March 10, 2000
I spent a pleasant couple of hours the other afternoon with Ted Keaton of Walnut Creek, California, who was visiting Perry for the first time. Mr. Keaton is a second cousin of the pioneer movie funnyman, Buster Keaton, who lived here with his parents in the early part of the 20th century. Ted came here with Frank Scheide, associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas, whose avocation is collecting information about Buster Keaton and his contemporary in the world of big-time entertainment, Charlie Chaplin. Ted Keaton is retired but serves as president emeritus of American Baptist Seminary of the West at Walnut Creek, hard by the campus of the University of California at Berkley. He points out that most of the 1960s turbulence at Berkley was away from the Seminary, where students are more inclined to be conservative philosophically and in their theology.
I've written previously about Mr. Scheide. He has visited with a number of Perry folks who have stories to tell about Buster Keaton, his parents, grandparents, uncle and others who were Perry residents around the close of the 19th century. Buster's grandfather, Joseph Z. Keaton, was a Civil War veteran. He filed a soldier's declaratory statement on March 14, 1894, to obtain a quarter section of land northwest of Perry. He is buried in a soldier's grave at Grace Hill Cemetery. Much of this is told in greater detail in my book, The First Generation: A Half-Century of Pioneering in Perry, Oklahoma.
Mr. Keaton and Mr. Scheide spent considerable time with Mildred Highfill at Green Valley Nursing Home, listening to Buster Keaton stories she has gathered as part of the local genealogy society's continuing effort to preserve our history. She also weaved a fascinating fabric of incidental items about the Cherokee Strip, tales that have come to her attention while she assembled volumes one and two of "The History of Noble County." Work on that second volume is moving right along; the first is out of print. Prior to that undertaking, Millie was curator at the Cherokee Strip Museum here. She knows the history of this area and its people. Mr. Scheide recorded some of her Buster Keaton stories on videotape for presentation at the annual Buster Keaton birthday celebration next year at Iola, Kansas. Mr. Scheide has put together other documentaries for the Iola fete. Buster Keaton was born October 4, 1895, in tiny Piqua, Kansas, near Iola, which has staged a Keaton Day celebration every year since 1992. Assistance for the affair is provided by several sources, including the Kansas Humanities Council, a non-profit cultural organization encouraging the appreciation of history, heritage and values.
Lamentably, Perry has not yet found a way to make tourists and others aware that a very young Buster Keaton honed his comedic skills at the Grand Opera House in Perry and that his family lived here. Their home is still in existence in the 600 block of Grove street. Just a thought: The place could be spruced up and turned into a "Keaton Cultural Center," where the public could learn something about the family's connection with Perry.
Mr. Keaton and Mr. Scheide also spent some time that afternoon with Elizabeth Treeman Willems. Her late father, Ralph Treeman, was a buddy of Buster's uncle, Bert Keaton, and through that relationship Ms. Willems can tell several interesting stories about the comic and his family.
Much more could be written about Perry and its role in the development of one of the premier figures in American show business, but that will have to be saved for the day when our city has a plan to let the public know about it.