This is my own post for the Seventh Buster Keaton Blogathon. Enjoy, and please check out all the other wonderful posts, too!
When you love a performer from classic Hollywood, it’s not uncommon to make little “pilgrimages” to the places where they used to live and work: studios, filming locations, former homes, gravesites, and, of course, their hometowns. Seeing where your favorite star grew up can give you insight into what shaped them and their future career. And, of course, it’s just plain fun–some towns are tourist destinations simply by for being the hometown of a beloved performer.
But what of a performer like Buster Keaton? Since he was the child of travelling medicine show performers, his birthplace was a matter of happenstance. Joe and Myra Keaton were travelling through the tiny town of Piqua, Kansas (today its population hovers a little above 100) when Buster arrived. Their stay was necessarily short, so while tiny Piqua had the honor of being Buster’s birthplace it would be a stretch to call it his hometown. (Fun fact: in the 1960s Buster and his wife Eleanor did stop there briefly while they were on his State Fair tour!)
But despite an upbringing spent travelling from theater to theater, there was a spot on earth that Buster considered his true hometown: Muskegon, Michigan. A mid-sized town with the vast waters of Lake Michigan along one side and sparkling Lake Muskegon along another, the Keatons chose it for their summer home in the 1900s. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. In his biography on Buster, written not long before Buster passed away, Rudi Blesh wrote: “Those long-ago summers must have been, in a special way, one of the wonders of his life. Whenever he speaks of them he seems to be turning on the lights of a faraway stage.”
He almost spent summers in Galveston, Texas. Previously, Joe had purchased five waterfront lots there hoping they’d prove to be a good investment. However, the city decided to use the lots for a sea wall and gave Joe a fraction of what he’d paid for them. Fortunately the experience only made him more determined to make smarter investments in the future, and in Muskegon, he found his opportunity.
The Keatons, now popular vaudevillians, were appearing at a theater at Lake Michigan Park, a popular resort area advertised as the “Riviera of the Midwest.” They took a liking to the area and all of its outdoor fun, especially one particular neighborhood. In his autobiography Buster recalled:
“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908. This was in Bluffton, a summer colony on a bluff just across Lake Muskegon from the town and located on a mile-wide strip of sandy land between that lake and Lake Michigan. Ours was a small place without modern plumbing, or even medieval plumbing. But it was just right for us, had three bedrooms, and in the kitchen was the gasoline stove on which Mom learned to cook.”
Bluffton had gotten its start in the 1860s as a lumber village before being incorporated into nearby Muskegon, and by the Keatons’ day it was a peaceful neighborhood with a few small businesses and taverns–and was dwarfed by Pigeon Hill, a 200-foot sand dune. Surviving photos show the family posed in front of their cottage. It was a modest house with wooden siding, a wrap-around porch and a sign proclaiming “JINGLE’S JUNGLE” (named after Buster’s little brother Harry, nicknamed Jingles). It was perched on the side of a sandy hill with a lovely view of Lake Muskegon.
Over a dozen vaudeville families also lived in the area, including dancers Samaroff and Sonia, husband and wife team Gardner and Beard, the song and dance family the Millards, and Max and Adele Gruber, who had a novelty animal act–which included the elephant Minnie, who lived in their backyard.
These colorful folks provided the Keatons with an instant sense of community:
“…Mom could play all the pinochle her heart craved and Pop would not run out of fellow performers to swap yarns with. There was a bar in Pasco’s Tavern and a club to which all the actors belonged. As for me and the younger children, we just got into bathing suits each morning on getting up and never took them off until we went to bed.“
In the days before air conditioning, many theaters closed during the hottest summer months or hosted lower-rung performers (“summer stock”). By the 1900s, the Keatons were successful enough to take summers off–as Joe put it, “To hell with working every summer.” Joe would also start an official actor’s colony, encouraging more vaudevillians to settle in the area and have a place to call home. One performer had a place just a brief walk from the Keatons’–Big Joe Roberts, the heavy in several of Buster’s silent films.
Blesh’s biography recounted how relaxing it was to simply stay put for a few months every year:
“Myra kept the Jungle neat, although children flew through it like locusts. She reveled in three months of freedom–no quick changes, no scrubbing makeup, no catching trains; time to hang over the back fence for a little gossip, even though it ran along such lines as ‘X is leaving that act,’ or ‘Y doesn’t know his wife is carrying on with that Italian juggler,’ or ‘Martin Beck says that Z is through,’…For Joe it meant fishing, poker at The Cobwebs and Rafters, a dram or two at Pasco’s, and plain rocking on the porch.”
Buster, who was thirteen when his family bought their cottage, would revel in fishing, swimming, playing sports, and just getting to be a regular boy. Much of the mechanical knowledge that came in handy for his future films was cultivated in Bluffton. “Like so many other American boys I was ‘mechanically inclined.’ I spent a lot of my time tinkering, grinding the valves, taking apart and putting together again the motors of our car and the 25-foot cruiser boat Pop bought and modestly named Battleship.” Buster apparently took out the old antique boiler on the boat and installed a two-cylinder gasoline engine instead–much more modern and efficient.
He and his siblings also found time to play harmless pranks on any hapless passersby:
“…If strangers rowed past our house they sometimes saw something that made their eyes pop. Below the house there was a hill of soft sand which slanted down for twenty or thirty feet to the edge of the water. Looking up from their boat, the strangers would see pots and dishpans being thrown off the porch, then the two children, Jingles and Louise. Before they got over the shock, I mysef would come flying out. By going to the back of the house I’d get a running start that enabled me to leap high in the air and come down headfirst, landing on all fours. The innocent observers had no way of knowing, of course, that the sand on the hill was too soft to hurt either the kids or myself when we landed.”
Another prank of Buster’s took on legendary status. Neighbor Ed Grey–“a big, fat and very lazy monologuist”–complained that visitors to the area were always using his outhouse, situated on a hill. Buster obligingly created a contraption that would cause all four walls to fall outwards at the pull of a rope–leaving any strangers who snuck in embarrassingly exposed.
The Keatons’ fellow actors in the neighborhood built a ramshackle clubhouse on the Lake Muskegon shore, The Cobwebs and Rafters. Many a prank was also planned at the Cobwebs, as Buster recalled:
“The Bluffton Club members had a bamboo fishing pole set in a prop on the clubhouse porch which overlooked the lake. On its line was a floating cork which obligingly bobbed the moment a newcomer stepped out there to admire the view across the lake.
“When the visitor took the pole off its cradle, he would give it a jerk, starting what proved to be the fish-fighting battle of his life. Meanwhile, his cries and those of the people on the porch with him had attracted the attention of the people in the nearby houses…’Jerk him to the left!’ they would cry encouragingly; also, ‘Let out your line!’…After the guest put back the pole in the cradle, the gimmick would be explained to him. The line from the bobbling cork went through a pulley weighted down by a big rock, from there under the clubhouse and up through a small hole in the main room of the club.
“We fooled a lot of funny men with that gimmick, including Bernard Granville, Harry Fox, and Frank Tinney, whom many theatrical people considered the greatest natural comedian of his day.“
In later years Buster would return to Muskegon to visit the “home folks” and reminisce about the fun times gone by. A street in Bluffton is named after him, Keaton Court, and downtown Muskegon has a wonderful life-sized bronze statue of him in front of their historic theater, the Frauenthal Center.
Today, the Keatons’ cottage is long gone, but Buster fans can still see the neighborhood where his family spent so many happy summers. There’s even an old cement retaining wall on their former property bearing the old, old inscription: “JOE AND MYRA KEATON.” Having been to Muskegon myself, I can see why Buster once considered it home. Whenever I think of it, I remember the peace and quiet and cool, fresh air, and look forward to visiting there again–especially the sleepy neighborhood of Bluffton.
Historian Ron Pesch has studied the history of Muskegon and the Keatons’ summers there extensively. He gives fun and informative walking tours in Bluffton for Buster fans at the annual Damfinos convention. His website Actors Colony, a compilation of Muskegon research created in collaboration with other local historians and archivists, was an invaluable source for this article.
For more insights on sightseeing in Muskegon, check out my experience at the 2017 Damfinos’ convention here (with lots of photos!).
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966.
Keaton, Buster, with Samuels, Charles. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.