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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.”
$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).
Keaton received a good amount of publicity both before and during the Fair, taking part in several interviews and posing for photos.
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:
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).
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:
Tidbits from the local papers also captured the fun of having Keaton at the Fair:
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:
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.
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.”