Finally, on one harrowing
day when he was nearly three: Buster caught his right forefinger
in a clothes wringer, losing the first joint, gashed his head
near the eye with a brick that boomeranged after he threw it at
a peach tree and was sucked out of an upstairs window by a passing
cyclone that carried him floating through the air and conveniently
deposited him, unhurt, in the middle of a street a few blocks
After that, his parents decided
he'd be safer on stage.
Even his nickname was supposedly
given to him under dramatic and unusual circumstances. Sharing
the bill with the Keatons were the great escape artist Harry Houdini
and his wife, Buster's godparents. Houdini saw little Buster,
then only about six months old, slip and tumble down a flight
of stairs, arriving virtually unharmed, perhaps even amused, at
the bottom. "What a buster your kid took!" Houdini is
said to have cried out. With those simple words, Keaton became
the first person to use Buster as a name. Buster Brown, Buster
Crabbe and Buster Poindexter all came later, presumably owing
their names indirectly to Harry Houdini.
who heard these stories as part of the family history would
think little of creating films in which the impossible becomes
possible. Life and danger were inextricably linked.
By the end of his life, Keaton had advanced the art of
filmmaking through his superb writing and direction, had developed
technical camera innovations unsurpassed even today, and was universally
acclaimed as a genius.
What kind of man could achieve
what he did? Who was this Buster Keaton, this jack of all theatrical
trades, this genius in disguise?
Born Joseph Frank Keaton to
a pair of medicine show performers, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra
Cutler Keaton, on October 4, 1895, Buster seemed destined for
show business. He reputedly made his first appearance on stage
crawling on from the wings at the age of nine months (one improbable
clipping says it was the day after he was born), to the audience's
delight and his father's surprise. When less than three, immediately
following the clothes wringer-brick-cyclone episode, he was regularly
appearing with his folks in towns where the vigilance of the Gerry
Society, whose job it was to enforce the child labor laws, was
His innate comic gifts were
already evident in his first performances; he would stand behind
his father, dressed in an identical costume, and, unplanned and
unrehearsed, mouth the words of his father's monologue as a silent
and grotesque Greek chorus.
A newspaper article from September 25, 1902,
when Buster was six, proclaims:
When Buster came along to join the family,
he became by necessity a child of the theater. As a baby he
was placed at the side of the stage in the wings by the doting
mother, and oftentimes she would make a quick exit to pick up
the little one who had toppled over. As Buster grew old the
easiest way to care for him and not interrupt the act was to
take him on the stage with them, and so this was done. The women
in the audience took to the little chap, who seemed to so thoroughly
enjoy getting before the footlights.
Buster's version was:
"My old man was an eccentric
comic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my
feet, he had slapshoes on me and big baggy pants. And he'd just
start doing gags with me and especially kickin' me clean across
the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me.
By the time I got up to around seven or eight years old, we were
called 'The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage."
From Left : Joe, Buster, Harry (Jingles),
Louise & Myra Keaton
with their hotel and stage trunks
heading for the big time, c. 1910.
The stories about his childhood, the family
act and his stardom are legend and have been recounted in detail.
Only one needs to be retold here because it provides singular
insight into Keaton's character. After auditioning with his father
for the legendary showman Tony Pastor in New Yorkan
important chance for the Keatonsthe
act was hired, but minus Buster. The Gerry Society had struck.
Buster reportedly cried at being excluded from the show. He was
four years old.
His "official" professional
debut was on Wednesday, October 17, 1900, in the fourth place
on the bill, at Dockstader's Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.
Forty-one years later, when Keaton was considered a "has-been"by
Hollywood, a Wilmington newspaper recounted that impressive debut:
Quite the image of his father,
Buster, wearing a bald fright wig, chin whiskers, cutaway coat,
baggy pants and slapshoes, had hurried across the stage and
later, as the orchestra struck up 'The Anvil Chorus,' Papa Keaton
whacked the youngster with a broom. The child also tried to
imitate his father and mother and whenever he fell down, he
rose in all his juvenile dignity, brushed his clothes and apologized
very seriously, 'I'm so sorry I fell down.' It was about to
become one of the gags about town, heard even today among old-time
The article goes on to say
that William Dockstader, owner of the theater, "was so impressed
with the ability and popularity of the child that he offered an
extra $10 for his services if the parents would permit him to
appear in evening shows as well as in matinees."
'The boy has a future.'
That's what everyone said in those days, but they didn't know
that the future really meant stardom in the movies and legitimate
(George Shtofman, The Journal Every Evening, Wilmington,
Delaware, August 9, 1941)
Beginning with that auspicious
debut at the age of just barely five, Buster Keaton was a star,
a big star. He toured the United States with his father and mother,
performing their ever-changing act for 17 years, an act that generally
started with Joe Keaton explaining to the audience how one should
bring up a child while Buster behind him was wreaking havoc. The
act constantly varied, providing young Buster the opportunity
to sharpen his mind with improvisation and develop his gift for
Probably the biggest hit
of the entire show was scored by BUSTER KEATON, a juvenile comedian
of wonderful ability.
(Boston Herald, January 16, 1904)
The big laughing hit of the programme
was made by Joe, Myra and little "Buster" Keaton.
It is seldom that such hearty laughter is heard in a theatre
as that which greeted the efforts of "Buster," who
is an exceptionally clever lad. Every word and action set the
house in a roar, and his imitations of Dan Daly, James Russell,
and Sager Midgely brought him to much applause that it is a
wonder his little head is not turned completely around. "Buster"
does not give the impression of having been taught; his work
is so spontaneous and so accurate that it shows him to be above
the average performer of his age in intelligence and indicates
that he understands the value of pause and emphasis as well
or better than many a performer of mature years. Joe and Myra
Keaton also did excellent work.
(New York Dramatic Mirror, January 30, 1904)
Buster . . . is thrown about
the stage by a merciless father in a careless fashion and his
treatment and comedy are the things that bring the laughs."
(New York Telegraph, January 1909)
The dexterity or expertness
with which Joe Keaton handles 'Buster' is almost beyond belief
of studied 'business.' The boy accomplishes everything attempted
naturally, taking a dive into the backdrop that almost any comedy
acrobat of more mature years could watch with profit.
(Variety, March 12, 1910)
For young Buster, standing
in the wings watching all the other acts, it was a priceless opportunity
to absorb what American theater of the time had to offer. The
solemn, big-eyed child made lifelong friends, mostly adults, during
the 17 years he, Joe, Myra, and eventually little brother Harry
("Jingles") and sister Louise traveled the vaudeville
circuit and mingled with the best entertainers in the country.
On the road, Buster learned
not only to be his father's roughhouse partner, but to sing, dance,
play the piano and the ukulele, juggle, do magic and write gags
and parody. The performers he knew were also his teachers: Bill
"Bojangles" Robinson, then at the start of his career,
taught the little boy to dance, decades
before he taught another child, Shirley Temple, to dance
for the movies. The great Harry Houdini taught him card tricks.
Buster, like the rest of the world, was enthralled with Houdini's
act, often watching him from the wings or even from up above in
the flies to try to figure out Houdini's secrets.
In his films Buster Keaton
would often evoke these childhood theatrical memories, either
with references to the theater of his youth or by making use of
the varied skills he learned as a child.
would one day be praised for his brilliance, he attended
less than one day of public school, in Jersey City, New Jersey,
just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. His formal education
ended abruptly at lunch time, after his quick wit and vaudeville
gags proved too distracting to the other students and particularly
to their teacher. His mother, who herself had only a third-grade
education, taught him what she knew, eventually hiring tutors
and governesses to fill in the gapsat
least that's what the newspaper clippings claimed. But Keaton
wasn't learning from books, even with the tutors. He was learning
show business. Of course, many vaudevillians had little or no
formal schooling; Buster was not unique in this, even if he was
unique in his talent.
Until Buster came along, the
family act had not been terribly successful. In fact, during the
week of Buster's professional debut in Wilmington, the act was
repeatedly and mistakenly advertised as "Mr. and Mrs. Joe
Keating: The Peers of Break-neck Oddities." After Buster
formally toddled into show business and became a star, errors
of this kind would not happen again. As
soon as tiny Buster joined the act, the family fortunes improved.
Where The Two Keatons had struggled, The Three Keatons were a
hit. The serious little boy who liked getting tossed around on
stage received enough public attention that it was in his parents'
best interest to keep him out there in front of the audience.
But it was difficult to keep
him onstage. Joe and Myra were constantly asked to defend their
treatment of their son in what seemed to be a brutal stage act.
Buster remembered: "It was Sarah Bernhardt who said, 'How
can you do this to this poor boy?' when they were throwing me
around madly. Everybody said that." The Gerry Society was
vigilant on behalf of working children and so were local police.
A half-hearted though somewhat successful attempt was made to
pass Buster off as a midget in order to make the Gerries think
he was an adultand therefore
not in their jurisdiction.
At other times, his parents
were arrested because police were convinced Buster was being mistreated.
"We used to get arrested every other
weekthat is, the old man would
get arrested," Buster said. "Once they took me to the
mayor of New York City, into his private office, with the city
physicians . . . and they stripped me to examine me for broken
bones and bruises. Finding none, the mayor gave me permission
to work. The next time it happened, the following year, they sent
me to Albany, to the governor of the state."
From Left: Joe, Louise (mighty upset about something!),
Buster, Jingles and two unknown
vaudevillians outside a theater, c. 1912.
Another vaudevillian, Will "Mush"
Rawls, confirmed Buster's version, saying: " . . . and then
Buster would have to go down to the chief of police, pull off
his little shirt and pants and show them that he had no bruises
or broken legs."
Because of the roughhouse
nature of the act, some have insisted that Buster must have been
a victim of abuse throughout his childhood, not just during its
later yearsdespite his lack
of bruises and broken legs. But this seems unlikely under the
circumstances. With the Gerry Society and local officials vigilantly
watching their every move, the Keatons would certainly have been
forbidden to perform if any indication of child abuse had ever
Whenever interviewed, Buster
and his family and friends vehemently denied these rumors, always
insisting that his early childhood on stage and off was a happy
one. However, he did acknowledge that as he got older, his father's
drinking forced Buster to fend for himself.
Only two known on-stage accidents occurred.
With two (and sometimes three) performances a day six days a week
for more than 17 years, that's an astonishing track record. Most
children break a leg or chip a tooth in more sedate surroundings,
but Keaton's worst injuries in these years seem to have come from
having been in a train wreck, which left him with bruises and
cuts on his face and put him out of work for a week. The newspaper
articles expressed amazement that he was injured at all in the
accident, given his hardiness on stage.
Joe Keaton, far from mistreating
Busterat least in those dayswas
proud of his son's success. In 1907, he wrote to longtime friend,
Buster's godfather and vaudeville's biggest star, Harry Houdini:
"You can't talk too much on the ability of my little comedian
Buster and our comedy table work. There ain't another act like
it . . . he's a corker. The ushers quit work when he troupes."
The vaudeville colony in Muskegon :
Buster is up on the balustrade,
second from far right, c. 1910.
The family was soon wealthy enough to afford
a "Browniekar"a small,
but fully functioning, automobile for Busterand
a summer home in the pleasant community of Muskegon, Michigan,
for the entire family. The lakeside house,
dubbed "Jingles' Jungle" after Buster's little brother
Harry (Jingles), was in an actors' colony that Joe helped to found.
Those summers gave Buster an opportunity to have a more normal
existence for a few months out of the year and to make friends
with children his own age.
By 1917, when Buster was 21
and a recognized star, the Gerry Society's worries had come true.
His father had progressively become a dangerous and violent alcoholic.
His timing gone and his emotions volatile, Joe became dangerous
to the family off stage and to Buster on. Two years before, the
Detroit News had written this: "When Pa Keaton hurls Buster,
now weighing 130 pounds, there's no make-believe and Buster has
to look out for himself. Furthermore, he doesn't wear pads."
The Three Keatons: Joe, Myra & Buster, c. 1916.
The article, curious in light of Joe's increasing
on-stage violence, goes on to interview 19-year-old Buster:
"The funny thing about our act," declared
Buster after his final toss Tuesday, "is that dad gets the
worst of it, although I'm the one who apparently receives the
bruises . . . the secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall
with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing
right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed
if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act
don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment."
(Detroit News, December 4, 1914)
Eventually, when he and his mother had had
enough, he quit the act in January 1917, leaving his father temporarily
stranded in California. As a well-known star already, he was signed
immediately to appear on Broadway in Shubert's Passing Show of