One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”
99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”
You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.
But how many of these claims were true, and not merely hearsay? Thanks to my timely experience delving into all things Keystone Kop, I’ve rounded up some handy tips to help figure out if granddad had, in fact, been part of Sennett’s farcical police force.
First, a quick overview (it’s essential, trust me): The Keystone Kops, originally just referred to as the Keystone police force or Keystone cops, popped up regularly in Mack Sennett’s comedies from 1912 to 1915 (they began to be phased out in the late 1910s). They weren’t a set group of specific characters and never starred in their own films, but were simply a pack of whichever extras and actors were handy at the time (often supporting actors in a film would double as one of the Kops). Their purpose? Providing extra mayhem during Sennett’s whirlwind chase scenes, which usually came at the end of his comedies. Actors playing Kops were often good at pratfalls, tumbles, and other bone-cracking stunts. Some hoped their appearances would lead to larger Keystone roles since, ya know, being a Kop wasn’t a starring role. (For a more detailed overview, check out my Kops article if yew like).
At far as the “original” Kops went…well, despite Mack Sennett’s own claims, “original” was used pretty loosely. It basically refers to the actors we know appeared as Kops early on: Edgar Kennedy, Al St. John, George Jeske, Hank Mann, Charles Avery, Mack Riley, Bobby Dunn, and Slim Summerville. However, from the get-go the Keystone Kops force was basically a revolving door of actors and extras. Dozens of gents showed up in those slightly-dented helmets throughout the 1910s–that much we definitely know.
So, how to determine if your relative had worked at Keystone and had showed up as a Kop? Essentially he would have to:
Have worked at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company at 1712 Allesandro Boulevard, Edendale (now Glendale), a neighborhood of Los Angeles, in the time period from 1912-1917. Your best bet is if he worked from 1913-1915. While they started making appearances in 1912, Kops were all over the Sennett films made from 1913-1915, and a little less in 1916. In 1917 Sennett was winding down Kops appearances. In 1918 and 1919 they didn’t appear in his films at all, and in the ’20s they only pop up in a meager handful of shorts. The vast majority of legitimate Kops players would definitely be active in the mid-1910s–the prime Kops years!
In this case I recommend looking through Brent Walker’s monumental Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, which has an exhaustive list of the actors and crew members that worked for Sennett. To paraphrase the librarian from Attack of the Clones, “If it does not appear in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, it does not exist.” Consulting old studio directories can sometimes help us figure out who was employed by them and when, and census records and old address books can help us confirm if the relative lived in the Los Angeles area, essential if he was to get to work everyday back in the 1910s. Think about the prosaic details of working in the area at the time–being a Kop meant you were usually a supporting actor, which wasn’t super lucrative, thus, you likely didn’t want to live too far from a trolley line. As you probably know, Ancestry.com and the like can be a big help here, as can historical societies and libraries.
Another thing to consider: If your relative did live in Los Angeles sometime from 1912-1917, did he always go by the same name? Sometimes people chose stage names for themselves, or went by nicknames or middle names, or even different spellings. You never know…!
Also: His birthdate. Was the relative in his late teens, twenties, or thirties during the 1910s? Younger guys were more able (and willing) to fling themselves off of Santa Monica piers or get dragged behind paddy wagons, so you want to confirm that your ancestor would’ve been in the right age range. It can be easy to compress swaths of cinema history in your mind into “Keystone Kops films, then Laurel and Hardy, then Abbott and Costello” and forget to check certain details like “How old was my great-uncle in 1915?” (Trust me, I’ve overlooked obvious facts like that myself.)
Was the relative known to have any background in the circus or vaudeville? Most Kops were good at acrobatics, especially pratfalls, so having some sort of acrobatic background would definitely add some legitimacy to his claim.
With all this in mind, and assuming you established that your relative did indeed work in the picture business in the 1910s, here’s a final, major thing to consider: Did this relative for sure work at Keystone, or did he work for a different comedy company? There were a number of comedy studios not just in L.A., but on the East coast and in Chicago too. And a lot of them were more than happy to ripoff Sennett’s Keystone Kops. There was the Essanay police force (headed by Ben Turpin!), the L-KO Cops, and the Fox Cops, a comic squadron Larry Semon threw into some fo his films, another one in Apollo Comedies, etc. Is it possible that your relative worked for one of those studios, and over the years his story morphed into “he appeared as a comic cop, therefore he was a Keystone Kop”?
Believe me, I’m well acquainted with the oft-vague nature of family lore. I have Belgian ancestry on my dad’s side (among other things–I’m kind of a European mutt), and my whole life I’ve heard that my last name came from a Belgian town named after a long-ago ancestor who had fought in some sort of battle, and had single-handedly fought a number of enemies and lived. Thanks to this brave act a town was eventually named after him, and a statue of him stands there in his memory. Apparently my grandpa’s cousin had visited there, which was the main reason why we’d heard of it.
Well, some years ago I went on my own adventure called “backpacking through Europe” and decided I needed to visit that town in Belgium. Only…there was no town with that name in Belgium. But there was one in Switzerland, and it fit the description perfectly, with the statue and everything. Clearly, something had gone wrong in the retelling of my grandpa’s cousin’s trip, and literally no one in my family tree had thought to question it or look into the geographical details. And HECK YES I visited that little town in Switzerland!! (Had a blast, too.)
So yes, check and doublecheck those details about your relative! And if it turns out he wasn’t a Keystone Kop after all, but worked at L-KO or was or part of a force that used to chase Larry Semon around the screen, that’s equally cool! Some of those overlooked studios were very popular in their day, and your ancestor absolutely played his part in film history. You just might help kickstart some researchers’ interest in these studios, too.
Helpful? I hope so! And if you’re a fellow researcher with handy tips of your own, feel free to share in the comments. Good luck in your searches, my friends!