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Buster Keaton
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14th Annual Buster Keaton Celebration

October 3 and 4, 2008
Muskegon, MI


In Michigan, Buster never loses his luster

October 2, 2008

The great debate over who was the best silent comedian -- Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? -- has raged for nearly a century. If the number of recent screenings at the Michigan, Redford and Detroit Film Theatre is any indication, then Keaton, known as "the great stone face" for his expressionless delivery, wins hands down.

There are two more ways to enjoy Keaton's works this weekend. Most convenient is the Redford Theatre's screening Saturday of 1928's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." with live organ accompaniment. Keaton's last great silent epic casts him as a college student spending the summer with his father, a salty dog riverboat captain, and fighting a hurricane.

This weekend also marks the annual convention of the Keaton-crazy Damfinos, held each year in Muskegon, on the west side of the state. Why there? Because Keaton's family, along with other vaudeville acts, made this a vacation home each summer.

The Damfinos, named after a silly boat seen in a couple of Keaton comedies (say it out loud to get the gag), are a close-knit group, but welcome newcomers. Expect lectures, panel discussions, screenings of rare TV and film appearances, and a pair of movies that organizers say even diehard fans have never seen.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Keatons in Muskegon. According to Patricia Eliot Tobias, president of the International Buster Keaton Society, the comedian considered Muskegon his hometown and even formed a baseball team. "The baseball field is still there," she says. "We play a brief, one-inning, no rules game on it as part of our convention every year."

Why does Tobias adore Keaton?  First of all, she says, he's hilarious.

"Finally, I just love the character he created for himself on-screen. The Buster of the movies very often has an indomitable spirit and a wonder about the world around him, almost as if he were an alien."

"Steamboat Bill, Jr." at 8 p.m. Saturday. Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser (at Grand River), Detroit. 313-537-2560 or $10.

The 14th Annual Damfinos Convention, Saturday and Sunday in downtown Muskegon. Registration at $80 for a single day; $125 for the whole weekend.

Convention draws Buster Keaton fans

By Ryan Copping
Grand Valley Lanthorn
October 3, 2008

The International Buster Keaton Society held its 13th annual convention at the Fruenthal Theatre Complex on Friday and Saturday.

The crowd of about 40 enthusiastic Keaton fans and scholars met to discuss the great silent film director and comedian, tour Keaton's native Bluffton area of Muskegon and view some of the director's great works.

Among particular interest was the Friday night screening of a newly discovered, early edit of Keaton's 1923 comedy "Our Hospitality."

It was the new screening drawing in the larger-than-average crowd, said Ron Pesch, local historian and convention attendee.

Convention participants, some of whom traveled from as far away as the United Kingdom, ranged in age from college students to senior citizens. Many sported their own, homemade porkpie hat in tribute to Keaton while audience members also entertained themselves with intentionally arcane quizzes and trivia.

In addition, the convention featured lectures and panel discussions with scholars George Weade, Imogen Smith and Annette Lloyd - the latter of which is the author of four books about Keaton's contemporary, Harold Lloyd, no relation.

One discussion at the convention focused on the differences between the two versions of "Our Hospitality," and why those differences came to be. Made in 1923, the film features a love story twisted into a bitter feud between two families. Patricia Eliot Tobias, president of the Muskegon Actor's Colony - the group who hosts the annual Buster Keaton Convention - lead this discussion.

"One of the great things about being the founder of this group with this amazing array of scholars and people who are so knowledgeable is that every year we have the opportunity to present original research," Tobias said.

Tobias said she believes "the Damfinos" had a positive effect on lessening "pretentious" research and analysis into his films that Keaton would not have appreciated. The group takes its unique name from a vessel featured in the 1921 short "The Boat" and has the double meaning of "Damn fine" and "Damned if I know."

Comedian Keaton -- a child star in Vaudeville near the turn of the 20th century -- reached great success in the '20s with a string of comedic masterpieces. His run of stardom began to fade when he signed a contract with MGM studios, which gradually removed his creative control of his films and altered his signature character.

Keaton spent most of the '30s and '40s as a minor player in features or a star in low budget shorts. He experienced a comeback in the '50s when his silent work began to be appreciated once more, and he worked steadily in film and television. Around the time of his death from lung cancer in 1966, he had begun to be lauded as one of the greatest of all filmmakers.

The convention ended with a screening of two of Keaton's 35mm silent classics, "Battling Butler" and "The Navigator," with live musical accompaniment from organist Dennis Scott. The screenings were open to the public and heavily attended.

Damfinos return to Buster Keaton's haunts
by Bill Iddings, Muskegon Chronicle
October 03, 2008

Led by local historian Ron Pesch, Friday afternoon's walk lasted less than two hours and spanned back more than 100 years.

Returning to the early 1900s over the course of a few Muskegon blocks, more than 30 members of the Damfinos -- the fan club of the late silent-film comedian Buster Keaton -- repeated a ritual: strolling the neighborhood known as Bluffton.

There, once stood The Actors' Colony, a show-business enclave co-founded by vaudeville entertainer Joe Keaton, Buster Keaton's father. Damfinos are wont to quote Keaton, from his biography, "My Wonderful World of Slapstick," that, "The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage (his father) had built on Lake Muskegon (make that Muskegon Lake) in 1908."

In the ghost of The Actors' Colony (1908-1938), everything old is new again.

Each year, Pesch said, "I keep discovering stuff, as we're walking through the colony."  

The Actors' Colony, of which Buster Keaton was a member, gather at their clubhouse, known as the Theatrical Colony Yacht Club, in the Bluffton neighborhood in the early 1900s. 

What: Buster Keaton Film Festival.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Frauenthal Theater, 425 W. Western, in downtown Muskegon.

Admission: $6 at the door.

More: Silent films to be screened are "Battling Butler" (1926) and "The Navigator" (1924). Chicago theater organist Dennis Scott will accompany the movies on the Frauenthal's pipe organ.

Online: and

Think of it as neighborly: During the 14 consecutive Octobers that the Damfinos have conducted their fall convention in Muskegon, current Bluffton residents have not only come out of their homes to greet them during the walking tour, but also to share memories of a famous past.

"It's a blast to walk through there," said Pesch, "because they know that in October some of those Keaton folks will be walking through there. And they're kind of hanging out, maybe getting ready to go to the football game or something. And as we're walking through the neighborhood, they'll throw out a story every now and then."

Such stories: tales of living near The Actors' Colony ice house, the walls of which were 12 inches thick and filled with sawdust; pointing out a vacant lot and remembering the general store that used to stand there; cross-referencing a now nonexistent address on Wilcox Street, to discover a dwelling that once served as a flop house for sawmill workers, and perhaps the early carnation of the comic who became famous as The Great Stoneface.

Buster Keaton might have sought refuge in that house -- which is in the 3300 block of Wilcox -- when the turmoil of his home life became too much to stand.

Before he became a movie star peer of two other silent comedy giants, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton - who later became famous for wearing an iconic porkpie hat and blank expression - was the youngest member of a family vaudeville act.

The act disintegrated as Keaton's father, Joe, a co-founder of The Actors' Colony, increasingly spun out of control with his liquor consumption.

"When Buster left Muskegon for New York, he was about 22 years old," Pesch said. "And we all know that part of the reason that he left the act was Joe, at that point, was becoming kind of a violent drunk on stage."

Joe Keaton not only bought a Muskegon summer home for his family, but also a several other nearby properties. Did Buster seek shelter in one of them? Don't know for certain, said Pesch, but maybe.

Though the Damfinos were on foot Friday, their passion for Keaton is hardly pedestrian. Since 1994, members of the society on the first weekend of October have congregated in Muskegon. Their gathering reunites them in their shared passion for Keaton, a genius whose happiest days were the youthful summers, beginning in the early 1900s, he spent near and on Muskegon Lake.

Lisa Tatge, a software engineer for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has been coming here for the Damfinos convention since 2001. Since then she has missed only last year, when she was working on the launch of the Dawn mission's exploration of the asteroid belt.

Tatge said she first got hooked on silent films in 2000, when two broken eardrums made hearing difficult for her. Her first silent film was 1928's "The Wind" starring Lillian Gish.

"At that time, I didn't understand how you could have such a beautiful film that said so much without saying anything," Tatge said of "The Wind." "It just absolutely captivated me."

Keatonmania was not far behind, starting with Tatge seeing Keaton's film "Sherlock Jr." on television.

"I could not believe some of the stunts that were done in the film," she said, "some of the effects that were done or, as it turns out, not done in the film ... They were doing vaudeville tricks.

"So you got kind of intrigue by this whole process of how they made the films. And It was such a great story. I think I called my mom shortly afterwards and I said, 'You know what? I like this Buster Keaton guy.'"

In Muskegon, Pesch helps put things in perspective.

"Ron's got such great info about all of the history in the area," Tatge said. "Most people who are into silent films are into the history as well, and (history) was one of the subjects I liked when I was in school."

Before this year's walk began at 4 p.m., some of the Damfinos participated in a short softball game on the sand dune-backed diamond adjacent to Bluffton Elementary School, 1875 Waterworks, the same field on which the Keatons and their cronies once played.

The game was a block from where Waterworks butts into Lakeshore Drive just past Keaton Court, the location of a state of Michigan historical marker commemorating Keaton and The Actors' Colony.

Friday's walking tour was restricted to people registered for the 2008 convention, but Pesch occasionally leads public tours of The Actors' Colony. He did so Labor Day weekend, and also a week ago.

Not that folks need Pesch or anyone to personally show them where to go. Pesch has established an online Web site — — for The Actors' Colony. On it is a map of the walking tour, replete with designated points of interest.

Among them:

• The former location of Pascoe's Place, a tavern (razed in 1960) where colony denizens drank, ate lake perch and carried on.

• 1579 Edgewater, the site of "Jingles Jungle," the Keaton cottage that was removed in the 1950s.

• 1831 Cherry, from where vaudevillians Max and Adele Gruber, who had an animal novelty act on the vaudeville circuit, were known to ride one of their elephants, Millie, along Bluffton's streets.

• 1705 Edgewater, where agent William "Mush" Rawls and his wife settled in 1900. When the TV show "This is Your Life" in 1957 honored Buster Keaton, Rawls appeared to reminisce about Keaton's time in Bluffton.

The International Buster Keaton Society was founded in 1992. Although most of this weekend's activities are confined to members registered for the convention, the Damfinos will go public tonight, for the Buster Keaton Film Festival. In the 1,725-sea auditorium, Lisa Tatge figures to be in the front row.

"I'll have my porkpie hat on," she said. "It's kind of hard to miss me."