By the time Buster Keaton became a professional performer and vaudeville star at the age of five, he had already lived a life as extraordinary and fanciful as his films would later become.
When only a few months old, he nearly suffocated after being accidentally shut in a costume trunk off stage while his mother and father performed, an incident that encouraged his parents to begin leaving him at whatever boarding house they were residing in. According to family legend, the Keatons then escaped from a series of fires and train wrecks that would have destroyed a less charmed family.
Finally, on one harrowing day when he was nearly three: Buster caught his right forefinger in a clothes wringer, losing the first joint, gashed his head near the eye with a brick that boomeranged after he threw it at a peach tree and was sucked out of an upstairs window by a passing cyclone that carried him floating through the air and conveniently deposited him, unhurt, in the middle of a street a few blocks away.
After that, his parents decided he'd be safer on stage.
Even his nickname was supposedly given to him under dramatic and unusual circumstances. Sharing the bill with the Keatons were the great escape artist Harry Houdini and his wife, Buster's godparents. Houdini saw little Buster, then only about six months old, slip and tumble down a flight of stairs, arriving virtually unharmed, perhaps even amused, at the bottom. "What a buster your kid took!" Houdini is said to have cried out. With those simple words, Keaton became the first person to use Buster as a name. Buster Brown, Buster Crabbe and Buster Poindexter all came later, presumably owing their names indirectly to Harry Houdini.
Little Buster, who heard these stories as part of the family history would think little of creating films in which the impossible becomes possible. Life and danger were inextricably linked.
By the end of his life, Keaton had advanced the art of filmmaking through his superb writing and direction, had developed technical camera innovations unsurpassed even today, and was universally acclaimed as a genius.
What kind of man could achieve what he did? Who was this Buster Keaton, this jack of all theatrical trades, this genius in disguise?
Born Joseph Frank Keaton to a pair of medicine show performers, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton, on October 4, 1895, Buster seemed destined for show business. He reputedly made his first appearance on stage crawling on from the wings at the age of nine months (one improbable clipping says it was the day after he was born), to the audience's delight and his father's surprise. When less than three, immediately following the clothes wringer-brick-cyclone episode, he was regularly appearing with his folks in towns where the vigilance of the Gerry Society, whose job it was to enforce the child labor laws, was lax.
His innate comic gifts were already evident in his first performances; he would stand behind his father, dressed in an identical costume, and, unplanned and unrehearsed, mouth the words of his father's monologue as a silent and grotesque Greek chorus.
A newspaper article from September 25, 1902, when Buster was six, proclaims:
Buster's version was:
The stories about his childhood, the family act and his stardom are legend and have been recounted in detail. Only one needs to be retold here because it provides singular insight into Keaton's character. After auditioning with his father for the legendary showman Tony Pastor in New York—an important chance for the Keatons—the act was hired, but minus Buster. The Gerry Society had struck. Buster reportedly cried at being excluded from the show. He was four years old.
His "official" professional debut was on Wednesday, October 17, 1900, in the fourth place on the bill, at Dockstader's Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. Forty-one years later, when Keaton was considered a "has-been"by Hollywood, a Wilmington newspaper recounted that impressive debut:
The article goes on to say that William Dockstader, owner of the theater, "was so impressed with the ability and popularity of the child that he offered an extra $10 for his services if the parents would permit him to appear in evening shows as well as in matinees."
Beginning with that auspicious debut at the age of just barely five, Buster Keaton was a star, a big star. He toured the United States with his father and mother, performing their ever-changing act for 17 years, an act that generally started with Joe Keaton explaining to the audience how one should bring up a child while Buster behind him was wreaking havoc. The act constantly varied, providing young Buster the opportunity to sharpen his mind with improvisation and develop his gift for parody.
For young Buster, standing in the wings watching all the other acts, it was a priceless opportunity to absorb what American theater of the time had to offer. The solemn, big-eyed child made lifelong friends, mostly adults, during the 17 years he, Joe, Myra, and eventually little brother Harry ("Jingles") and sister Louise traveled the vaudeville circuit and mingled with the best entertainers in the country.
On the road, Buster learned not only to be his father's roughhouse partner, but to sing, dance, play the piano and the ukulele, juggle, do magic and write gags and parody. The performers he knew were also his teachers: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, then at the start of his career, taught the little boy to dance, decades before he taught another child, Shirley Temple, to dance for the movies. The great Harry Houdini taught him card tricks. Buster, like the rest of the world, was enthralled with Houdini's act, often watching him from the wings or even from up above in the flies to try to figure out Houdini's secrets.
In his films Buster Keaton would often evoke these childhood theatrical memories, either with references to the theater of his youth or by making use of the varied skills he learned as a child.
Although Keaton would one day be praised for his brilliance, he attended less than one day of public school, in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. His formal education ended abruptly at lunch time, after his quick wit and vaudeville gags proved too distracting to the other students and particularly to their teacher. His mother, who herself had only a third-grade education, taught him what she knew, eventually hiring tutors and governesses to fill in the gaps—at least that's what the newspaper clippings claimed. But Keaton wasn't learning from books, even with the tutors. He was learning show business. Of course, many vaudevillians had little or no formal schooling; Buster was not unique in this, even if he was unique in his talent.
Until Buster came along, the family act had not been terribly successful. In fact, during the week of Buster's professional debut in Wilmington, the act was repeatedly and mistakenly advertised as "Mr. and Mrs. Joe Keating: The Peers of Break-neck Oddities." After Buster formally toddled into show business and became a star, errors of this kind would not happen again. As soon as tiny Buster joined the act, the family fortunes improved. Where The Two Keatons had struggled, The Three Keatons were a hit. The serious little boy who liked getting tossed around on stage received enough public attention that it was in his parents' best interest to keep him out there in front of the audience.
But it was difficult to keep him onstage. Joe and Myra were constantly asked to defend their treatment of their son in what seemed to be a brutal stage act. Buster remembered: "It was Sarah Bernhardt who said, 'How can you do this to this poor boy?' when they were throwing me around madly. Everybody said that." The Gerry Society was vigilant on behalf of working children and so were local police. A half-hearted though somewhat successful attempt was made to pass Buster off as a midget in order to make the Gerries think he was an adult—and therefore not in their jurisdiction.
At other times, his parents were arrested because police were convinced Buster was being mistreated. "We used to get arrested every other week—that is, the old man would get arrested," Buster said. "Once they took me to the mayor of New York City, into his private office, with the city physicians . . . and they stripped me to examine me for broken bones and bruises. Finding none, the mayor gave me permission to work. The next time it happened, the following year, they sent me to Albany, to the governor of the state."
Another vaudevillian, Will "Mush" Rawls, confirmed Buster's version, saying: " . . . and then Buster would have to go down to the chief of police, pull off his little shirt and pants and show them that he had no bruises or broken legs."
Because of the roughhouse nature of the act, some have insisted that Buster must have been a victim of abuse throughout his childhood, not just during its later years—despite his lack of bruises and broken legs. But this seems unlikely under the circumstances. With the Gerry Society and local officials vigilantly watching their every move, the Keatons would certainly have been forbidden to perform if any indication of child abuse had ever surfaced.
Whenever interviewed, Buster and his family and friends vehemently denied these rumors, always insisting that his early childhood on stage and off was a happy one. However, he did acknowledge that as he got older, his father's drinking forced Buster to fend for himself.
Only two known on-stage accidents occurred. With two (and sometimes three) performances a day six days a week for more than 17 years, that's an astonishing track record. Most children break a leg or chip a tooth in more sedate surroundings, but Keaton's worst injuries in these years seem to have come from having been in a train wreck, which left him with bruises and cuts on his face and put him out of work for a week. The newspaper articles expressed amazement that he was injured at all in the accident, given his hardiness on stage.
Joe Keaton, far from mistreating Buster—at least in those days—was proud of his son's success. In 1907, he wrote to longtime friend, Buster's godfather and vaudeville's biggest star, Harry Houdini: "You can't talk too much on the ability of my little comedian Buster and our comedy table work. There ain't another act like it . . . he's a corker. The ushers quit work when he troupes."
The family was soon wealthy enough to afford a "Browniekar"—a small, but fully functioning, automobile for Buster—and a summer home in the pleasant community of Muskegon, Michigan, for the entire family. The lakeside house, dubbed "Jingles' Jungle" after Buster's little brother Harry (Jingles), was in an actors' colony that Joe helped to found. Those summers gave Buster an opportunity to have a more normal existence for a few months out of the year and to make friends with children his own age.
By 1917, when Buster was 21 and a recognized star, the Gerry Society's worries had come true. His father had progressively become a dangerous and violent alcoholic. His timing gone and his emotions volatile, Joe became dangerous to the family off stage and to Buster on. Two years before, the Detroit News had written this: "When Pa Keaton hurls Buster, now weighing 130 pounds, there's no make-believe and Buster has to look out for himself. Furthermore, he doesn't wear pads."
The article, curious in light of Joe's increasing on-stage violence, goes on to interview 19-year-old Buster:
Eventually, when he and his mother had had enough, he quit the act in January 1917, leaving his father temporarily stranded in California. As a well-known star already, he was signed immediately to appear on Broadway in Shubert's Passing Show of 1917.