Actors'
Colony
at Bluffton
1908 - 1938
_____________

Buster Keaton
and the
Muskegon Connection

The Keatons

Joseph Hallie Keaton
Born: July 6, 1867,
 Dogwatch, Indiana
Died: January 14, 1946,
Los Angeles, CA

Myra Edith Cutler Keaton
Born:
March 13, 1877, Modale, Iowa
Died:
July 21, 1955,
Los Angeles, CA

 

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton
Born:  October 4, 1895, Piqua, Kansas
Died:  February 1, 1966, Hollywood, CA

Harry Stanley "Jingles" Keaton
Born: August 24 1904, New York, NY
Died:
: May 20, 1983, San Diego, CA

Louise Dresser Keaton
Born: October 30, 1906, Lewiston, Maine
Died: February 17, 1981, Van Nuys, Los Angeles, CA

The Three Keatons

     A touring vaudeville act known for its physical exchange between Buster and his father.  Originally, billed as eccentric or grotesque comedians, the show featured Myra playing saxophone, piano, bass fiddle and cornet while Joe performed eccentric/grotesque comic dancing.  Buster joined his parents on stage a very young age, and rapidly became the feature performer in the act.
     Debuting on Wednesday, October 17, 1900 at Dockstader's Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, the young Keaton developed the "Great Stone Face" as he was physically tossed about the stage by his father as part of the act.

        The deadpan look, legend has it, produced greater laughs from the audience.   According to the International Buster Keaton Society website, from his childhood 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 skills would serve him well over a career that spanned the theater, silent film, the "talkies", and television.

An artist's view from the period of the Keaton act
     The Keaton discovered Muskegon while performing at Lake Michigan Park Theater in 1902 and 1905.  Interested in finding a place to settle down during vaudeville's off-season, Joe Keaton, the patriarch of the family, became enthralled with the area.
     Bluffton offered recreation, an exciting and carefree atmosphere and
a break from the constant touring associated with vaudeville. He liked the recreation offered by the lakes and the presence of other performers.
The Five Keatons
     Together they could relax, play and prepare for another season of life on the road.  For Myra, a passionate card player, the community offered an endless supply of pinochle partners.  
     With a financial interest in some of the properties in Bluffton and the adjoining Edgewater area, Joe Keaton hit the road to sing the praises of the slice of heaven that he had found.  The plan worked.  Newspaper reports note that during the peak of popularity, nearly 200 vaudevillians would summer in the area.
     In 1908, the family had a cottage built at the edge of a massive sand dune known as Pigeon Hill, overlooking Muskegon Lake in a section of the city known as Edgewater.  For young Buster and his siblings, Muskegon was indeed "home".
1902 ad for a performance at Muskegon's Lake Michigan Park TheaterAdvertisements from 1902 (above) and 1905 (below) highlighting appearances by the Three Keatons at Muskegon's Lake Michigan Park Theatre .

1905 performance at Muskegon's Lake Michigan Park Theater     The Keaton cottage was christened "Jingles Jungle" in honor of Buster's brother, Harry, who was nicknamed "Jingles" for his noisy way with toys. It truly was a playground for the Keaton kids. Buster, Harry and their sister, Louise, enjoyed these days of youth along the water.
     “The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.” wrote Keaton in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. The years in Muskegon provided a host of memories and, in later years, inspiration. 

    "Here Buster spent eight idyllic summers," wrote Tom Dardis in his biography, Keaton - The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down. "Like Earnest Hemingway, who also spent childhood summers on a lake in Michigan, Buster early became an extremely proficient duck hunter and skillful fisherman."

      The teenage vaudeville star's life-long love affair with baseball developed during his days in Muskegon. The summer months were also filled with exploration of Pigeon Hill, located directly behind the family cottage. Boats and swimming, of course, were a part of daily life at the Colony.
    
The family returned each summer. Surrounded by friends, Joe would send postcards from the road to tavern owner Bullhead Pascoe.  Buster, too, would write to friends back "home", including one to Eddie White, in late July 1909, sent during the family's ill-fated trip to England.

 

     London 1909
A postcard from young Buster to a friend from the Colony, Eddie White in Muskegon. "Dear Eddie, Coming back in a hurry.  Be there the 1st of August."
 
  "Buster tore into each summer day as if doubting tomorrow," wrote Rudy Blesh in his tale of the star's life, Keaton published in 1966.  "He tried every athletic sport and launched his lifetime avocation of gadget building.  His simplest Muskegon gadget was the Clown Pole; the most complex, the Ed Gray Awakener..."
     "Buster's first brainchild, the Clown Pole, was only an old-fashioned bamboo fishing pole stuck upright between two planks of the Bluffton pier, as if its owners had just stepped into Pasco's for a beer.  It had no reel, only a line that led
down to the water and a red cork bobber.  However, instead of ending in the usual way with hook and bait, the line ran back underwater, around a pulley under the pier and then up and through a window of The Cobwebs and Rafters."
      "The Clown Pole just stood there," wrote Blesh, "none of its chicanery visible.  No stranger could ever just walk by it. He would hesitate, stop, stare at the pole, while actors covertly watched him from the clubhouse. One would grasp the line inside, twitch it gently, stop, then twitch it again. The stranger would invariably seize
Joe and the family on Muskegon Lake.
   

Back row (L to R): "Fat" Thompson,
 Joe Keaton (note the Detroit Tiger jersey), Tom Carmody. Front row (L to R): Lex Neal, Buster Keaton.

 the pole, and prepare to land a fish.  The 'battle' would start.  A crowd would gather and begin offering advice and encouragement. The upshot, of course, was foredoomed: the actor in the club yanking the pole right out of the stranger's hand, the crowd beginning to laugh, and the victim standing flat-footed and gaping. But the pole was friendly not cruel - the victim was invited inside and pinned with a wooden medal.  True, he bought drinks for all."
     Baseball was a favorite pastime in the Colony, and Actors' Colony clubs would often square off against local factory squads.  Line-ups changed on a regular basis, but usually included Joe and Buster, Joe Roberts, Mush Rawls, Billy Clark, Lex Neal, who was two years older then Buster, and local friend Keith Krueger, who's father Earnest had
  been a star catcher on Muskegon area teams before the turn of the century.
The Keaton Nine
     In January 1917, Buster left the family act, and as fate would have it, his summers in Muskegon.  In a few short months, he would appear in his first film with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, The Butcher Boy.
     The family stayed in Muskegon while Buster's new career became established.  Jingles and Myra attended school, while Joe worked in a local munitions plant to aid the war effort.  Called to duty by the U.S. Army, Buster returned to Muskegon for a brief stay following his discharge in 1919.  Soon after, the family left Michigan for California. 
     While it is unknown if Keaton ever visited Muskegon with his first wife, Natalie Talmadge, he did return to his adopted hometown in 1933.  With his second wife, Mae Scribbens, brother Harry and the family's "huge St. Bernard dog" in tow, the group arrived via chartered plane from Chicago.

     He returned again in June of 1949, with his third wife, Eleanor Norris. Preparing for a summer theater circuit performance of "Three Men on a Horse", they were headed to Boston, but would stop by Muskegon en route.
     "It was home," recalled Eleanor nearly fifty years later.  "He always referred to the city that way.  It was a place to get out of the starched collars and into a tee shirt - a place to go barefoot.  He had a wonderful time."
     Stopping by Pascoe's for perch and beer, he then spent the evening visiting with friends at the Muskegon Elks Club, where he had held a life membership.  The couple returned to Bluffton in the early morning, where Buster went fishing. A walking tour of the old colony followed, then it was off to Boston. 
     Despite plans to return, this would be his last trip home. In September of '49, Life magazine featured Keaton in an article on the clowns from the silent era.  He had been rediscovered.
    According to Eleanor, the next 17 years flew by. In 1952, he was on television with a weekly show. The rediscovery of his silent films led to numerous tours of Europe for film festivals. In 1957, he was featured on Ralph Edward's This Is Your Life television documentary show.  Featuring guest from the honoree's past, "Mush" Rawls, a friend from vaudeville and member of the Actors' Colony who still resided in Muskegon made the trip to California to reminisce.  Muskegon was again remembered as a new color television set was donated by the show to the local Elks Lodge in Keaton's name.
     Buster returned once more to West Michigan, performing at the Ionia Free Fair in 1963.  Less than 90 miles away from Bluffton, the touring schedule did not allow time for a trip home. Three years later, Keaton passed away. 
     Eleanor, his widow, did return in to Muskegon in 1995 for the first International Buster Keaton convention.  She returned numerous times before passing away in October 1998.