of the creative giants in the history of film has
ties to Michigan—something I was vaguely aware of
but had not investigated until this weekend when I
attended the 16th annual gathering of Damfinos in
The convention honors Joseph Frank Keaton, who
was born October 4, 1895 to vaudevillians Joe, a
comedic acrobat whose main aid was a table, and
Myra, one of the first female saxophone performers.
By the age of three Buster (so nicknamed by his
godfather Harry Houdini) had toddled on stage during
his parents’ act, and within months was the star of
the show. The Three Keatons traveled to perform most
of the year, but because theaters were too hot for
audiences in the summer, were idle during those
In 1908 Buster’s father, with two show
biz associates, purchased property in
Bluffton on the shores of Lake Michigan and
The partners sold parcels of land to some
200 fellow performers who built summer
cottages and retreated to the beach area for
relaxation and to work on their acts for the
The cottage the Keatons built was the
only home they’d known as a family, and
years later Buster wrote, “The best summers
of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had
built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.”
For about a decade Bluffton was known as
the Actors’ Colony for the number of stage
performers who summered there, but by 1918
motion pictures began to replace live
vaudeville shows; even Buster left the
family touring act for Hollywood. The
Actors’ Colony community dissolved, although
many of the homes remain.
You can take a self-guided walking tour of
Bluffton with a brochure produced by local
historian and Keaton expert Ron Pesch; check it
out at his
website on the Actors’ Colony.
Ron Pesch, in orange cap, leads a tour
on a walking tour of the Bluffton
neighborhood where Buster Keaton spent
summers of his youth.
Ron was instrumental in convincing the
Community Foundation for Muskegon County to
purchase the statue of Buster that originally
stood outside of the Hollywood Entertainment
Museum in Los Angeles.
The sculpture is now at home in front of the
Frauenthal Theater in downtown Muskegon.
Buster’s daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and
granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox were on hand
for the Damfinos convention and unveiling of the
plaque to accompany the statue.
|Wearing one of Buster's
trademark porkpie hats,
Melissa Talmadge Cox hugs her
|Damfinos pose with
the statue of Buster
that was relocated from Hollywood to
If you’re asking yourself, “What are Damfinos?” I
can tell you from my brief encounter this weekend
that they are a fun bunch of musicians, accountants,
students, performers, writers and others from across
the U.S. and other lands who share a passion for the
genius of Buster Keaton, in front of and behind the
Check out the website of the official
International Buster Keaton Society, aka
If you’re wondering how to pronounce Damfino,
imagine the answer to the question, “What will be
this week’s winning lottery numbers?”
Bridal run held in Muskegon
by Jon Mills
Mich. (WZZM) - A movie scene made famous by Muskegon
native Buster Keaton played out on the lakeshore Friday.
The bridal run is best known from Keaton's movie "Seven
More than two dozen ladies and a Keaton look-a-like
ran from the Tourism Depot to the Frauenthal Theater
Friday afternoon. The event was meant to draw attention
to the annual Buster Keaton Film Festival this weekend.
Patricia Eliot Tobias with the International Buster
Keaton Society says, "We are showing one that was just
re-discovered a few years ago called 'The Cook.' Then
one of his most popular shorts called 'Cops.' Then
'Seven Chances' that has the bridal scene in it."
The Keaton film "The Cook" was recently found in the
attic of a former hospital in Norway.
here to see photos
Recently, the International Buster Keaton Society
held its convention in Muskegon. As part of the
convention activities, the group re-enacted the chase
scene from Seven Chances – a movie in which Buster
Keaton’s character must be married to inherit millions
from his grandfather’s will.
Francine Sagan a fitness specialist at Tanglewood
Park, right, is in hot pursuit of Buster Keaton
look-alike as they run down W. Western Avenue in
downtown Muskegon Friday afternoon. A group of "brides"
were part of a re-creation of one of the most famous
scenes in all of Buster Keaton's films - - the bridal
run in "Seven Chances". The run was the kick off for the
16th annual Damfinos convention. Buster Keaton's biggest
fans are members of The International Buster Keaton
Society which are nicknamed the Damfinos.
Damfino convention will get off to a running start
Published: Tuesday, September 28, 2010
— They’re back.
As many as 50 devotees of everything Buster Keaton — from his
timeless films to his time growing up in Muskegon and as a
Hollywood star — will gather here this weekend for the 16th
annual Damfinos convention.
||And this year, they’ll be wearing bridal veils.
At 1:30 p.m. Friday, the Damfinos will attempt to
re-create one of the most famous scenes in all of
Keaton’s films — the bridal run in “Seven Chances” — to
officially kick off the convention at the Muskegon
Historic Union Depot, 610 W. Western.
Just like in “Seven Chances,” a stampede of brides will
be in hot pursuit of Keaton, or at least his look-alike.
Members of the public are invited to join in, says Ron
Pesch of Muskegon, a board member of the International
Buster Keaton Society and local historian.
Although Keaton is most often connected with Muskegon’s
Bluffton neighborhood, the Damfinos always convene at
the railroad station, Pesch says.
“That’s where Buster and his family arrived when they first came
to town,” Pesch said.
Buster Keaton’s is a familiar story to many in Muskegon. The
silent-film giant spent his summers as a child from 1908 to 1917
in the Bluffton neighborhood on Muskegon’s west end. His father,
Joe Keaton, built a cottage on Muskegon Lake in 1908 in what
group will re-enact the famous bridal run scene from
Keaton's film "Seven Chances."
known as The Actor’s Colony because so many vaudeville stars and
others in show business lived there.
“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had
built,” Keaton wrote in his autobiography.
Born Joseph Frank Keaton on Oct. 4, 1895, the boy was soon
nicknamed “Buster.” He reportedly made an unexpected appearance
when he was still in diapers, crawling onstage from the wings to
get to his dad. He formally joined their vaudeville act when he
was only 3 years old.
Keaton is considered one of the most talented comic actors and
directors of his time. He was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face,”
because of his trademark deadpan expression. Although he
appeared in “talkies” and even on television, Keaton was most
comfortable, and appreciated, in the silent film era. He died in
1966 at the age of 70.
Since 1994, some of his biggest fans — members of The
International Buster Keaton Society, nicknamed the Damfinos —
come to Muskegon from all over the country to celebrate his
life. The convention is held each year around his birthday.
Damfino was the name of a boat Keaton built in the film, “The
Boat,” and a play on the film’s punchline: “Damned if I know.”
IF YOU GO
• What: 16th Annual Damfinos
• Who: The International Buster Keaton
• When and where: Friday and Saturday
at sites around Muskegon
• Public showing: “Seven Chances” and
two other Keaton films (“The Cook” and “Cops”) will be
shown 8 p.m. Saturday at the Frauenthal Center for
Performing Arts, 425 W. Western. Tickets are $6 or $20
for a family up to five. Available at the Frauenthal Box
While in Muskegon, society members play baseball at Bluffton
School where Keaton played as a child. They take a historic
tour, led by Pesch, of the Bluffton area, visiting Keaton’s old
haunts. They watch his films and invite those with special
insight into the man and the movie star.
This year, special guests include Barbara Talmadge, Keaton’s
daughter-in-law, and Melissa Talmadge Cox, his granddaughter. It
is Barbara Talmadge’s first trip to the convention.
In addition, Bart Williams, one of Keaton’s former neighbors in
California, will present the program, “The Art of the Pratfall,”
and a concert of Buster Keaton’s songs. Organist Dennis Scott,
president of the Chicagoland Theatre Organ Society, will
accompany the films.
Besides “Seven Chances,” which was filmed in 1925, the society
will also show “Cops” (1922) and “The Cook” (1918). All three
films will be presented at a public showing at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Proceeds will be donated to the Frauenthal.
The public response to Keaton’s work — filmed in black and
white, and silent, of course — is nothing short of stunning,
“When’s the last time you saw an audience stand up and applaud
at a film?” he asks. “That’s what happens here. This is rare
stuff, and we have it in Muskegon. Normally, you’d have to go to
New York or Los Angeles to see these films.”
While in Muskegon, the Damfinos will dedicate a life-size bronze
statue of Keaton outside the Frauenthal Center for the
Performing Arts, Pesch says. Earlier this year, the Community
Foundation for Muskegon County purchased the statue for $22,000.
It was previously on display at the Hollywood Entertainment
Museum in California.
Pesch calls the statue and town “a perfect fit.”
“When you know he lived in Muskegon and how much he loved it,
you watch his films a little differently,” says Pesch, who
co-authored the local history book, “Buster Keaton and the
“You see the influence: the ships, the boats and trains, the
water, how he rolls down sand dunes like he did as a kid on
Pigeon Hill,” Pesch says. “It’s really quite wonderful to be
able to showcase all that here, in Muskegon.”
Susan Harrison Wolffis is a Chronicle correspondent.
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010
The truth is, we were this close in the mid-1970s to
knocking down the Michigan Theater, the gorgeous space
we now know as the Frauenthal Theater in downtown
Thirty-odd years ago, the wrecking ball was poised
and ready to swing in the name of urban renewal, aimed
directly at the big old theater standing on the corner
of Third Street and Western Avenue.
The plan was well-intentioned, even if in some
people’s minds, misguided. Others called it progress.
Down went the Occidental Hotel, the Regent Theater
(which some insist was even more beautiful than the
Michigan), the uniquely shaped Flatiron Building, little
shops like Newmode Hosiery and big department stores
like Grossman’s that once lined Western Avenue.
For awhile, it was like being in a demolition derby
downtown, everything smashed and destroyed, piles of
rubble left behind. The idea was out with the old, in
with a new and covered mall on what once was the
community’s main street: Western Avenue. To be fair, it
was considered cutting edge architecture at the time,
enough that it drew national attention in urban renewal
City officials from across the country came to see
what Muskegon was doing, how it was resurrecting and
reinventing its downtown, which had faded from glory as
people moved into the suburbs — away from the urban
In one plan, a parking lot was needed where the old
Michigan Theater, which had fallen on bad times in the
1960s and ’70s, stood. Built in 1930 at the height of
the Depression, the theater was a sorry sight. No one
disagreed that it had seen better days aesthetically or
that it had lost the bulk of its clientele to newer,
more modern movie theaters.
But there was a group of people in town, a coalition
of historic preservationists, civic-minded citizens and
emerging philanthropists, who put their collective feet
down, and said: No, not this one. Not the Michigan. This
As the reporter who covered the arts beat in those
days, I interviewed people who stood emotionally and
physically in front of the wrecking ball — grandmothers
who loved old buildings, guys who saved houses that
became Heritage Village downtown, men and women who had
too memories connected to the theater to see it go.
saved the Michigan Theater from certain destruction. It
was a heroic effort, but their work wasn’t done. The
Community Foundation for Muskegon County, an emerging
organization, used $475,000 of a $1.5 -million gift from
Muskegon industrialist Harold Frauenthal to buy not only
the theater, but the entire block from Third to Fourth
streets on Western Avenue.
Together, the foundation and those willing to defy
the wrecking ball saved a piece of Muskegon’s past.
In an unprecedented move, members of the town’s labor
unions volunteered their time and expertise to transform
what became the Hilt Building next to the theater into
classrooms, meeting spaces, an art gallery and small
Because of them, and more grants from the Community
Foundation, the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts
rose from what could have been rubble.
The theater would need saving again. In 1995, the
residents of Muskegon County voted to help fund a
$7.5-million renovation of the theater and bring it back
in all its historic glory.
This weekend, the Frauenthal is celebrating its 80th
anniversary, a testimony to what a community can do when
its people decide to preserve its past. The irony, of
course, is that in doing so — in saving a bit of history
— we secured our future.
Once again, downtown Muskegon is rising up,
reinvented and resurging. And its cornerstone? The place
that brings thousands of people through its doors every
That theater some people wanted destroyed, all in the
name of progress.
Susan Harrison Wolffis is a Chronicle columnist.
Joe and Myra Keaton, parents
of movie comedian Buster Keaton, ride on an elephant in
Muskegon, circa 1915.
It was a fairy tale come true, at least for a child of
“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage
Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.” Famed silent film
comedian Buster Keaton wrote those words in his
autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. For
the Keaton family, which then numbered five, Muskegon,
Michigan was a place to call home.
“It was his favorite place on earth,” noted Keaton’s
widow, Eleanor, years later. “He loved Muskegon.”
The Childhood of Buster Keaton
Born on the road in a little Kansas town in 1895, Joseph
Frank Keaton had known only one life. Before the age of
three, he was incorporated into the family act. By age five,
he had become a regular and would soon be the feature member
of “The Three Keatons.” It was a nomadic life filled with
matinee and evening stage performances, travel, backstage
banter, and hotel stays in big cities and small burgs
scattered across the countryside. For a child, the
upbringing was far from normal.
The Three Keatons – Joe, Myra
and young Buster, Circa 1905
A booking in Muskegon would alter that life. While
performing at the Lake Michigan Park Theater in July 1908,
his parents, Joe and Myra, visited property that was for
sale along the shore of Muskegon Lake. The Keaton’s
arraigned a purchase, and then returned to the road,
informing friends and acquaintances of the little slice of
paradise they had found in Muskegon, Michigan.
The Actors’ Colony
The move laid the groundwork for a thriving community of
actors that grew in Edgewater and the neighboring Bluffton
area. It was known as the Actors’ Colony and thrived during
the summer months, when performers relaxed as bookings on
the vaudeville circuit were down due to the heat.
With Pigeon Hill, a soaring sand dune, serving as a
backdrop, Joe had a cottage built for his family on a lot
that faced the water. For Buster, his sister Myra and his
younger brother Harry (nicknamed Jingles because of his
“noisy way with toys”), Muskegon provided a chance to be
The Keaton cottage in
Muskegon. The Keatons moved to Muskegon in 1908, and
this house was taken down in the 1950s.
Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely
in The Scarecrow, 1920
A “True Playground for Residents”
Populated with a cast of regulars and an ever-changing
collection of visitors, word is that the area served as home
to over two hundred performers at its peak years. It was a
true playground for residents.
Fishing, swimming and boating were, of course, favorite
pastimes. A short walk away was Lake Michigan Park,
featuring a theater, carnival amusements, dancing and fun
(For images, click
Lake Michigan Park images). Pascoe’s Place, located near
the turnaround for the streetcars that brought visitors to
the Park, sat nearby. Serving as the unofficial headquarters
for the Colony, the menu featured succulent pan-fried perch
and nickel beers. A baseball diamond situated behind the
property came alive with contests against local factory
Max and Adele Gruber lived just down the street. Their
novelty animal act, “Oddities of the Jungle” featured the
talents of an elephant, a trained zebra and a Great Dane.
Max’s elephant, it is said, was often dispatched to provide
taxi service for the reveler who enjoyed a little too much
of his drink of choice at Pascoes.
Living next to the Keaton’s was Big Joe Roberts, who
would later serve as the heavy in Keaton’s films. Ed Gray,
known as the “Tall Tale Teller,” was also a friend of the
family’s. Annoyed by regular visits to his property by
patrons of the nearby Park, he dispatched Buster’s talents
in building an outhouse with collapsible walls. With a yank
on a rope, Gray could quickly identity trespassers, to the
amusement of many.
Lex Neal, a peer, became fast friends with Buster, and
later served as a writer in Hollywood for both Buster and
silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd.
An older Buster Keaton at
Keaton Court, a street in Muskegon. Photo taken circa
Today, the delight of lakeside living is still enjoyed in
similar ways by residents of the area. The neighborhood’s
storied past is celebrated the first weekend of October each
year when the
International Buster Keaton Society descends on Muskegon
annual convention. A visit to the baseball diamond, a
trip through the neighborhood and discussions on Buster’s
years as a performer are capped with a public showing of
some of his classic comedies at the city’s restored movie
Frauenthal Theater. Featuring the sounds of a booming
Barton theater organ, the theater’s silver screen glistens
with Keaton’s antics, and is filled with fun and laughter –
a fitting tribute to a man who, according to film critic
Roger Ebert, is “arguably, the greatest actor-director in
the history of movies.”
Our Guest Blogger
Ron Pesch, an IT worker, has written for Michigan History
Magazine, MLive and other publications. He is an historian
for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, a board
member of the International Buster Keaton Society and a
die-hard high school sports fan. He graduated from Muskegon
High School and Western Michigan University.
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: July 22, 2010
Museums about Hollywood history must compete for visitors
with movie back lots and celebrity-home bus tours, and have
trouble gaining traction. A museum in Hollywood devoted to Max
Factor’s beautification of stars lasted about a decade in the
1980s and ’90s, and the actress
Debbie Reynolds has been trying for years to set up
Hollywood Motion Picture Museum in Tennessee after
plans for a Los Angeles site fell through.
Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which opened in 1996 on
Hollywood Boulevard and took on the Max Factor collection,
closed four years ago and is now auctioning off much of its
contents. The sales will help finance the museum’s current
focus: education programs in entertainment-industry skills for
at-risk youth. “The goal is,” said Phyllis Caskey, the museum’s
president, “what can we do, and can we save us?”
Super Auctions in Huntington Beach, Calif., has held a
half-dozen online and live sales for the museum so far and plans
more in the next few months. The lots available now range from
four photos of
Errol Flynn dressed as a physician, miner and, of
course, pirate ($75 to $150 for the set) to Max Factor’s “Beauty
Calibrator,” a 1932 filigree metal hood used to detect facial
flaws ($85,000 to $150,000).
Super Auctions has rented extra warehouse space near its
office to sort through the museum’s thousands of objects.
Melissa Storment, the company’s vice president, has been trying
to research each artifact; on the back of a 1928 production
still she found a sketch of Dopey signed “Dick F” that she has
tentatively attributed to the animated film director
Richard Fleischer. (Disney scholars said it did not
come from one of that studio’s staff members.)
She is also trying to market the material to other nonprofit
institutions. This spring a Michigan foundation paid $22,000 for
a life-size bronze statue of
Buster Keaton that stood beside the museum’s
Hollywood Boulevard entrance. The statue was re-erected a few
weeks ago outside a 1929
Moorish Revival theater in Muskegon, Mich.; Keaton
wears rumpled clothes and a porkpie hat while dwarfed by a movie