Buster Keaton Society:
Those Damfinos are at it again

MUSKEGON — Buster Keaton’s heading back to town, this time to befriend a cow.

The late, great silent-film comedian — who as a youth summered in Muskegon — indeed buddies up to a bovine named Brown Eyes in his 1925 feature “Go West.”

“Go West” will top a double bill, one opening with the 20-minute Keaton short “The Paleface,” as part of this year’s fall convention of the Damfinos: International Buster Keaton Society.

Written and directed by Keaton, the movies will screen Saturday at the downtown Frauenthal Theater.

As silent movies were during their heyday, the films will be accompanied by live organ music. Chicago organist Dennis Scott will play the Frauenthal’s storied theater organ.

Buster Keaton


What: Silent-film comedies and honorary baseball game presented by the Damfinos: International Buster Keaton Society

When: 8 p.m. Saturday (game is 2 p.m. Friday)

Where: Frauenthal Theater, 425 W. Western; Bluffton school baseball field, 1875 Waterworks

Tickets: $7 general admission, family tickets for $21; available at the Frauenthal Box Office, 231-727-8001, any StarTickets outlet, 800-585-3737, or at the door. (Game is free.)

The Keaton movies afford patrons an opportunity to experience his films the way theatergoers did when they were first released, said Ron Pesch, a Muskegon resident, local historian and Damfinos member.

‘This is the first chance for many people to see these films as they were meant to be seen: with an audience, interacting with, and of course, laughing at what is happening on the screen,” Pesch said. “For many, the musical accompaniment ... is the first time they've ever heard a theater organ in action.

"It's really a New York show, staged in Muskegon, Mich. This is an opportunity for the public to check out Keaton on the big screen, in a gorgeous restored old movie palace.”

The films also will remind people of what a fearless, acrobatic comedian Keaton was. He and others threw Keaton’s body around with abandon. Known as “The Great Stone Face” because of his deadpan facial expression, Keaton did all his own stunts. Some of them could have killed him if they’d gone wrong.

The Keaton society holds its annual fall convention in Muskegon because of the local ties that Keaton, his family and show-business friends formed when they vacationed in the Bluffton neighborhood here.

In 1908, Keaton’s father cofounded The Actors Colony, a show-business resort enclave which existed near Muskegon Lake for 30 years, drawing vaudevillians and other performers. A historic plaque recalling Keaton and the colony has been erected on Beach Street at Waterworks Road, near Lake Michigan.

go west.jpgKeaton, who died in 1966 at age 70, was part of a silent-comedy triumverate that included Charlie Chaplan and Harold Lloyd.

Keaton last visited Muskegon in 1949. He once wrote that the happiest times of his life were spent here. Commemorating his Muskegon days, a life-size bronze statue of Keaton with a movie camera stands outside of the Frauenthal Center on Western Avenue.

Although the Damfinos will be here throughout the weekend, the movie night traditionally is the only part of the convention event open to the general public.

An exception this year will be 2 p.m. Friday, when a baseball game will be played on the diamond adjacent to Bluffton Elementary School, 1875 Waterworks.

The game will pit the Keaton All-Stars, comprised of Damfinos members, against the local Habitat Homers, a team representing the Habitat for Humanity organization.

The Bluffton field is the same one on which Keaton, his family and their friends used to play when The Actors Colony was active.

Cindy Lear of the Damfinos said the Keaton society has received permission from Muskegon Public Schools to rename the ball field after Keaton.

During the next year, Lear said, a public naming contest will be held, and donations will be sought to replace the rusty backstop.

As for this year’s game, it will be baseball, not softball, or something that approximates baseball.

“We’ll do whatever we can do,” Lear said. “We have no professionals playing.”

Admission to the game is free. Attendance promises to be standing-room-only; the ball field does not have bleachers.

Bill Iddings is a Chronicle correspondent.

Buster Keaton fans gather in Muskegon Oct. 8

September 24, 2011

MUSKEGON — The International Buster Keaton Society will celebrate its 17th pilgrimage to Muskegon with a public showing of Keaton comedies at the Frauenthal Theater on Saturday, Oct. 8.  

The films are shown as part of the group’s annual convention.

This year’s evening of entertainment includes a presentation of Keaton classics “Go West” and “The Paleface.” Showtime is 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.) and admission is $7 per person. All proceeds from the evening support the Frauenthal Theater, 425 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon.

The son of vaudeville performers, Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kan., on Oct. 4, 1895, while his parents passed through the town as part of a traveling medicine show. In 1908, Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, moved his family to Muskegon for the summer months — vaudeville’s traditional off-season — and when Keaton and some vaudevillian friends formed an “actors’ colony.”

Constantly traveling as a performer in the family act, the city of Muskegon became “home” for young Buster and his brother and sister.  

“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908,” noted Keaton in his autobiography. 

Buster, of course, would later leave his mark on Hollywood as a comedian — with a career that would span silent era, the arrival of sound in the movies, and later the “golden age of television.”

“The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert in 2002. “Not only because of what he did, but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster.”

In 1997, a state of Michigan historical marker honoring Keaton and the Actors’ Colony was unveiled near Muskegon’s Pere Marquette park, the area of town that hosted the “actors’ colony.” In 2010, a life-size statue honoring Keaton was added to the landscape in downtown Muskegon.

In celebration of his life, the Keaton Society hosted its first convention in Muskegon in 1985. They’ve returned annually ever since to celebrate the work of their hero.

“The weekend is really two events,” said society board member and local historian Ron Pesch. “The first, of course, is the convention, which is attended by Keaton fans from around the globe. Over the years we’ve had visitors from the UK, Canada, Germany and New Zealand, and from coast-to-coast in the States. They run the gamut from casual fans recently introduced to the wonderful world of Keaton to experts on his career. We’ve had Buster’s family, friends, authors, co-stars and even one of his directors attend past conventions. You never know who will show up. This year, a nephew of Buster’s will be in town.”

The second event is the showing of films at the Frauenthal Theater. This is the first chance for many people to see these films as they were meant to be seen — with an audience interacting with, and of course, laughing at what is happening on the screen. For many, the musical accompaniment by Chicago’s Dennis Scott is the first time they’ve ever heard a theater organ in action.

“It’s really a New Your show staged in Muskegon, Mich.,” Pesch said. “This is an opportunity for the public to check out Keaton on the big screen — in a gorgeous, restored old movie palace. This is the setting where Buster brought joy to millions of fans.”

School field to be named after Buster Keaton

By Lynn Moore | lmoore8@mlive.com
August 21, 2011

The ball field at Muskegon's Bluffton Elementary will be named after Buster Keaton whose family summered in the area around the school located just steps from Lake Michigan.

The board of education agreed to a request from The International Buster Keaton Society to rename the ball field at the school, 1875 Waterworks. In return, the society intends to replace the rusted backstop at the field.

Plans are to hold a contest among Buster Keaton fans to design a new sign with the field name that will be posted on the backstop. The sign and improvements to the field will be unveiled at the society's October 2012 convention in Muskegon.

The silent-film and vaudeville star was part of a summer “Actor's Colony” that formed in the early 1900s in the Bluffton neighborhood.

Buster Keaton strolls past the baseball diamond in Bluffton
during his trip to Muskegon in 1949.

Bike Time 2011