Young Buster, With Swagger

Most of the photos I’ve seen of a pre-teen age, stage made-up Buster are, well, basically just variations of these. I believe they were taken around 1910:

They’re great photos, but Buster doesn’t seem particularly stage-y if that makes sense. From descriptions it sounds to me like his stage character at the time was less introspective, more reckless and pest-oriented, causing mayhem and flaunting puckish attitude and getting thrown about the stage for it. There’s this gem that does show some of the cheek I imagine:

But there seems to me to be more photos of Buster out of makeup than in it at this age.

So I was pretty happy to find this one hidden among the online dusty stacks of articles. I feel like it captures a bit of swagger that the others miss.

The Indianapolis News, Sept. 25, 1912

I hope to see a clearer version of it someday – so if anyone out there has a better copy – please share!

Buster the Scene Stealer

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.

This Kilgore cap gun was made around 1907 (five years after this story). The company came out with many styles of cap gun with names like The Mascot, The Hawkeye and The Avenger.
The Buster might’ve referred to something like bronco buster, or wild horse breaker.
I still think it’s pretty neat and wonder if Buster ever bought one.

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:

And then…

Say, mister, what’ll you take for Saginaw?
Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 3, 1925

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.

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.

Buster the Boy

“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.

The Three Keatons

One of my favorites describes Buster as a very young boy and with the attitude of a very young boy too.

(Plain Dealer June 8, 1922)

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!”

Lovely Lillie Langtry

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.

(The Pittsburgh Press, August 21, 1920)

Yet another little article describes Buster’s incredibly reckless curiosity. And his boy-like mesmeric love of machinery.

(The Courier-Journal, October 24, 1903.

This article shows a little boy Buster interacting with the adults around him. In a super endearing way.

(Waterbury Democrat, May 14, 1904)
Buster and four unknown (to me) gentlemen

And, one of my very favorites, Buster mixing with the boys. Do you think he delivers the monologue because he’s embarrassed?

(The Indianapolis Star, October 31, 1903)

Anybody out there have some favorite examples of Buster’s rowdy boyhood? I’d love to hear them.