Friday, September 7, 2007

With Their Odd Little Youngster, "Buster" - September 7, 2007

This post is part of The Slapstick Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Thom at Film of the Year.

I was excited when Thom announced the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon, and tried to think of something to write about. I have enjoyed silent comedy since I saw Fractured Flickers and the Robert Youngson compilations on television. Later, the Avenue Theatre in San Francisco showed silent movies every Friday night, accompanied live on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Now we have the DVD, which offers many chances to see movies that I had only read about.

I thought I would take advantage of the recent work of the Library of Congress, which has digitized a sampling of newspapers from 1900-1910 as a pilot for its Chronicling America project. I wanted to see where silent movie slapstick performers came from.

I started with my favorite, Buster Keaton.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born on 04-October-1895 in Piqua, Kansas. His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were show business veterans. They were performing that night in Piqua, so that is where he was born.

There are many interesting stories about his childhood, and some are true. One story says that Joseph Frank was nicknamed "Buster" by Harry Houdini, who travelled in the same shows as his parents. Houdini saw the infant fall down a flight of stairs and pop up unscathed at the bottom. "That was a buster your kid took!" said Houdini, or words to that effect. Other sources say that Houdini didn't travel with the Keatons until Buster was older. Too bad.

In any event, by the time Buster was three, the act had become "The Three Keatons". Myra played the saxophone while Joe threw Buster around the stage. Buster learned to take spectacular falls without getting hurt. The act was pure slapstick, except for the saxophone. Joe and Buster hit each other with brooms. Joe picked up Buster by a suitcase handle sewed to his coat and threw him high against the backdrop. Buster slid down and again and again popped up unhurt. This got great laughs, unless he smiled. This is where Buster learned to keep a straight face.

Here we see an advertisement from the San Francisco Call, 02-February-1908, when Buster was 12 and the Three Keatons were appearing at the Orpheum Theater. Squint carefully at the advertisement and notice that it bills "Joe, Myra and Buster, with Jingles Thrown in for Good Measure." Jingles was Buster's brother Harry. Sister Louise sometimes expanded the act to the Five Keatons.

Here is an article about the same engagement, from the same issue of the Call.


The Orpheum announces for the week beginning this afternoon a program of extraordinary novelty. Miss Alice Norton, who will head the bill, is a young German chemist who for seven years was a student under Professor Pictet, one of the most celebrated of Teuton scientists. She manufactures in the sight of her audiences rubies, sapphires and other gems, which, it is claimed, bear such striking resemblance to "the real" thing that only the most expert lapidaries can tell them from the genuine stones. She claims that there is no test which science has yet devised which is too severe for her manufactured jewels to stand. Miss Norton begins her performance by taking common clay and placing it in a crucible. She adds chromic acid and the clay is reduced to the consistency of thin mud. A powder is then sprinkled into the crucible and sparks of fire are emitted by the consequent intense heat set up by the chemical reaction. A light, so vivid that the eye cannot look at it, is given out. The clay, becomes a mass of quartz, which when broken up with a heavy hammer discloses the gems which are the products of Miss Norton's skill.

The Melani trio, which will make its first appearance this afternoon, will furnish, it is promised, 15 minutes of excellent music. The members of the trio are singers and instrumentalists. The three Keatons will present an eccentric comedy act highly spoken of. Harry Allister is a clever impersonator who is well recommended in the eastern press, and Mme. Czinka Panna will show what a cymbal virtuoso can do. Her performance is enlivened by a dog that dances and another one that plays the organ. This week will be the last of Hilda Spong and company, and John C. Rice and Sally Cohen will also concluded (sic - JT) their local engagement at the end of this week. They will appear in a new sketch, "The Kleptomaniac."

I was fascinated to see that a chemist was at the head of the bill. Thom kindly pointed out that John C Rice was the star of Edison's 1896 movie "The Kiss". Read about it in Thom's Film of the Year/1896.

The title of this article comes from another newspaper item, from the 26-March-1905 New York Sun. Buster was ten years old.


The chief attraction at Hyde & Behman's this week is the appearance of the English actress Jessie Millward, supported by Percy Herbert and an efficient cast in Hartley Manners's one act play, "A Queen's Messenger." Miss Millward plays a Russian female spy. The programme contains ten more special features, including the Three Keatons, with their odd little youngster, "Buster"; the Italian Trio of singers, Bailey and Madison, in fun and acrobatics; Lew Hawkins, the minstrel; Julia Kingsley and Nelson Lewis, in a farce, "Her Uncle's Niece"; Lillian Shaw, vocalist, and Rice and Elmer, triple bar performers.

Coming up next: Fred Karno, the man who employed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.


Anonymous said...

Oh, to have been there at the Orpheum in 1908. A headlining chemist, the Keatons, motion picture novelties, all for a dime. And, you know, I bet that Mme. Czinka Panna and her organ-playing dogs were worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Joe Thompson said...

Pierre: I agree with you. I don't think I have ever heard a cymbal virtuoso. Thanks for the comment.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

What a great piece on Buster. Interesting to note the origins of his deadpan expression. Great job on all the information you've found.

Joe Thompson said...

Jacqueline: Thanks for the kind words. I always have fun digging around in old newspapers. I have practiced the deadpan myself for many years and it really does make things funnier.

Joe Thompson ;0)