Chapter One - Buster -
Buster wasn’t the name I was given when I was born during a vaudeville engagement in Kansas. That name wouldn’t come for nearly a year yet. At first, I was given the name that my father, Joe Keaton Jr., had gotten from his own father shortly after the Civil War. Not that Pop was around the night I came into the world.
That night, Pop had gone off to entertain the local farmers. Mom would normally be there to round out the act, playing the saxophone to accompany his dancing, high kicks, and impromptu ballads. But in her condition, she decided not to risk going out in the stormy weather. Pop set out on his own and soon discovered that a Kansas cyclone had knocked down the tent he was booked to perform under. He gathered the other men around and on his say so, they heaved the wet canvas up off the ground. At just that moment, another gust of wind came along and tore the tent clean out of their hands. They watched helplessly as it billowed up into the night sky and disappeared, along with any hope of ever getting paid.
Pop returned to the boarding house across from the railway depot, which together formed the bulk of the whistle-stop town of Piqua, Kansas. There he found that a midwife had been summoned and the two Keatons had become the three Keatons. Mom rested the next day, but only so long. Piqua’s population numbered around two hundred, and that night nearly all two hundred squeezed into the one-room church for some entertainment. Mom held her saxophone over an impromptu sling containing a baby. When I first went before an audience, I was not quite twenty-four hours old.
That’s not to say that the name of the family act was immediately changed to “The Three Keatons.” That would take a while, and it would take longer still for that name to move from dead last on playbills to near the top. In the meantime, I grew up on the road, sleeping in Pullman cars and costume trunks just off stage. We’d get all full of soot from the trains, with sand added into the mix out west. The only hotels that would accept vaudeville performers provided a cracked ceramic bowl to wash in and towels thin enough to see through.
Mom would later tell me how I would squirm onto the stage like a crawdad and make myself comfortable between Pop’s feet while he was in the middle of one of his lengthy monologues. I would stare out into the audience and without doing anything to ask for it, would get a huge laugh. This naturally made Pop furious.
We crisscrossed the country several times, and wound up back in Kansas. This time around I sure earned the name Buster.
Mom and Pop’s act was a surefire way to draw a crowd, which would then be lectured by a German doctor on the restorative powers of a certain snake oil tonic that just happened to be for sale at a dollar a bottle. The doctor was a phony named Harry Houdini. Long before he became the King of Handcuffs, Houdini was just a friend of Pop’s trying to scratch out a living.
One day before the evening performance, Mom was playing solitaire and rolling Bull Durham cigarettes in the front parlor of the boarding house. Pop was pounding out advertisements for the act on his Blickensderfer, the first model of portable typewriter sold anywhere in the world. Houdini had his nose in one of the scientific books he would haul around by the trunk load. And I, just around nine months old, had been put down for a nap upstairs.
The adults froze in the middle of what they were doing when they heard a cooing from the top of the staircase. They all turned to see me reaching my little hand into the void beyond that top stair. All three set off running, but it was too late. They watched as my little body tumbled forward. The downward momentum transformed into a forward summersault. I intuitively reached my arms up and stretched my body. Boom, boom, boom. My bottom, protected only by three-corner pants, bounced off the bottom few stairs. Then I hit the floor and slid across it in more or less of a sitting position, spinning around as I went.
Pop was fast on his feet, but Houdini was faster. He reached me first and scooped me up in his great, muscular arms. Their worry melted away when they saw that not only was I not harmed, but I was giggling and reaching for those stairs. I wanted to give it another go.
“Not a scratch,” Houdini said. “Say, Keaton, this kid of yours sure took some buster!”
“And that’s what he’s going to be called from now on,” Pop said. “Buster Keaton.”
And he was right. I’ve never been called anything else since. And I went on taking one fall after another. By the time I was four years old, taking falls was earning me a weekly salary. By six, I was the Keaton family breadwinner. And all I had to do was get knocked around a stage twice a day—or three times a day when Pop got us in trouble on the vaudeville circuit and we had to play the small time.
Pop showed me how to roll into a fall and roll out of it. I was to avoid landing directly on my tailbone, elbows, or the back of my skull, where bones get broken. And on the few occasions I did get hurt, he taught me how to hide it.
And by “taught,” I mean Pop tossed me around the stage and let me figure it out for myself. All that exertion made Pop’s right arm grow to twice the size of his left. He used to take to the stage talking about the proper way to raise children, while carrying me by the slack of my pants like a suitcase. That gave Mom the idea of sewing an old trunk handle into the back of my costume to make it easier to launch me into the wings. We worked out the perfect amount of time for me to wait out of view of the audience. I would count to ten in my head. A lot could happen in those ten seconds. Occasionally a lady would threaten to fetch the police or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, an offshoot of the group that protected animals. In New York, Gerry Society agents had police powers and would often choose this point of the show to stand up and announce that it wasn’t going to continue. These do-gooders claimed to be helping children, but they caused nothing but problems for me.
If nothing stopped us in those ten seconds, I would quietly step out from the wings to show the audience I was all in one piece. This never failed to get a laugh. We also noticed that my facial expressions would dampen any reaction. It soon became mechanical for me to never show I was afraid, angry, or hurt.
“Face,” Pop would hiss at me on stage. “Keep a deadpan.” Pop never understood the meaning of a stage whisper. Audiences probably assumed this banter was just part of the act, which was packed with verbal sparring in addition to the physical variety.
I took some beautiful spills on the stage, and sometimes from the stage. All acts dreaded being booked in New Haven, where the Yale students would show up drunk and rearing to heckle. The Three Keatons just took it as a challenge.
“Why don’t you shut up and do something?” a college boy yelled while Pop was reciting a bit of doggerel.
“Who said that?” Pop shielded his eyes from the spotlight with his hand as he surveyed the crowd.
“I said shut up and do something! And tell that lady to put the French horn away. She stinks!”
Pop spotted them—three college students in the fifth row. He grabbed the nearest throwable object—me—and heaved away. He barely had time to tell me to tense up as he turned my body and released it so I would hit straight across all three of them. Not one of those boys escaped a broken rib. Pop wasn’t worried about me for a moment, and neither was I. We both knew I wouldn’t get hurt.
Our act may have looked like sheer chaos, but it was a well-oiled machine. Everything was worked out to a fraction of a second and a fraction of an inch. If I could smell beer on Pop’s breath as we went on stage, I knew everything would go just fine. If I smelled whiskey, I had to keep my distance. My efforts to run away from him became part of the act. An old trick for us consisted of Pop doing a swing kick just in front of my nose and over my head to knock my hat off. He would then catch that hat with his foot before it had the chance to hit the floor. We had done this bit of business thousands of times before. One day, Pop misjudged it. When his leg came down behind my head, I came down with it, straight to the stage floor. I was out cold for eighteen hours.
I also got into some trouble nowhere near a theater. In another Kansas town, Mom and Pop went off to book rail tickets to our next engagement and left me in the care of a chambermaid. When the manager ordered the maid down to the storm cellar, she complied, forgetting all about the little boy in her charge. Fascinated to see the glass rattle in the window and the sky grow dark in the early afternoon, I went to investigate. When I opened the window, I was sucked right through it. I looked around at tree branches and an axe handle as they swirled about me. I had no idea how high up I was before I was deposited on the ground just as gentle as could be.
Mom and Pop had seen the cyclone rip through the town and rushed back to our hotel room, which they found empty. Mom immediately fell into a panic. Pop assured her that nothing could harm little Bussy. A knock came at the door, and Pop opened it to find a hayseed farmer.
“You them theatrical folks?”
“Then this must be yours.” The farmer stepped aside to reveal his wife cradling me in her arms. Though wet and mud-splattered, I was just fine. I’ve shared this story over the years and some people simply refuse to believe it. One who didn’t bat an eye was my fellow actor Wallace Beery. He said tornadoes in Kansas were nothing, as they were just building up speed on their way to his native Missouri, where they would do some real damage.
Pop integrated that farmer into our act with the very next performance. He would sling me into the wings, where a stagehand who’d been paid a dollar for his trouble was waiting to catch me. As soon as I was in his arms, he would duck out the stage door, race around the theater, and come back in through the main entrance.
“Is this yours, Mr. Keaton?” coming from the back of the house got a bigger laugh than our previous ten-second wait in the wings.
On stage, Pop could never stop talking. He would describe me as “the best comedian of his age and inches in America.” He’d call me “the human mop,” while using me as such to sweep the stage. I was “the boy who cannot be harmed” and “the boy who will not lie down.” Eventually I grew too big, and Pop grew too old to toss me around like a sack of flour. We decided to give our act an intellectual bent and started swatting at each other with brooms.
It was beautiful to see on the stage and fun to do, but it couldn’t last. I broke up the family act and went into making motion pictures. Before long, I had a whole team of talented men working with me to devise one big fall after another, each one topping the last. I would open the back door of a house only to discover too late that it was the second floor and there were no stairs. The team would send me rolling down a hill pursued by 1,500 rocks, from grapefruit size on up to boulders ten feet across.
Following in the footsteps of my father who had worked the farmer into our act, I went a step further by recreating the whole storm on film. My technical men built a breakaway hospital that could be lifted with a 120-foot crane to reveal me lying on a bed. Firehoses and six Liberty airplane engines fitted with huge fans created the storm. I stood at the edge of that powerful blast of air and water, my body at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and felt that I just might be lifted away again.
I would lure my audience into thinking I must be steady on my feet at last, only to give them a few more falls. I would drop through awnings one after another on my way down the side of a skyscraper, get flung through an open window and slide across the floor of a firehouse until I lit up against the fireman’s pole and vanished down the hole. When I finally hit the ground floor, I would sit down to collect myself, only to realize I was on the back of a firetruck racing off to a four-alarmer. Once, in our attempt to outdo ourselves, the team and I decided I would leap off a diving board, crash through the bottom of the pool, and go straight through to China.
The training I received under Pop meant I never had to share my pay with a stunt double. I was forever covered in bruises and splotched with iodine, but that was nothing. If our meticulously planned gags ran into problems, it could land me in the hospital for a few days. The important thing was my character on the screen never got hurt. He would always pick himself up and walk away. The falls off screen, however, grew harder to deal with.
One day, Louis B. Mayer kicked in the door of my trailer. My private bus furnished with luxurious berths, a galley, and tables had been built to order by the Pullman company for the president of a railway. In the way only a millionaire can, he promptly decided he no longer wanted the vehicle and sold it to me. My fellow actor Lew Cody said it looked like a ship on wheels and I christened it my “land yacht.” It became a magnet for fun on the Metro lot. Mayer had sent his right-hand man Eddie Mannix to escort my vehicle off the premises. What Mayer didn’t understand was that Mannix was one of many cheerful souls with an open invitation to board at any time of day or night for a game of cards and a drink.
Eventually, Mayer himself charged in. I was in one of the berths, keeping company with a starlet under studio contract. She will go unnamed, mainly because I have no recollection of her name. In our revelry, she had deposited a mountain of clothes in the middle of the land yacht. This included her own garments as well as expensive furs I had insisted she take from my wife’s closet.
“Show yourself, Keaton!” Mayer roared like Leo the Lion.
I dragged myself out of my berth and discovered I was decked out in full naval regalia for some reason or another. We must have raided the wardrobe department again. A prop sword dangled from my belt.
“How dare you board a vessel without the permission of the captain? I’ll throw you in the brig! I’ll have you in irons!”
I got caught up in the assorted garments and fell forward at Mayer’s feet. He looked down at me in disgust.
“Look at yourself. You came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer thinking you’d be running the joint in no time. Now you’re wallowing in your own filth.”
“Guards, seize him!” I shouted.
The two studio writers, who had been in the middle of whiskey sodas and a round of poker when Mayer burst in, were too afraid to do anything other than stare down at their cards.
“You want to drink away your marriage? Wreck your family?” Mayer asked. “That’s no concern of mine. What is my concern is soundstage eight, where you’re scheduled to be for re-shoots this very goddamn minute. Stage eight, where Durante and a full crew are waiting for you. Stage eight, where I am paying ten thousand dollars a day for filming, whether filming goes on or not.”
The starlet, still only half dressed, squeezed by Mayer on the way to the back berth in search of the rest of her clothing. “Pardon me,” she murmured.
I sat up, still tangled in ladies’ clothing.
“Does it really make a difference if school keeps or not?” I asked. “You don’t let me touch the scripts, and the scripts stink. Even you can’t spin crap into gold, L.B. Now I must ask you to kindly remove yourself from my ship.”
“With pleasure. And once you return that stolen getup to my wardrobe department, kindly remove yourself from my studio. Your services are no longer required at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I very much doubt that they will ever be required anywhere else.”
Much later, when Mayer, the starlet, and the writers were long gone, I drew my prop sword. Holding it like a billiard cue, I took a shot at one of the windows of the land yacht. It shattered. I moved on to the next. It exploded, throwing splinters of glass towards my eyes. I moved on to another, and another, getting tangled up in the furs, falling into the broken glass.
This was a fall that wouldn’t be so easy to pick myself up from. In fact, it would take years.