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September 12, 1995

Photograph of Buster Keaton and Donald O'Connor

Defying Gravity? – Buster Keaton (right) and Donald O’Connor gagged it up for this publicity shot when Paramount Studio released its 1957 movie based on Keaton’s life story. O’Connor played Keaton in the film. The barely visible cable strung behind them made it possible for them to lean “way off the perpendicular.

Perry may be overlooking a golden opportunity by not taking advantage of its legitimate claim to having been the boyhood home of Buster Keaton, one of the kings of silent film comedies. A couple of other places, one in Kansas, the other in Michigan, are doing bigtime things to let the world know about their connection with the frozen-faced star, who died in 1966. Not by coincidence, 1995 is the 100th anniversary of Keaton's birth. That fact has stirred renewed widespread interest in his artistry.

The first of these celebrations will be on Sept, 29-30 in Iola, Kan., a town of about 6,500 population, roughly 90 miles southwest of Kansas City or 100 miles east of Wichita. Some say Buster was born in Iola in 1895. Other sources list nearby Piqua, Kan., as his birthplace. The other celebration will be Oct. 6-7 in Muskegon, Mich., a city of some 45,000 population on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I recently learned of the Muskegon event when Dr. Charles Martin handed me the current issue of American History magazine containing an article about the get-together. While in Missouri last weekend, I read about the Iola, Kan., party in a lengthy and interesting feature article in the Sunday Kansas City Star.

The magazine piece gave no indication of Buster Keaton's connection to Muskegon, except to say that it is the home of the International Buster Keaton Society. The October fete will mark the first annual convention of that group. It will honor Keaton's achievements not only as an actor, but also as a writer and screen director.

Keaton and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Keaton, made their home in Perry in the late 1890s and early 1900s, between vaudeville tours which took them to large and small cities throughout the U.S. Buster was, of course, a mere child then but he was already being acclaimed as a comic performer.

The magazine article has a picture of Buster in one of his earliest movies. "Best remembered for his deadpan expression and acrobatic artistry," the article states, "Keaton starred in and directed such classic films as `The General' (1926) and `The Cameraman' (1928). Eleanor Keaton, the actor's widow, will attend the event, joining authors and film historians as a convention speaker. For more information, call 201-659-8971."

In Kansas, the Iola event is labeled "The Keaton Centennial Tribute: Hero Behind the Clown." It's free and will be held in the town's Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Lectures, film screenings and workshops are planned. The event is sponsored by the Kansas Council for the Humanities, Southwestern Bell and the city of Iola. On the afternoon of Sept. 29, scholarly workshops will be offered on a variety of Keaton related subjects. The schedule on Sept. 30 is designed to appeal to the general public. Some of Buster's rarely seen movies, both feature length and short subjects, will be shown. Eleanor Keaton also will attend the Iola festival. Both days will be taped as a documentary by film/video students from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Further information is available by calling the Bowlus Fine Arts Center at 316-365-4765.

Buster Keaton probably is Perry's best-known former resident. His life story was told, sort of, in a major Paramount Studio feature film released in 1957 when he was 62. Because of his early day connection here, the movie had its world premier at the old Perry Theater downtown and the Chief Drive-In, north of the city. Buster and his wife, Eleanor, spent the day in Perry. Among other things, Buster was on hand in the courthouse park for the selection of Bettye Kaye Yahn as Miss Perry, and she accompanied the Keatons to the showings here and then the next two days in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Perry folks had several opportunities to see him up close that day. Even his baby-sitter from years ago let him sit on her lap.

As part of the national hoopla concerning Buster Keaton's 100th birthday celebration, Kino International Video has released all of Buster Keaton's independent films from the 1920s. This includes 11 features and 19 short subjects on 10 videocassettes. Supposedly, you can find them at major video stores or they can order them for you. However, I have inquired at Blockbuster and Hastings video stores and they have nothing on their shelves or in their computers about the Keaton videocassettes at this time. They're still searching for information and if I learn anything, I'll pass it on to you.

Perhaps we should send a local delegation to Muskegon and Iola to see how they do it, or maybe Mayor Hollingsworth or some other local dignitaries should send a message to both places with greetings from this prairie city where Buster undoubtedly honed his comedic skills as a youngster. It's a shame we didn't think of having a birthday observance for our esteemed former resident this year. Maybe we could host the second annual convention of the International Buster Keaton Society next year. Eleanor Keaton probably remembers her trip to Perry 38 years ago very clearly. We certainly remember her as a sweet and gracious lady.