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Buster Keaton
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9th Annual Buster Keaton Celebration

October 3 and 4, 2002
Muskegon, MI



SCRUTINY: Stuntman-turned-director Cliff Cronan, left, looks in the eye of a sculpture of an elderly Buster Keaton, who died in 1966, at the ninth annual Damfinos Convention held Oct. 3 and 4 in Muskegon.

Neil Paananen/The Sentinel

Holland Sentinel, Posted to the Web on Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Busters busting out all over
Avid devotion to silent film comic draws
Buster Keaton fans together

Special to The Sentinel

Muskegon Convention Full of Buster Keaton, Buster Keaton

It was like the scene from Buster Keaton's 1921 movie, "The Playhouse." In it, Keaton plays every part, his unsmiling countenance adorning every actor, musician and audience member in the theater. Now, more than eight decades later, his great stone face was again everywhere in the room.

An elaborate needle-pointed Keaton, which took Milwaukee residents Graceann Maciolek and Erica Allewell more than 300 painstaking hours to piece together, stared forlornly from a hardwood frame. A banner the size of a bath towel, brought by David Pearson of Louisiana, depicted a Mt. Rushmore of Buster Keatons at four stages of his life, from the young vaudevillian charmer to the stately old gentleman. On screen, snippets of recovered television footage played and, as Keaton's face peeked out from a crowd or floated quickly across the screen, a tangible excitement filled the room.

It was the ninth annual Damfinos Convention in Muskegon, held Oct. 3 and 4.


ICONIC IMAGES: Buster Keaton looks in a three-faced mirror in this still shot from "The Playhouse."

Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on Oct. 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas to a family of vaudeville performers. The Keatons owned a home in Muskegon. In the days before air conditioning, many theaters closed during the summer; the Keaton family spent the summers of 1908 to 1916 at their Muskegon retreat -- sufficient time for Keaton to consider West Michigan his home.

Members of the Damfinos, the official Buster Keaton fan club, gather each year around the time of their idol's birthday to share their love for the deadpan, porkpie hat-wearing, comedic master they affectionately call "Buster."

Patricia Tobias of Los Angeles, president of the Damfinos, co-founded the organization in 1992 when she lived in New York. That year, she baked a cake to celebrate what would have been Keaton's 87th birthday. The cake was a disaster. She telephoned her friend Melody Bunting with the bad news.

"The cake didn't turn out," she said. "How about we start a club?"

With Tobias' sister Wendy, the three women named the organization after Keaton's ship in his 1921 movie, "The Boat." The word's pronunciation, which resembles "damned if I know," is a running gag throughout the movie.

 MARRIAGE Patricia Tobias, a founding member of the organization, with her husband, Emmy Award-winning writer and fellow Damfino Joe Adamson.

Neil Paananen/The Sentinel

Keaton also served as a matchmaker, of sorts, for Tobias. Her involvement with the club brought her in touch with Emmy Award-winning writer and fellow Damfino Joe Adamson. Three years ago, they married.

For Ron Pesch, a Muskegon historian, Keaton is a source of local pride. Keaton's vaudevillian father Joe helped establish the Bluffton actors community of Muskegon, a neighborhood where vaudeville actors congregated on the shore of Lake Muskegon.  

Investigating Keaton's connection to Muskegon brought Pesch in touch with Buster's third wife, Eleanor. She showed him some pictures of Keaton in Muskegon.

Then, Pesch recalls, "She hands them to me and says, 'Take those with you. It's obvious that you would enjoy having those.'"

Pesch's interest in preserving Muskegon history led to his involvement with local schools and community groups, culminating with the Michigan Historical Marker he helped erect in the Bluffton area.

At this year's convention, stuntman-turned-director Cliff Cronan screened his short film, "The Lucky Penny" to great accolades. Produced for a paltry $300, the silent, black and white, digitally recorded movie features Cronan doing stunts that pay distinct homage to Keaton.


NAMESAKE: The International Buster Keaton Society takes its name

 from a boat in one of Keaton’s silent short masterpieces

Originally a Jackie Chan aficionado, Cronan discovered that one of Chan's main inspirations as a stuntman was Keaton. Further study of Keaton led Cronan to realize how revolutionary Keaton's stunt work was at the time.

"The Lucky Penny" has earned rave critical reviews and revved up Cronan's career. "It all worked out pretty well. ... I went to a film fest in New Haven, we won that; we showed it in New York and won a festival there; and I just won another award in Boston. I've just been riding the train."

Keaton's movies inspire many of the Damfinos, but so does his life -- a roller coaster tale of struggles with alcoholism and a lack of rewarding film work.

"Even before I saw many of his films, I read about him," said David Macleod, announcer for the United Kingdom's Channel Four television and co-founder of the British Keaton. "I found somebody who had been at the top of his profession in the '20s and 10 years later was at the bottom.

"And sadly, most people who end up like that don't survive. The fact that he'd gone down and then pulled himself back again, I found fascinating. And shortly afterwards I saw the films, and the two things came together. That was it."

At this year's Muskegon convention, Macleod presented an in-depth look at one of Keaton's stunts. At the end of the 1921 film "Hard Luck," Keaton seems to jump from a tall diving board and miss the swimming pool completely, crashing through the cement.

Keaton has often been praised for never having to use studio trickery for his stunts. However, careful frame-by-frame analysis by Macleod revealed that the movie-makers, for once, probably used simple animation to fake the dive.

Much of the conference was spent studying minutiae of Keaton's career, in addition to an auction where Graceann Maciolek's needlepoint sold for $2,200.

On the night of Oct. 4, the Damfinos presented six short films at the Frauenthal Theatre with live organ accompaniment. This gave the audience a chance to see the films in the way they were intended to be seen. Showing some of Keaton's best work to the public was an appropriate conclusion to a weekend spent examining all aspects of his life.

"Why are we here to celebrate a comedian who died almost 40 years ago?" asked unofficial fan club chronologist Steve Friedman during the convention.

The question was difficult. The answer was simple to everyone there.