at Bluffton
1908 - 1938

Buster Keaton
and the
Muskegon Connection

"Big Joe" Roberts

Joseph Henry Roberts
Born:   February 2, 1871, Amsterdam, Montgomery County, NY
Died: October 28, 1923, Los Angeles, CA
First Wife
Lillian Stuart (Feld) Roberts
Born: April 1874, San Francisco, CA
Died: June 15, 1918, San Diego, C
Bobbie Roberts
Second Wife
Nina Mildred Straw Shannon
Born: August 17, 1883, Saginaw, MI
Died: June 30, 1972, South Laguna, CA
Joseph Thomas (Joey) Roberts
Born:  April 30, 1921, Los Angeles, CA
Died: May 13, 1961, Honolulu, HI
Floyd Edwin Roberts
Born:  December 7, 1922, Los Angeles, CA
Died: January 23, 1997, Irvine, CA

     A well-known figure on the vaudeville stage, Roberts performed in a variety of acts over the years. Working as part of Moreland, Thompson, and Roberts with Charles A. Moreland, and Minnie May Thompson, the group was advertised as "the best dressed act in vaudeville."
Standing 6-foot-3, "Big Joe" later toured the country for a number of years as part of the trio Roberts, Hays and Roberts. Calling themselves “The Big Three”,  the act was comprised of Joe and his wife Lillian along with partner Ed Hayes.
     During the 1901-02 season, they began to ascend the vaudeville ladder with a “side-splitting” skit called “The Infant”.  With Joe dressed in a ridiculous outfit of a boy, the show was reviewed as one of the cleverest acts in vaudeville.

Big Joe Roberts and Louise Keaton Big Joe Roberts and little Louise Keaton
     After a tour that brought them to England, they returned stateside and during the 1907-08 season, the trio presented the sketch “The Cowboy, the Swell and the Lady.”  During the 1913-14 vaudeville season they appearing in a comedy sketch “On The Road” which included the song “Nobody Loves a Fat Man” written especially for Joe. 
Roberts, Hayes and Roberts 
    In 1914, Roberts and Lillian teamed with Johnnie McGowan, for another tour of "On the Road."  McGowan was renowned as a singer, performing "You Were Made to Love" and "You Have Something I Want."   (He would later go on to a long career as an actor, singer and playwright).
    Joe and Lillian joined the Actors' Colony in Muskegon in 1910, purchased lots 57 and 58 on Edgewater St. in Bluffton and built a home next to the Keaton cottage.
    An avid yachtsman "Big Joe" enjoyed his summers on the water and worked on the early Actors' Colony regattas.  In 1915, it was noted in the Muskegon Daily Chronicle that Roberts had built a new dock in front of his property.  Among the first craft to tie up to Roberts' wharf was the motor cruiser, the Damfino from Chicago.  The name appears to have stuck with his young neighbor, Buster Keaton, as two boats christened  Damfino surface in Keaton films.  The most famous appears in his short film, The Boat, released in 1921. The second is a rowing boat in the 1925 feature, College.


    Following the unexpected death of his first wife, Roberts teamed with Lew Pearl, a veteran of the vaudeville circuit, and Miss Nina Straw, a song and dance performer formerly with The American Beauty Maids.  The trio toured in a show entitled "Goodbye Broadway,"
     In February 1919, Roberts and Straw wed following a matinee performance in Rockford, Illinois and celebrated on the stage the following evening performance.
"The bride and bridegroom have been in vaudeville a long time," noted a report in the Rockford Register-Gazette. "Mr. Roberts is one of the biggest men on the stage and his bride one of the littlest women before the floodlights."
    Together they toured the Orpheum Circuit, billing themselves as "The Pint and Quart of Show Business" to play up their physical difference in size. They continued to summer in Bluffton.
     In 1920, Roberts followed Buster Keaton to Hollywood, and joined the Keaton film company.  Keaton biographer Rudy Blesh noted that "Big Joe" appeared "with Buster three years, in every film from the second one on, twenty films in all". He also appeared in The Primitive Lover, with Constance Talmadge, a  romantic comedy released in May of 1922, and The Misfit, starring Australian comedian Clyde Cook.  The film was released as Under Orders by Educational Pictures on March 23, 1924.
Neighbors 1920

     Roberts died shortly after the filming of Keaton's feature Our Hospitality.     "Buster had lost one-third of an image one of the three Big Joes in his life.  With Joe Keaton, and Joe Schenck, Joe Roberts had made up a kind of tripartitepaternal figure upon which he had come to rely," stated Rudi Blesh in his biography on Keaton.
     Press reports indicated that Roberts died from a heart attack.  Other reports indicated he had suffered a stroke.
     Following Joe's death, Nina remained in Los Angeles and worked as a hairdresser for the studios, doing hair for movie greats Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball. 
     She also served as hairdresser and make-up artist for Eiler Larsen, the famed "Greeter of Laguna Beach", where she had a summer home.  According to news reports, Larsen was a frequent participant in the city's annual "Pageant of the Masters" where local residents dress in costume, then take their place behind a frame to recreate live versions of famous works of art.

Special thanks to Jona Roberts, Scott Roberts, Nina Roberts, Karen Landers, Robert Arkus and Alicia Grennan . Their research provided additional details that appear in this biography.