June 1, 1995
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of a one-time Perry resident who became a megastar in the entertainment world and reigned in early Hollywood on a par with Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. He was a comic genius, an artistic giant, and as pathetic a figure as any of the poor souls he portrayed in the movies. He made and lost millions of dollars at a time when the U.S. income tax was taking only modest bites from the paychecks of the super rich.
Buster Keaton was his name and it is understandable if few members of today's younger generation know anything at all about him. His career reached a zenith during the silent film era, long before many of us were born. But he was a part of the early history of this community, along with his entire family, and we should be aware of their contribution to the interesting saga of Perry's development.
Joseph Francis Keaton was born Oct. 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kan., and was given the name of Buster by the famous magician and Keaton family friend, Harry Houdini. When the infant Joseph was folded into his parents' vaudeville act, they found that their youngster took excellent pratfalls on stage. Audiences roared with laughter when, for example, he would tumble down a flight of stairs. Legend has it that Houdini picked him up after one of those tumbles and noticed that the child was smiling and unhurt. Houdini exclaimed to the parents: "That's some buster your baby took!" The nickname stuck. The smile did not. His adult stage and movie trademark was a deadpan face which never mirrored any emotion. Someone once said that Buster Keaton looked like the son of Lincoln and the Sphinx.
Keaton's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Keaton, made their home in Perry during the late 1890s and early 1900s when not traveling with a vaudeville troupe. Buster performed here on the stage of the old Grand Opera House on the east side of the square. In time, early filmmakers discovered him and found his pantomime comedy ideal for the silent movies then being made, and he quickly rose to the top. I devoted several pages to the Keaton family in "The First Generation," my story of the first 50 years of Perry's history, and you might want to refer to that for more information about Buster Keaton.
In 1957 Paramount Pictures released a major Technicolor movie based on Buster's life, "The Buster Keaton Story," with Donald O'Connor in the starring role. The world premiere of that movie was held right here in Perry, Oklahoma, because of Buster's ties with this community. You might be interested in hearing how the studio came to know of that connection.
Gene McKenna, whose family owned and operated the downtown Perry Theatre and the Chief Drive-In north of town, was a good friend of mine in the 1950s. He used to bring his daily advertising copy to The Journal office two or three times a week and then he and I would go out for a cup of coffee. One day in 1956 he told me that Paramount was working on a Keaton biographical film, and I told him about the comic's early years here. We decided the film should have its premiere in Perry but we had no idea how to take the first step. As it happened, Laura and I were thinking about taking a vacation that summer in Los Angeles, so Gene volunteered (through his movie distributor friends) to arrange for us to tour Paramount. That would give us entree to the inner sanctum, Gene and I believed, and the arrangements could then be set up.
We were much too naive to realize that things don't work that simply in the Movie Capital. But I have to tell you, that's exactly what happened. While Laura and I were touring the studio with a minor Paramount publicity man, I told him what Gene McKenna and I had in mind, and he made notes. A few weeks later, back home in Perry, Gene and I received word that Paramount had chosen Perry for the first showing of their film. Buster would appear on the Ed Sullivan "Toast of the Town" show on CBS and the Ralph Edwards "This Is Your Life" show on NBC to promote the event. Our local Chamber of Commerce was deliriously happy. The premiere was scheduled for May 7, 1957, and the city council adopted a resolution declaring "Buster Keaton Day" in Perry on that date.
When Buster and his wife came to Perry for the premiere, Laura and I were asked to be their hosts for the day, driving them around town to meet various scheduled appearances. Cooper Motor Co. loaned us a brand new Oldsmobile sedan for the occasion, and we greatly enjoyed the privilege of being with the Keatons. Buster and his wife, Eleanor, came to our house to rest briefly during the day. They used our bathroom, sat on our divan and seemed pretty much at ease. Buster dangled our young daughter on his knee while we recorded the event on film. In keeping with his movie image, he did not smile or exhibit any emotion all day long. Mrs. Keaton was a friendly and outgoing lady, but Buster was for the most part silent, though not at all unfriendly. He confided that he really did not remember very much about living here. The next day he was gone. The movie made some money for Paramount but it was not a big critical success. The historical accuracy was open to question. Perry did not rate even a mention in the script, so you know it was an incomplete story at best.
Buster and Paramount donated a bronze replica of his pork pie hat and you can see it today in the Cherokee Strip Museum here.
To celebrate the centennial year of his birth, Kino Video is releasing three boxed sets of Keaton's film masterpieces - ten features and 20 short subjects in all. The set is entitled, "The Art of Buster Keaton," and it includes six features and 15 shorts never before on cassette and only rarely in theatres. The first box set was released in February, box two was released on April 5, and the third will be out June 1. Individual tapes are $29.95. The collection also is being released on video disc at a price of $100 for the three sets. Any store that sells videos should be able to order the set you choose to own. I think it would be a fine idea if the collection could be kept on file at the museum and at the Perry Carnegie Library as well so that succeeding generations might be able to see the work of this world-renowned former Perry citizen.
It may be a long time before another performer from this community reaches the heights the way Buster Keaton did.