at Bluffton
1908 - 1938

Buster Keaton
and the
Muskegon Connection

Samaroff and Sonia

Donat Butowick
Born: May 4, 1877
Samara, Russia
Died: October 6, 1960
Muskegon, MI
Ella Bluhmfield Butowick
Born:  April 29, 1881
Died: June 25, 1968
Muskegon, MI

Alphons P. Butowick
Born:  June 23, 1901, Chicago, IL
Died: April, 1968

     Donat Butowick, also known as The Great Bedini and, in later years, as Samaroff, delighted thousands from stages around the world for over 40 years.  The Russian performer left home at the age of eight, working with a Chek organ grinder as an acrobat and contortionist.  Two years later, he joined a circus in Rostoff, and performed acrobatic tight wire acting and trick horse riding. In 1898, Butowick fled his homeland to avoid mandatory four-years of service in the Czar's Army.
     An accomplished performer, he ended up in England and joined the Lord George Sanger Circus. In 1899, the circus played a command performance before Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. Max Gruber, another member of the Actors' Colony in Bluffton, also worked with the Sanger Circus, and the two became friends.  During a visit to South Africa, Samaroff began training dogs.  He returned to England, and entered vaudeville with the act. 

     In 1906, he came to the United States to play the vaudeville circuit.  While performing in California in 1908 he met Ella Blumenfield, a German acrobat performing with her sisters under the name Ella Bellatzer.  The couple was married three weeks later, on January 21, 1908 in Los Angeles.  Together, they toured the world as Samaroff and Sonia, an act of national dancing, acrobatics and acrobatic dogs.  In 1913, Samaroff performed before King George V in London.

Follow the links at the right for more on Samaroff and Sonia. "A Love Story in Postcards"
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

     The couple came to Muskegon in 1917 to visit the Grubers, and soon purchased a home in the Actors Colony. They continued performing. 
     One high profile show was performed at Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in 1928. Grauman staged a prologue, titled "Ballyhoo," before the premiere showing of Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus."  The scene portrayed "An Old Fashioned One Ring Circus." Samaroff and Sonia were among the performers that included Pepito the Clown, and Poodles Hanneford, "the world's greatest circus star".

The program from Chaplin's North American premiere of "The Circus" featured Samaroff and Sonia in the event's prologue, "BALLYHOO".   

     In 1937, an automobile accident in Chicago caused serious injury to Mrs. Butowick and the act was disbanded.  In 1938, couple announced the sale of five animals to the DeWaldo's Circus of Crosby, Minn. A brief return to show business in later years was short lived and the couple retired to their Bluffton home.  The couple had one son and one grandson at the time of Ella's death in 1968.  She was the last colony member still living in Bluffton at the time.

One never knows where life will take us.

As a child in the 1970s, Melani Carty, was enrolled as a student at the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance.

While the vaudeville photos that hung on the walls of the dance studio fascinated her, she was too shy to ask her talented instructor about them.

Years later, she again made contact with her dance instructor.

Now 95 years old, Joanne's shared details from her life with Pepito, The Spanish Clown.
 Images copyright 2010 by Melani Carty.
 All rights reserved.

Within a year of their conversations, Joanne had passed away.   Those conversations have lead to Melani's wonderful homage to the lives of Pepito and Joanne.

In turn, it illustrates one of the wonderful aspects of the Internet - Friendship with people we have yet to meet in person.

Melani's passion crossed paths with mine in 2008. On Independence Day, 2010, she presented me with an amazing gift. Thanks to her kindness, I share it with you.

As noted above, Pepito once shared the Grauman Theater stage with Samaroff and Sonia. The video featured on this page comes from a reel of Pepito's personal home movies.

Thank you, Melani, for preserving them!