18th Annual Buster Keaton Celebration
|October 5 and 6, 2012|
Buster Keaton's 'favorite place on Earth' -- Muskegon -- hosts film festival
Rubin || The Detroit News
September 24, 2012
If the loggers around Muskegon hadn't been so fundamentally stupid a century ago, there would be no Buster Keaton convention there next month.
It's funny how history works sometimes — though not as funny as Keaton.
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton was born Oct. 4, 1895, and started in vaudeville at age 3 or 4, getting booted across the stage by his dad. (Apparently, you had to be there.) He went on to do truly hilarious things in silent movies, talkies and television, a rare series of transitions that still leaves him pretty much forgotten today.
Over time, he's gone from "ask your mother" to "ask your grandmother" to "I dunno, look him up on Google." But if you can track his movies down, or catch a few clips on YouTube, you'll find that they're still brilliant — and if you venture to the 18th annual Buster Keaton Film Festival and Convention Oct. 5-6, you can see his work on the big screen just the way Grandma did. Unless it was somebody older than grandma.
Keaton once wrote that "The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908." His widow, Eleanor, said Muskegon was "his favorite place on Earth." And that's where logging comes in.
By the 1880s, 47 sawmills bordered Muskegon Lake, and the city was known as the Lumber Queen of the World. By 1900, the industry had just about disappeared, because the damned fools cut down all the trees.
Therefore, says local historian Ron Pesch, when Keaton's dad passed through the city on tour, there were cleared lots available cheap between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake. Vaudevillians had summers off — theaters weren't air-conditioned back then — and Joe Keaton told all his friends to come on up.
Actors' Colony came, went
Joe Keaton wasn't the first performer to buy a lot, but he was the most insistent. By 1911, more than 200 entertainers lived at what became known as the Actors' Colony.
Residents included some of vaudeville's biggest names, and also an elephant and a zebra from Max Gruber's "Oddities of the Jungle" act. The humans would fish, boat, drink, practice, play pinochle and put on season-ending shows for the locals. The elephant would sometimes carry drunks home from the tavern.
Like zebras, alas, time does not stand still, and the entertainment industry changed. Buster Keaton moved to New York and then Hollywood, creating and directing increasingly inventive deadpan slapstick and becoming known as the Great Stone Face.
By the late 1930s, the colony was gone. By 1966, so was Keaton; lung cancer took him at age 70. But when a cadre of zealots formed the International Buster Keaton Society two decades ago, they decided on his favorite city as the place to gather.
Muskegon might not be the most convenient spot, but Pesch has met Keaton fans there from Germany and New Zealand.
Dinner and a movie
This year, the revelers will tour the colony site, play baseball on Keaton's childhood field, hear from Keaton experts, dress in their 1920s finest for Saturday dinner, and finally catch a silent movie and a short at the lovingly restored Frauenthal Theater, where Chicago-based organist Dennis Scott is so good he actually makes the MGM lion roar.
The movies are open to the public for a trifling $6. For information, visit www.silent-movies.com/Damfinos.If you can't wait two weeks for a Keaton fix, try Iola, Kan., on Friday and Saturday. The annual Buster Keaton Celebration there commemorates his birth, even though he was born seven miles away in Piqua, a town he visited exactly once thereafter.
Piqua has a Buster Keaton Museum in the front room of the water district building, but it takes a larger metropolis like Iola to host the actual celebration.
If you appreciate Keaton's genius, multiple festivals seem entirely appropriate. This was someone who appeared in vaudeville and in "Beach Blanket Bingo," claims two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and had Harry Houdini for a godfather.
People are resistant nowadays, Pesch concedes, to the notion of watching silent movies, especially after he tells them they're in black and white. But when he can lure them to the theater and the final credits roll, they'll stand and cheer.
October 4, 2012 - Muskegon Chronicle