Buster Keaton And The Minnesota State Fair

I am thrilled beyond words to present this Silent-ology exclusive on a very overlooked aspect of Buster Keaton’s long career…his 1963 state fair appearances, focusing on his time in Minnesota (my home state).

During these late days of August, when the lakes are at their warmest and the corn is as tall as it’s going to get, Minnesotans from all over the state will be flocking to St. Paul for the “Great Minnesota Get-Together”–our incomparable State Fair.

Cue the music from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical!

When you say the phrase “The Happiest Place on Earth” most people think of Disney World. I just might think of our Minnesota State Fair.  800-lb pumpkins, “crop art” pictures made from seeds, and butter sculptures are but a few of the sights that await you. It would take all day to discuss the wonders of deep-fried Fair cuisine alone.  For loyal fairgoers, it’s a place of a thousand memories. Only the Texas State Fair beats it in size (naturally), but I’m almost positive that our “Get-Together” is the most loved. (The fact that around 1.7 million Minnesotans trek the fairgrounds each year backs me up.)

One of the most important buildings on the fairgrounds is the 1909 brick Grandstand, which still hosts concerts every night of the Fair. In a smaller, even older grandstand that once stood on the same spot Teddy Roosevelt gave his famous “Speak softly and carry a big stick!” speech (thus gracing the area for future generations). Everyone from The Beach Boys to the Backstreet Boys have performed in the Grandstand over the decades…and back in 1963 it hosted the talents of a certain comic genius.

Seen here enjoying a cup of tea, geniusly.

During the 1960s Buster Keaton’s career was reaching the high point of its resurgence. He had been a familiar figure on television since the ’50s, had had supporting roles in various films, and was getting steady work in commercials for everything from 7-Up to Alka-Seltzer. His silent films had been re-released and had helped cement his reputation as one of the early masters of the “old” slapstick style of comedy (first officially noted in 1949 in James Agee’s article “Comedy’s Greatest Era”). It was a fortunate time for Keaton, who had gone from stardom in the ’20s and early ’30s to low-budget short comedies to getting by with bit parts and gag writing until his star began rising again.

And during this happy time, it seems fitting that the star known for his down-to-earth nature would be appearing at some of the most fun and down-to-earth slices of Americana you can experience–state fairs.

1963 Fair Board watermarked

A mod ’60s billboard featuring Fair attractions.

In the summer of 1963 Keaton, accompanied by his wife Eleanor, performed at eight fairs in the U.S., including the Iowa, Kansas, Tennessee, and Alabama State Fairs and the Central Michigan Fair. Earlier in the year Keaton had filmed his cameo for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and just before leaving for the fairs he appeared in some commercials for Ford’s new 1964 model. (According to the Minneapolis Tribune the Keatons travelled the fair circuit by car–perhaps it was a Ford!)

In early August announcements like this one were printed in the local Minnesota papers:

Keaton to Appear watermarked

Unknown newspaper, but nice photo

Today, there is usually a different performer at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand each night. But back in 1963, I found to my pleasant surprise that Keaton performed on the Grandstand stage every night of the Fair.

Grandstand as today

The lucky Grandstand from the side facing the fairgrounds.

The Grandstand stage as it appears today.

Keaton’s State Fair act was drawn from a nightclub show he had starred in a few years earlier in Las Vegas. He seems to have adapted it for all eight fairs. In the original Vegas show, Keaton’s character got into a dispute with bandleader Paul Whiteman and they conducted a French-style duel with Harry Richman as referee and Rudy Vallee as his second. If this routine rings any bells for Keaton die-hards that’s because it originally appeared in his 1932 MGM feature The Passionate Plumber. At the Minnesota Grandstand Keaton’s “nemesis” was bandleader Warren Covington, who had done a number of big band recordings (including some with Eartha Kitt).

Busters Pan Hits Fairgrounds watermarked

“There’s nothing else like it in show business”–and he would know. (Clippings from the Minneapolis Tribune.)

In the Minneapolis Tribune article “Buster’s Pan Hits the Fairgrounds,” Keaton described the act he did for the various fairs:

     “We do [the act] like a classic French duel, with the top hats and the cape,” said Keaton.  “I guess you could call it a period piece, but I don’t know what you’ll call it when we get through.  There’s no talk, except for a little bit at the very beginning.
“It plays differently in the grandstands because the laughs are slow in reaching us.  It speeds us up a little.  When those laughs don’t hit you right away, you tend to work faster.
“We can’t play with the audience the way we could in a club, but otherwise it works just fine.”

 

Buster 1932 passionate plumber

Keaton in The Passionate Plumber (1932)

Buster Fair Duel Pose watermarked

Keaton in a 1963 fair tour publicity shot

$2.00-$2.50 could buy you a ticket to the “North Star Spectacular,” as the Grandstand evening show was called. And it was a pretty high-tech production–early on a Minnesota Valley Review article breathlessly noted that the show “will be presented on a new ‘zoom-up’ stage which will be moved on rails across the race track to bring the fun 105 feet closer to the audience.” Another local paper (unknown source) proclaimed that “this stage is the only one of its kind in the U.S.” (A very fitting stage indeed for a man who was immensely interested in machinery and modern innovations!)

Keaton shared the stage with a couple other headliners at the Grandstand that year: the American cabaret singer Rosemary Clooney, who performed the first five nights of the Fair, and the Smothers Brothers in the early stages of their career, who appeared the last five nights. Every night a half hour “thrill show” or comedy show preceded the headliners, featuring a very vaudeville-esque assembly of acts like Zacchani the Human Cannonball, “master mimic” Nip Nelson and Dockey’s Basketball-Playing Dogs. And the conclusion to this North Star Spectacular? A suitably spectacular fireworks show “commemorating Gordon Cooper’s orbital flight” (according to the Fair’s 1963 Annual Report).

North Star show with little pics

Plus, you could witness the coronation of Princess Kay of the Milky Way! (The tradition lives on even today.)

Keaton received a good amount of publicity both before and during the Fair, taking part in several interviews and posing for photos.

Keaton Thumbs Ride watermarked

Unknown newspaper source, but still priceless.

On the first day of the Fair Minneapolis Tribune photographer Chuck Brill seems to have followed the Keatons around for a day, documenting their time on the fairgrounds:

Buster Eleanor in mn

The Keatons ready for a day at the Fair. Unknown location, but possibly at a fairgrounds building that’s since been demolished.

Buster indian original press photo ebay

On the fairgrounds, posing with Onondaga tribe member Rick Edwards in front of what is now called the DNR Building (my friends and family and I have walked through that building many times).

Buster Eleanor cotton candy

Buster and Eleanor cutely sharing cotton candy. (The original photo is in my possession!)

The Keatons were also wined and dined, such as at an August 29th luncheon hosted by the Northwest Airlines Pilots’ Wives club (Keaton had appeared in commercials for Northwest Airlines during a prior stay in the Twin Cities).

Buster Eleanor aug 29 luncheon bloomington

Looking elegant at the Minneapolis Capp Towers.

It’s possible that Keaton appeared in local commercials as well, although this area will take further research.

In newspaper interviews Keaton tended to discuss the re-release of his silent classics and the background behind his State Fair act. He also talked about how much he liked the novelty of the grandstand shows–they seemed to have been right up his alley. In a St. Paul Dispatch article, “Buster Keaton’s Happy Appearing at State Fairs,” Keaton proudly stated:

     “Now that I’m doing state fairs…I’ve done everything in show business except opera.
     “…It’s the simplest thing I’ve ever done,” he told me, “and they pay like it was Las Vegas.  I mean that: they pay as much as I made at Las Vegas, where I had to do two shows a day, seven days a week.  In fairs, I do one short show. And if it rains, I don’t work.  I just look for a bridge game.”

In other interviews, of course, he had to patiently answer those all-too-familiar inquiries of “why do you never smile?” as you can see in the following clipping:

Keaton Glums Up Act watermarked

Excerpt from a Pioneer Press article.

Tidbits from the local papers also captured the fun of having Keaton at the Fair:

New Trademark watermarked

From the Minneapolis Tribune.

Keaton’s Grandstand act was well-received, no less because people at the time were quite conscious of his silent era importance. No doubt this connected to the nostalgia that many older folk at the time still had for the “good old days” of going to the movies:

Fair Show Fares Well watermarked

And as you can see from the above article, Keaton’s act was also a factor in bringing big crowds to the Grandstand. The “North Star Spectacular” was a rousing success. According to the Fair’s 1963 Annual Report:

     The night grandstand show, commonly labeled the ‘North Star Spectacular’ proved to be the most successful since prior to World War II.  A format, adopted in 1962, of opening with a special one-half hour thrill show, followed with a variety type program featuring name stars is considered to be one of the contributing factors to the success of this year’s show…The second Saturday and Sunday nights each marked all-time receipts for any night grandstand show in the history of the Fair.

When the Minnesota State Fair ended the Keatons would travel southward, eventually ending the fair tour in Alabama. It was a once-in-a-lifetime entertainment experience, since 1963 seems to have been the only year Keaton would perform at state fairs. They were lucky to have him.

Just three years later, Keaton would pass away from lung cancer at the age of 70. I like to think that in those remaining years he retained fond memories from his time at the fairs, especially from my Fair. And as the following clipping from the Minneapolis Tribune shows, he probably did.

Buster Smiling At Fair clipping

Buster Older Portrait watermarked

Sources:

I would like to give the world’s biggest THANK YOU to the good folks on the Minnesota State Fair Archives staff, especially Keri, for letting me access their Buster photos and clippings. This article wouldn’t be possible without them!

Minnesota State Fair Archives.
“Minnesota State Fair: 1963 Annual Report.” Minnesota State Fair Archives digital collection.
“Minnesota State Fair Grandstand Entertainers by Year 1962-2013.” Minnesota State Fair Archives digital collection.
“A Host of Top Stars Slated for Grand Stand Show at Fair.”  Unknown Minnesota newspaper, August 1, 1963.
“Human Cannonball.” Unknown Minnesota newspaper, August 1963.
“Featured In North Star Spectacular.” Minnesota Valley Review, August 8, 1963
“Keaton To Appear In State Fair Review.” Unknown Minnesota newspaper, August 8, 1963.
Clepper, P.M.  “Buster Keaton’s Happy Appearing at State Fairs.”  St. Paul Dispatch, August 23, 1963, page 43.
Jones, Will.  “Buster’s Pan Hits the Fairgrounds.” Minneapolis Tribune, August 18, 1963
Jones, Will. “Fair Show Fares Well.” Minneapolis Tribune, August 26, 1963.
Montgomery, Jerry. “Buster Keaton Glums Up Act.” Pioneer Press, August 25, 1963.
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966. 367.
http://www.ebay.com (for original newspaper photographs)

Original research © 2014 Silent-ology and Lea S.

Note:  As you have probably noticed, the Minnesota State Fair is a special place for my family, friends, and I. Knowing that Keaton had performed there is overwhelming. I’m proud to say that in 2009 my dad was chosen to create commemorative poster art for the Fair–a big honor for a local artist. My dad passed away a few years ago, but my family is fortunate that his artwork will always be a part of the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

Dad’s poster art–that guy on the left could almost be Buster.

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17 thoughts on “Buster Keaton And The Minnesota State Fair

  1. You’ve outdone yourself with this post–great scholarship and detective work, wonderful photos, and so much heart. I love his unpretentiousness–“Now that I’ve done state fairs, I’ve done everything but opera” and “If there’s no show, I just look for a bridge game.” I’m so glad you investigated this subject the way!

  2. You’ve written an excellent article. I’m getting ready to do a short talk at the upcoming Keaton convention called “Adventures in Keaton Research” and you’ve proved exactly what I’m going to argue: everybody should be a historian. Thank you!

    May I take a screen shot and use your work as an example?

    • Why certainly, I would love that!! Like many Keaton fans I’m just a regular person with a lot of curiosity and a willingness to look “off the beaten track” for new information. Persistence is important too. Just make sure to mention my name and Silent-ology–although I’m sure you would do that anyways! Your upcoming book sounds fascinating, by the way. Bruckman, Lessely and Havez are probably the three members of his crew that I’m most interested in learning more about.

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  5. Thank you SO much for this fun post! I love Buster, but didn’t know he was at the fair in 1963. I was 8 years old at the time and my family always attended the fair, but not the grandstand show. Maybe I walked right past him!

  6. Can’t tell you how excited I am to have found this article. I had no idea Buster performed at our state fair! I only missed him by 30-odd years. >.<

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    • It was just the coolest project, with a personal touch no less–the equivalent of discovering that Buster had once been in my living room! You never know, he might’ve been in your area at one point. 😉

  8. Pingback: It’s Silent-ology’s 2nd Anniversary! | Silent-ology

    • You’re welcome! This is one of the articles that I take the most pride in, it means so much to me and my family that Buster performed at a place that’s so entwined with our memories. A little less than two weeks from now the 2016 MN State Fair will be on, and I’ll be thinking of Buster when I’m there!

      • So neat! I have a special love for Buster, too! I showed my friend who had never seen a silent before One Week and High Sign, and when she told me that it was “Hilarious, so hilarious,” I was so happy I teared up! Keaton is keeping people happy a century later. I just think it’s marvelous.

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