonderful World of Slapstick Pg. 16)
Most of the time Buster doesn’t seem to disapprove of his father’s fighting lifestyle. In fact, at times he seems proud: “[My father] was the most gifted man at taking a fall I ever saw in action. He was also one of the country’s best rough-and-tumble fighters.” (MWWoS Pg. 15). Many of the stories in Buster’s autobiography describe Joe brawling, not out of pure hotheadedness, but for good. (To protect Buster, to protect his children, to help out a persecuted stranger).
I was recently very kindly shown an article in which Joe describes his first day of school. I was impressed by how similarly the account read to Buster’s description of his own first day. And how differently.
Joe’s first (and only?) day of school:
“I was given a seat directly behind Jim Godsey, but I didn’t stay there long, because Jim called me a “Yap”, and I smashed him with my slate. I was moved to another part of the room and a “kid” by the name of Riley handed me the “Yap” thing and I matched one with him. My next move was to have an individual seat, all by myself, near to the teacher’s desk, where she could keep an eye on me, but little Bill Merrell placed a wet sponge under me and that split up the society. I decided to shine shoes.” (The Terre Haute Morning Star, May 30, 1904).
Buster’s first (and only) day of school:
“By nine-fifteen I was at a desk with other little boys my age and fascinated by everything I saw and heard. Unfortunately, I knew some jokes I’d heard in the Avon Comedy Four’s school act and decided to bring joy into the classroom by telling them. The teacher called the roll: “Smith?” “Here!” “Johnson?” “Here!” “Keaton?” “I couldn’t come today.”
That sent the class into an uproar and even won an appreciative smile from the teacher. Enchanted that going to school meant only putting on an extra show each day, I could hardly wait for the next opportunity to spin my fellow scholars out into the aisles. During our geography lesson our teacher asked: “What is an island?” Up shot my hand. When the teacher gave me the nod, I said, “An island, ma’am, is a wart on the ocean.” Though that brought only a wry smile from her, my classmates rocked the room with their guffaws and shrieks of delight. Next came grammar. One of the questions was: “Give me a question with the word delight in it?” Once again my hand was up first. My answer was: “The vind blew in the vindow and blew out de light.” The next thing I knew the teacher was marching me, by the scruff of my neck, down to the principal’s office. On hearing the evidence against me, he sent me home with this note: “Do not send this boy to our school any more.” (MWWoS pgs. 25-6)
There are many examples of these (to my mind) similar situations in their lives – baseball feuds, work related feuds, early adulthood opportunities, midlife crises – but they react in nearly opposite manner. Buster with perhaps inward steam but outward inertia. Joe already swinging.
Certainly I think Buster had a naturally more gentle personality than his father, but was there a Joe-like dash of impulsive aggression mixed in there too? The only personal physical fight that I can remember Buster describing in his autobiography (his defense of the vampy star in the low cut dress) is taken up reluctantly and never actually comes to blows. Buster also mentions he would’ve fought one of Natalie’s disguised detectives if given the chance, but it too never happened. “I would have pushed him overboard if he had ever set foot on the cruiser.” (MWWoS pg. 229-30) It seemed to me that Buster avoided a fight whenever he could. Until I came across this article:
To me, that sounds more like Joe than Buster. Of course, the article could’ve easily been spiced up or even entirely fabricated. Though I’m not sure what goal this sort of story would serve the newspaper, Roscoe or Buster besides general spectacle. But how interesting to think Buster might have had a hotheaded brawler side to his personality, either suppressed or dormant through most of the accounts of him we know.
Have I forgotten any hotheaded accounts of Buster? Anyone have opinions on the truth or falsehood of this Salt Lake Tribune article? I’d love to hear them!
“I was then about six. I just put on my own jacket backward, held the sleeves together, hiding my hands, then wriggled, writhed, and grimaced as the audience had seen him do a few minutes before.”
– Buster describing his burlesque of Houdini’s straight jacket act. (My Wonderful World of Slapstick, pg. 51)
I’m good friends with a six year old. He’s a very thoughtful, sweet and incredibly smart kid. Whenever I see him I’m constantly learning things about bugs, birds, trees, fish, excavators, trains, basket weaving techniques of indigenous cultures. . . you know, whatever’s on his mind. But I can’t imagine him devising a burlesque and then carrying it out before an audience. Not that my friend would even want to. He’s got more important things to do. Trees to climb, chickens to feed, bugs to discover and classify…
Granted, I don’t know any children of performers. And granted, Buster’s father might’ve instructed him before scooting him out on stage. And even more granted, I might be imagining something more nuanced than what actually happened. But still, I don’t feel like most adults (let alone children) possess the comic timing and showmanship that would be required to carry an audience through such an act. In imagining accounts like the Houdini burlesque it’s almost difficult for me to think of Buster as an actual six year old. More like. . . a pint-sized adult. A quarter-cup sized adult.
So when I come across an article that describes Buster, not as a genius miniature comedian, but as a curious, thoughtful, emotional little boy, it gets me right in the ribs.
One of my favorites describes Buster as a very young boy and with the attitude of a very young boy too.
Grace Kingsely described Buster as “always a rather shy, observant child. . . but so full of animal spirits that he frequently got into trouble. He was always rather uncommunicative when he didn’t know people well, but as he grew better acquainted was friendly, and if he admired anybody, they could have anything he had.” She goes on to tell of a small Buster falling in love with Lily Langtry, a fellow vaudevillian. “Buster never failed to bring his lady love some offering to her dressing room. One day it was a marble, another day it was an apple, another day a bottle of cheap perfume. And he made her sprinkle it on her handkerchief, too, though she admitted afterward that its odor fairly smothered her!”
In the same article Buster talks about his own childish rowdiness:
“I guess I was a regular Peck’s bad boy about that time,” said Buster the other day, as he was waiting for the director to call him on the set at his Hollywood studio. “I used to smash up so much stuff that folks began to say I was well named Buster. Vaudeville acts always have to pay for all the theatre’s property they break, so father and mother sometimes found their checks much depleted at the end of the week.” (Movie Weekly, 1922)
I recently came across this gem, which I hope very much is true, because I find it hilarious.
Yet another little article describes Buster’s incredibly reckless curiosity. And his boy-like mesmeric love of machinery.
This article shows a little boy Buster interacting with the adults around him. In a super endearing way.
And, one of my very favorites, Buster mixing with the boys. Do you think he delivers the monologue because he’s embarrassed?
Anybody out there have some favorite examples of Buster’s rowdy boyhood? I’d love to hear them.