Burlesque on Zobedie

When Buster was a boy, steeping in stage life, he enjoyed burlesquing other popular acts. As it seems much of The Three Keatons’ act was planned and timed out to the second, I imagine these moments alone on stage, obliging an encore, were the freest opportunities for him to spontaneously create and improvise.

Either way they sound damn impressive.

One of my favorites is, of course, his imitation of Houdini’s straight jacket act at the age of six. This one sticks with me because, not only did Buster describe it himself in his autobiography, but it’s one of the easiest to envision. Houdini is still famous. We know his straight jackets. There’s actual video you can watch on youtube. It’s easy to imagine the precocious little Buster wiggling out of his backwards coat on stage, thrashing and grimacing à la the handcuff king.

But that was just one of his many burlesques. Another I came across was performed years later (I’m guessing preteen-ish age?) and modeled after a performer named Fred Zobedie.

(The only photo I’ve been able to find of the elusive Zobedie. Shown here with some of his accoutrements )

Zobedie is a mysterious fellow. He may or may not have been an Olympic gymnast. He may or may not have hailed from Australia. …Basically, I could only find crumbs about the guy, but he called himself “the world’s greatest hand balancer,” and reportedly “seems to walk as well upon his hands as on his feet and even dances to music with his feet in the air.” (Myra’s scrapbook p.125)

Fred also did some pretty wild stuff for publicity.

It was the heyday of amazing public stunts (over Niagara Falls in a barrel anyone?) and I feel pretty sure that Buster would’ve showed up for as many daring spectacles as he had the chance to. He was at least at the right place and time for this one in Houston, TX.


It was during this same engagement that I believe Buster first performed his hand balancing burlesque.

(Myra Keaton’s scrapbook p. 127)

I wish there was more information about how he interpreted such a skilled and physically taxing act. It’s clear from his short The Scarecrow that he has some hand walking abilities:

(The Scarecrow 1920)

I imagine the burlesque went a bit like an extended version of this clip. Comically interrupted attempts, preparations, fakes, and mimed excuses. Maybe he ran into things or fell inopportunely as he does in The Scarecrow – soaking his head after a valiant attempt to keep his feet dry. But I do wonder if Buster managed to climb anything or balance on one hand. I wouldn’t put it past him.

As always if anyone has any information about Buster, burlesques or balancing please share!

A Note on the Photos:

Both hand balancing photos are not of Fred Zobedie, but of Professor Paulinetti, an originator of hand balancing in the early 1900s.

“The Flapping Robes of a Scarecrow”

(The Parisian, Paris, Tenn., April 1, 1921)

I thought this was a very fun memory of Buster’s vaudeville act with his father. What skill it would’ve taken to not hurt him! How shocking and hilarious when he was finally thrown clear! Very clever. I wish I could’ve seen it.

Joe was a member of the cast and was a big part of Buster’s scarecrow scenes. I wonder if there was a lot of reminiscing about this vaudeville gag on set.

Joe Roberts, Buster, and Joe Keaton in The Scarecrow (1920)

The inspiration for the outfit might possibly have come about in another way though. The papers claimed it was a true to life crow-scarer that served as Buster’s muse.

(The Bridgeport Times, December 21, 1920)

Besides the gloves, straw, and that magnificent hat, these flapping robes look pretty close to Buster’s baggy standard to me. What do you think?


I do not know who colorized the cover photo. I just came across it and though it was gorgeous. If you or someone you know (or know of) was the artist involved in bringing it to life, let me know and I’ll gladly give credit or take it down if they so wish.