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The Evolution of Keaton's Vaudeville Ù WlCCORDING TO Keaton family legend , Buster Keaton spent only one day in school. Allegedly, the teacher expelled Keaton for answering her questions with punch lines he learned in vaudeville.1 Regardless of the veracity of the story, for all practical purposes Keaton's "school" was the vaudeville stage; he learned his trade performing around the country for more than seventeen of the first twenty-two years of his life. Keaton first appeared in vaudeville when he was nine months old, and by the age of five he was a regular part of his parents' act, The Three Keatons. He quickly acclimated himself to the stage and almost immediately became The Three Keatons' star attraction. "Young Buster Keaton, who is only five years old, is a wonderful comedian," noted an early reviewer, "and he is ably assisted by his father and mother."2 Subsequent reviewers recognized Buster3 as the star of the act and frequently remarked that The Three Keatons received more laughter than any other act on the bill, often eclipsing the headline act.4 Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas. His parents, Joe and Myra, were performers; at the time of Buster's birth, they were touring with a medicine show, the lowest rung on the traveling entertainers' ladder. Joe met Myra when he began working for the Cutler-Bryant Medicine Show, a traveling tent show owned in part by Myra's father, F L. Cutler. Joe first worked as the bouncer for the show but eventually developed skills as an acrobat, "eccentric" dancer, and "gro.tesque " comedian. Grotesque comedians portrayed stock characters based on exaggerated, stereotyped traits of a particular ethnic group. Joe Keaton played an Irishman, although the mainstay of his act was his acrobatics, a distinctive specialty best captured by the billing he gave himself in adver- 20 E V O L U T I O N O F K E A T O N ' S V A U D E V I L L E tisements: "The Man with the Table." Joe performed his acrobatic act on, under, and around a table located center stage: "He would dive on it head­ first, turn handsprings along its top, and then from apogee plunge head down almost to the floor before, with a catlike turn, he would land on his feet."5 He was known for his ability to kick; his particular specialty was the "hitch kick," a high kick that he performed later in his career in Buster's films.6 Myra sang and played the saxophone. In publicity releases and news clippings the Keatons claimed Myra was "America's first lady saxophonist."7 The Keatons worked their way up the vaudeville ladder slowly. Toward the turn of the century, they toured with Harry Houdini's family as part of another medicine show, Dr. Hill's California Concert Company.8 As Buster's fame grew, the story of how he received his nickname "Buster" eventually incorporated the great Houdini, who by the early 1900s had already attained world recognition for his escape stunts. In later versions of the story, Houd­ ini, seeing six-month-old Buster fall down an entire flight of stairs only to land unharmed, declared, "That's some Buster your baby took," using the vaudeville slang for a stage fall. According to Myra Keaton, "Joe looked down and said, 'Well, Buster, looks like Uncle Harry has named you.' He's been Buster ever since."9 Keaton biographers have always been quite generous in accepting this story as truth, as well as the rest of the Keaton family myths. Yet careful study of the newspaper clippings in Myra Keaton's scrapbook reveals that the story evolved over the years. In one version, Buster's nickname was coined by "George Pardey, an old-time legitimate comedian."1 0 In another, Joe Keaton gave Buster his nickname because his son was always falling down. With the exception of Dardis, writers have been extremely reluctant to recognize these inconsistencies, perhaps because many have perceived the Keaton family stories as a source for Keaton's comedy.11 Recognizing these stories as fiction, or at the very least as embellishments of reality, does not discount their value for the study and understanding of Keaton's work. The stories reveal much about their author, Joe Keaton, who, in addition to his many physical skills, was an excellent public rela­ tions representative for The Three Keatons. His primary...


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