November 25, 1995
The genius of Buster Keaton, our illustrious former Perry resident, is receiving still more recognition in this centennial year of his birth, and more facts about his early childhood in this city also are coming to light. I have a few new items to pass along to you.
Bill Urban called the other day to say that his father, the late Carl Urban, once owned the home at 610 Grove street where Buster and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Keaton, used to live. The house is still here and it now belongs to Marvin and Shirley Beier. Marvin's mother, Mrs. Julius Beier, lives in the single story frame dwelling. It was purchased by Carl Urban sometime prior to 1917 from Buster's mother, Myra Keaton. Bill knows his father bought it before 1917 because Bill was born in the house that year, but he's not certain exactly when Mr. Urban bought it.
Mr. Urban often said that Bill was born in the same room where Buster was born, in the northwest corner of the house, but Piqua, Kansas, claims to be Keaton's birthplace. In fact, Piqua tossed a major 100th Buster Keaton birthday bash earlier this year. Most of the old-timers I've talked to around here doubt that the comedian was born in Perry.
Whether or not Buster was born in the Perry house, the northwest bedroom where Bill slept almost certainly was at one time Buster's room. Buster's grandfather, Joseph Z. Keaton, filed a soldier's declaratory statement on March 14, and obtained a quarter-section of land northwest of Perry. The claim originally had been staked by W. E. Merry in 1893 at the opening of the Cherokee Strip, but Mr. Merry left here to fulfill a teaching contract in Missouri. The Keaton family later moved into Perry and lived in the home at 610 Grove. Joseph Z. Keaton had three sons: Joe (Buster's father), Herbert and Bert.
Joe and Myra Keaton were vaudevillians around the turn of the century and they traveled out of Perry, claiming this city as their residence when they were not performing on the circuit. Buster spent part of his childhood years here before winning acclaim as one of the major silent film comedians, on a par with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, or perhaps even outshining them.
Buster and his wife, Eleanor, came to Perry in 1957 for the world premiere of the Paramount Studio movie based on the comedian's life story. During his daylong visit here, Buster' called on Mrs. Fannie Smith, who had been his babysitter some 50 years earlier. As a stunt for the benefit of photographers, Buster san on Mrs. Smith's lap. A photo of that moment appeared in the next day's Perry Daily Journal, and Martha Moore still has some home movies of that event which she shot along with other highlights of the day.
Mrs. Smith and her husband, Webster, were grandparents of Mrs. Betty Miller, who lives at 806 Delaware street. Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a daughter, Naomi, who married Raleigh Branham, and Mrs. Miller is the Branhams' daughter. She says the Smiths lived in a house at the southwest corner of Sixth and Grove, where the Mr. Discount gas station is now located. Mrs. Smith was frequently engaged by Joe and Myra to babysit for Buster. The Smiths had another daughter, now Mrs. Lillian Harrison, 93, who lives at Green Valley Nursing Home. She is the mother of Mrs. Kenneth (Donna) Brengle of Perry; Mrs. Dorlene Cook of Ponca City; Mrs. Merl Hafner of Lucien; and A. C. Spillman of Atoka.
Another thing that I wanted to mention is a lengthy feature story about Buster Keaton which appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of the New Yorker magazine. The article, entitled "The Fall Guy," is written by film critic Anthony Lane and his view of our one-time Perry neighbor is exceedingly favorable. Mr. Lane discusses Buster's many films, both the short subjects and feature-length productions. He also gives a great deal of interesting biographical material about Keaton but fails to mention the Perry connection. I conclude from that omission that we have failed to make the world aware of Buster's young years in this community. The piece does have a full-page portrait of Keaton by Richard Avedon, the famed photographer of this country's notables from every walk of life.
Here's a sampling from Mr. Lane's New Yorker article: "Keaton's great pictures are, in the best sense, feature films; they are meditations on a face. Those deep-lidded, dark-rimmed eyes, the carved prow of the profile -- no living person has ever looked like Buster Keaton."
If you can find a copy of the Oct. 23, 1995, New Yorker, read this article and you'll gain a new insight into how highly regarded and admired Buster Keaton was by the rest of the world. Thankfully, his body of work lives on through classic movies on film and video tape. And Perry is proud to claim him as one of our own.
Another sidelight on the Keaton family is furnished by Elizabeth Willems. She remembers that Buster's Uncle Bert, a brother of Joe Keaton, spent more time in Perry than Buster and his parents. Bert worked at a city clothing store and was a friend of Elizabeth's father, Ralph Treeman, among others. She has a photo of her father with Bert and some other Perry men when they were going on a fishing trip. Bert later went to Hollywood and worked there with some success in the movie industry for several years, though not as a performer in front of the camera.
More Keaton memorabilia is furnished by Dr. Charles Martin. He sends me a clipping from the Washington (D.C.) Post, which he received from his daughter, Kay McCarthy, who lives in Vienna, Va. It's an excellent article, entitled "Buster Keaton, the Quiet Riot," by Post staff writer Hal Hinson, with yet another perspective on Buster.
Here's how Mr. Hinson assesses Buster: "Next to Garbo, Buster Keaton possessed the most exquisite face in the history of the movies. White as alabaster, with dark, shy, feline eyes and high, finely sculpted cheekbones, it was capable of a vast range of expression, from the open inquisitiveness of a child to the worldly nonchalance of a millionaire playboy. At the same time, its beauty is as distant and inscrutable as the lunar surface; it suggests isolation, loneliness, perhaps even despair. Of all the silent comics, he was the most silent."
The writer goes on in that vein, but his biographical portion notes that "the details of young Buster's early life are famously unreliable, a mixture of show-biz hyperbole and western tall tale. Joseph Francis (Buster) Keaton was born in Piqua. Kan. on Oct. 4.1895." Again, no mention of Perry's role in young Buster's boyhood.
Somehow or other, Perry should be letting the world know that this treat entertainer did part of his growing up here, and in fact received a lot of his vaudeville/movie training at Perry's Grand Opera House. How can we accomplish that? Are we too late to do anything? Is it worth worrying about?