20 December 2015

Buster's Prologue: Center Stage, Where He Belonged

One of the wonderful things about the internet -- and digital media in general -- is the growing availability of original sources, such as newspapers. Our memories are not as accurate as we wish to believe. When I want to know more about Buster Keaton's early career (really early), I don't have to rely on other people's reminiscences -- I can see what contemporary audiences thought by consulting original sources.

Ready to take center stage
What they thought was, this kid is some kind of genius. Because Keaton was a star practically from birth. In Rudi Blesh's great early biography, Keaton told the story of how he crawled out onstage during his father's act -- and got a laugh. But Blesh, who was an expert on jazz, not theater, didn't quite grasp the sensation Buster was as a child. He was not just an ordinary showbiz kid. His parents put him in the act officially as soon as he could walk, and when they did, people noticed. And here the mystery of performance and star quality kicks in, because what is it that that tiny boy learned to do? And did he have to learn it, or was it some sort of inborn ability? According to contemporary reviews, he was outstanding from day one, and had the audience firmly in the palm of his hand by the time he was six years old.

Little Lord Fauntleroy
We know from later movies that he could sing,dance, and play musical instruments (apparently, he could knit, too, though that's another story). But right from the start Buster is not just a part of the family's knockabout act; he does imitations and comic songs that are also very well received. These photos of the snappily dressed young man about town were not deceptive -- he really was the master of his art already. (At least ONE of his arts.) Largely due to his presence, The Three Keatons went right to the top of the vaudeville circuit and stayed there, playing the best theaters and getting excellent notices wherever they went. Occasionally he would take a role in a "legitimate" production -- he told a memorable story about an appearance in the Victorian melodrama East Lynne, which he acerbically described as "... the cryingest show ever written; the audience starts to cry in the first act, and the faucets are never turned off." And at one point he appeared as Little Lord Fauntleroy (I wonder how that went!) But from the very first moment, comedy was his thing.

Following are some actual reviews of Buster's performances from major newspapers. Vaudeville was not, at this point, some second-class form of entertainment; big city papers carried regular coverage of it. And remember, he was really about five when these personal notices started to appear:

"The Orpheum was packed to the doors last night and there was not a vacant seat at the matinee performance. Joe, Myra, and Buster Keaton appear in one of the old-time turns. Buster Keaton is a four-year-old comedian who possesses unusual precocity, and mad a big hit with the audience." San Francisco Chronicle, 7 Oct 1901.

"The Bijou vaudeville bill will be presented twice to-day, closing the stay of the artists who have so cleverly entertained all week. Buster Keaton, the little comedian member of the eccentric comedy sketch and acrobatic trio, has made a good impression. He is at the top of the class of youngsters seen at the  Bijou, and there have been some of the best at the popular Broad-Street house." Richmond VA Times, 11 Jan 1902

"The Three Keatons - Joe, Myra, and Buster - will be one of the headline attractions at Cleveland's this week. They have not been seen in Chicago in two years, but have been winning applause in the east. Young Buster Keaton is said to be a boy comedian of exceptional cleverness, and his imitations of celebrated actors have been warmly commended." Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 Nov 1904

"The real comedy in the show will be supplied by Buster Keaton, the midget comedian, who appears with his parents, Joe and Myra Keaton. This little chap is easily the funniest bunch of humanity in the business, and unmistakably clever in other lines, too, as he gives imitations of several well-known stage favorites that are really clever and lifelike. Buster is a great card for the children." Boston Post, 3 Jan, 1904

"Both clever and versatile is Buster Keaton, the star of this week's Poll headliner. Each season bears a fresh crop of child prodigies, but it has remained for this precocious youngster to grab glory in a strictly original manner. Made up in exactly the same fashion as his father, he executes a number of difficult acrobatic feats with apparent ease and finishes with a new song, "Somebody Lied," that brings a storm of applause. At the matinees capable assistance is given by his brother and sister, Jingles and Louise." Scranton Republican, 6 May 1908


"This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show!" -- title card from Buster's masterpiece (well, one of them) The Playhouse.