Last weekend Buster Keaton fans heard the sad news that his last home, the comfortable ranch house he and his wife Eleanor bought in the 1950s, had been demolished. I’m sure I’m not the only fan who would’ve liked to glimpse it in person one day, if only from a car window. Sadly, that is one item on my bucket list that will go forever unchecked.
The one-story house, built in 1947, was bought with the $50,000 given to Buster by Paramount for the screen rights to his life story. The resulting film, The Buster Keaton Story (1957) starring Donald O’Connor, was frankly terrible (Eleanor recalled attending a preview with Buster and how they “felt like crawling out on our hands and knees”), but it did give them the ability to finally purchase their own house. The couple had been living with Buster’s family for years, and Buster’s career had gone through numerous ups and downs in that time. They took proud ownership of their new home in June 1956, and were content there until Buster’s death in 1966.
Over the decades the house’s former 1 1/2 acres had been pared down to 0.83 acres, and Woodland Hills is no longer as safe than it was in Buster and Eleanor’s time. It apparently retained its pool and fireplace and its same two bedrooms and two baths. Surprisingly, the previous owner had owned the house since 1979, and it was sold for $999,000.00 in May–apparently more for the lot than the house itself. The online real estate listing cheerily stated: “Walnut Acres restoration project on a fabulous 120 x 299 flat lot. Endless potential for your dream estate. This home was once owned by legendary actor Buster Keaton…Property being sold as is. Developers take a look!!” Well, I guess developers did.
These are the sole three photos uploaded to real estate sites, in this case Redfin:
As we mourn the house’s loss, let’s look back on Buster and Eleanor’s photos and memories of their happy years there together.
In the 1990s, Eleanor recalled:
“The wonderful thing that happened as a result of The Buster Keaton Story was that it enabled us to buy a six-room house on one and a half acres of land located at 22612 Sylvan Street in Woodland Hills, California. We moved into the ‘ranch,’ as Buster called it, in June 1956. Buster had a swimming pool built, and, since he wanted to raise chickens, he built a chicken coop, which looked like a schoolhouse, behind the house. Woodland Hills, which is north of Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, did not have many residents at that time. As he was the only famous homeowner in the area, Buster was named honorary mayor of Woodland Hills.
“The house in Woodland Hills was something we both adored, and when Buster was not working we enjoyed being at the ‘ranch.’ We liked having friends over for barbecues and bridge games, and we treasured our quiet moments alone. Buster had a vegetable garden and fruit trees and would spend hours watering them. He liked collecting walnuts from our nine walnut trees and enjoyed finding four-leaf clovers, something he had a talent for spotting quickly since childhood. He had a dozen Rhode Island Red hens that he called his ‘girls.’ He gave them names like Zsa Zsa, Marilyn, and Ava. He had a rooster too.
“Buster swam every day and enjoyed cooking, playing his ukulele and watching television, which fascinated him. Buster loved trains. His favorite film of his own was The General, and he had a toy train that ran on tracks around our picnic table and back into the garage. The cars were big enough to hold a Coca-Cola or a hot dog, and Buster used to drive food around to our guests whenever we had a picnic. And, of course, he loved to play bridge for hours on end.”
This was a house where many a gag was born that’s now preserved on celluloid: “Buster would be in the den, sitting on the floor, working something out in his head. That was the way he ‘wrote.’ He never put anything down on paper; he just kept it all in his head.”
It was also the setting for much of the writing of Buster’s autobiography, started during a run in a Las Vegas show (and meant to combat the errors in The Buster Keaton Story): “When Newcomers of 1928 ended, [Charles Samuels] came back with us to Woodland Hills and worked with Buster for another three weeks until he was finished. Charlie did not use a tape recorder; Buster talked and Charlie typed.”
Here are Buster’s 1960 reminisces about buying the Woodland Hills home, which they did as soon as they returned from Paramount’s tour for the unfortunate The Buster Keaton Story. The pride that was in his voice as he worked with Charles Samuels is evident: “When we returned from the tour Eleanor and I used Paramount’s money to buy the home of our dreams. This is far out in the San Fernando Valley and stands on an acre and a quarter of ground. The house is a modern farmhouse with six spacious rooms furnished in early American. Paramount bought the house, but it was furnished by Truth or Consequences, This Is Your Life, It Could Be You, and other TV programs on which I made guest appearances. Eleanors endless books of S&H stamps also helped furnish the place.
“Our swimming pool is of natural stone, and we decorate its borders with colored stones collected in each place we visit. The pool was paid for with some of the money I got for the TV commercials I have been doing for the last couple of years for Alka-Seltzer, Northwest Orient Airlines, and other firms.
“Today the most exciting moments of my life come when I step out on my own property and walk around it, accompanied by Elmer III, my amiable 180-pound St. Bernard. Sometimes Jenny, our cat, also comes along. There were nine walnut trees in the garden when we bought the house, and I since have put in all sorts of fruit trees, including lemon, orange, tangerine, lime, plum, peach, apple, crab apple, and apricot. We grow three kinds of grapes–Tokay, Concord and Thompson seedless–and also have raspberry and boysenberry bushes, and an artichoke bed. Each spring I grow radishes, cabbages, turnips, beefsteak tomatoes, and lettuce. I built a chicken yard in the rear of our land and a miniature railroad that carries peanuts, soda pop, sandwiches, popcorn to guests seated around a small garden house near the pool. For the accommodation of visiting grandchildren, nephews, movie producers, and TV sponsors we installed a bunkhouse.
“If there is a better place in the world to be–when I’m not in front of an audience or a camera–someone else will have to name it.”
Here is the house in a recent Google photo. The ivy in front is long gone, but it looks pretty much the same. Perhaps some of those big trees in back were planted by Buster.
Fan Angie Hougan captured what might be the last glimpses of Buster and Eleanor’s home after it was demolished last week (many thanks to her for sharing):
It may be a cliché to say this house is “gone but not forgotten”…but it’s certainly true.
If you’d like to see some rare footage of Buster at home, a fan in the Damfino’s Facebook group shared the link to this 1960 interview (it’s usually only available in clips):
Sources for the quotes:
Keaton, Buster, with Samuels, Charles. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.
Keaton, Eleanor and Vance, Jeffrey. Buster Keaton Remembered. New York: Henry N Abrams, Inc., 2001.