Find results with:
It was a fairy tale come true, at least for a child of vaudeville performers.
“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.” Famed silent film comedian Buster Keaton wrote those words in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. For the Keaton family, which then numbered five, Muskegon, Michigan was a place to call home.
“It was his favorite place on earth,” noted Keaton’s widow, Eleanor, years later. “He loved Muskegon.”
The Childhood of Buster Keaton
Born on the road in a little Kansas town in 1895, Joseph Frank Keaton had known only one life. Before the age of three, he was incorporated into the family act. By age five, he had become a regular and would soon be the feature member of “The Three Keatons.” It was a nomadic life filled with matinee and evening stage performances, travel, backstage banter, and hotel stays in big cities and small burgs scattered across the countryside. For a child, the upbringing was far from normal.
A booking in Muskegon would alter that life. While performing at the Lake Michigan Park Theater in July 1908, his parents, Joe and Myra, visited property that was for sale along the shore of Muskegon Lake. The Keaton’s arraigned a purchase, and then returned to the road, informing friends and acquaintances of the little slice of paradise they had found in Muskegon, Michigan.
The Actors’ Colony
The move laid the groundwork for a thriving community of actors that grew in Edgewater and the neighboring Bluffton area. It was known as the Actors’ Colony and thrived during the summer months, when performers relaxed as bookings on the vaudeville circuit were down due to the heat.
With Pigeon Hill, a soaring sand dune, serving as a backdrop, Joe had a cottage built for his family on a lot that faced the water. For Buster, his sister Myra and his younger brother Harry (nicknamed Jingles because of his “noisy way with toys”), Muskegon provided a chance to be kids.
A “True Playground for Residents”
Populated with a cast of regulars and an ever-changing collection of visitors, word is that the area served as home to over two hundred performers at its peak years. It was a true playground for residents.
Fishing, swimming and boating were, of course, favorite pastimes. A short walk away was Lake Michigan Park, featuring a theater, carnival amusements, dancing and fun (For images, click Lake Michigan Park images). Pascoe’s Place, located near the turnaround for the streetcars that brought visitors to the Park, sat nearby. Serving as the unofficial headquarters for the Colony, the menu featured succulent pan-fried perch and nickel beers. A baseball diamond situated behind the property came alive with contests against local factory squads.
Max and Adele Gruber lived just down the street. Their novelty animal act, “Oddities of the Jungle” featured the talents of an elephant, a trained zebra and a Great Dane. Max’s elephant, it is said, was often dispatched to provide taxi service for the reveler who enjoyed a little too much of his drink of choice at Pascoes.
Living next to the Keaton’s was Big Joe Roberts, who would later serve as the heavy in Keaton’s films. Ed Gray, known as the “Tall Tale Teller,” was also a friend of the family’s. Annoyed by regular visits to his property by patrons of the nearby Park, he dispatched Buster’s talents in building an outhouse with collapsible walls. With a yank on a rope, Gray could quickly identity trespassers, to the amusement of many.
Lex Neal, a peer, became fast friends with Buster, and later served as a writer in Hollywood for both Buster and silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd.
Today, the delight of lakeside living is still enjoyed in similar ways by residents of the area. The neighborhood’s storied past is celebrated the first weekend of October each year when the International Buster Keaton Society descends on Muskegon for their annual convention. A visit to the baseball diamond, a trip through the neighborhood and discussions on Buster’s years as a performer are capped with a public showing of some of his classic comedies at the city’s restored movie house, the Frauenthal Theater. Featuring the sounds of a booming Barton theater organ, the theater’s silver screen glistens with Keaton’s antics, and is filled with fun and laughter – a fitting tribute to a man who, according to film critic Roger Ebert, is “arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of movies.”
Our Guest Blogger
Ron Pesch, an IT worker, has written for Michigan History Magazine, MLive and other publications. He is an historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, a board member of the International Buster Keaton Society and a die-hard high school sports fan. He graduated from Muskegon High School and Western Michigan University.