The New York Times
Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hatby Edward McPherson
In this biography introducing comic genius Keaton (1895-1966) to a new generation, a New York-based fan traces Keaton's career from his vaudeville days to fame as the actor-director of such silent classics as The General (1926). McPherson, who watched some 60 of Keaton's films as part of his research, also discusses the star's personal ups and downs but not much about his legacy. The book, whose title refers to Keaton's signature porkpie hat, includes photos and reference material. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
The New York Times
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Buster KeatonTempest in a Flat Hat
By EDWARD McPHERSON
Newmarket PressCopyright © 2004 Edward McPherson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCyclone Baby
Our hero came from Nowhere-he wasn't going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere. The High Sign (1921)
Friday, October 4, 1895. In Egypt, the Nile runs unusually high; Great Britain is experiencing uncommonly cold weather after a period of uncommon warmth; somewhere in Canada, a railroad superintendent on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Line mysteriously disappears between stops; four men fall off a rope bridge some forty feet into a riverbed in Sing Sing, New York; two Massachusetts balloonatics are stranded aloft when their guide suddenly collapses. And in Piqua, Kansas, population somewhere around 200, Joseph Frank Keaton is born. His proud parents Myra, a 4' 11" ninety-pound whiskey-drinking bull-fiddle player, and Joe, a brawling self-promoter with a prodigious high kick, are traveling the vaudeville circuit with the Mohawk Indian Medicine Show. When the show moves on, so does Joe, leaving his wife and child to catch up with him some two weeks later. Throughout his life, Joe Jr. would claim that Piqua was blown off the map shortly thereafter by a cyclone-a fictitious yet fitting bit of theatrical kinetics for the boy who would weather tremendous storms, both real and imaginary, as comedy's Great Stone Face.
Myra and Joe were star-crossed lovers from the start. She was the Iowa-born daughter of Frank L. Cutler, owner of the Cutler Comedy Company, one of the Old West's many roving "medicine shows." A traveling nineteenth-century infomercial of sorts, the medicine show was a marriage of entertainment and commerce, offering the public free out-door variety acts while deriving revenue from the boozy tonic it aggressively hawked. The son of a miller, Joe Keaton hailed from a sober line of Indiana Quakers, but-as his self-styled legend has it-he lit out for the territories at age twenty-six with eight bucks and a Winchester rifle. Somewhere in the great Oklahoma Territory, a landless and penniless Joe crossed paths with the Cutler Company, which was busy spreading the gospel of its "Kickapoo Elixir." He signed on with the show for three dollars a week as a bouncer, laborer, and "eccentric dancer." Thus Joe met sixteen-year-old Myra, and though he was a foot taller and ten years her senior, he began to woo. "Doc" Cutler was not eager to have a yarn-spinning drifter for a son-in-law, and he sent Myra to live with relatives in Lincoln, Nebraska. But willful Myra was not to be denied; one day she showed up at Joe's boardinghouse, and on May 31, 1894, a Justice of the Peace married the young couple, even though they were a dime short of the two-dollar wedding fee.
The Cutler Company had no place for its wayward daughter and her shiftless husband, so Myra and Joe were forced to find work with other outfits. It was a hard, vagabond life lived for paltry pay. Myra played three shows nightly while Joe pitched tents, canvassed the town to drum up business, and kept an ear out for the cry, "Hey, Rube!"-the carny distress signal, used when being set upon by resentful locals. Rambunctious Joe was handy in a fight; his favorite on-stage bit was also his best brawling maneuver: a particularly nasty and sudden high kick. From a standstill he could whip his foot eight feet in the air with enough precision to knock a man's hat off his head-with or without harming the head. Joe was a bar-room braggadocio, an outgoing soul whose frequent black-eyes earned him the nickname "Dick Deadeye," after the scoundrel in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. Myra soon grew accustomed to her husband's scrapes with the local constabulary; she was a woman who rolled her own cigarettes and played a ruthless game of pinochle.
Then, eight months into her unruly union, in February 1895, Myra became pregnant. That fall, in the whistle-stop town of Piqua, Kansas, she gave birth to a baby boy.
Most likely it wasn't until he was eighteen months old that Joseph Frank Keaton took his first pratfall, an ill-fated tumble down a full flight of stairs in a theatrical boardinghouse, from which he emerged unscathed-though he himself would later maintain he was aged just six months on the auspicious day. Regardless, the act was witnessed by another guest, who picked up the infant and proclaimed to Joe something along the lines of, "My, what a buster!" The name-show-biz slang for a fall-stuck. In early versions of the story, the witness is George Pardey, a vaudeville comedian; a later, and less likely, account has the great Houdini himself unwittingly baptizing the lad. The moniker even precedes the work of R. F. Outcault, originator of the "Buster Brown" comic strip. This boy Buster was clearly an original.
Buster's tumble was a brisk introduction to what would amount to a lifetime of odd occurrences, fantastic mishaps, and propitious near-calamities. One summer day before he was three, young Buster sat behind his family's current boardinghouse, watching a washerwoman dry the laundry with an old-fashioned clothes wringer. The woman had turned her back on Buster, and he was gamely poking at the mysterious contraption when suddenly it sucked his right index finger into its solid-rubber maw. The machine was taken apart, but the finger couldn't be saved-a local doctor sliced it off at the first joint. Then, as legend has it, the day went from bad to worse. Baby Buster slept off the pain, and awoke that afternoon to toddle out into the yard. There he spied a peach, hanging from a tree, and attempted to dislodge it by tossing a brick. The projectile came down squarely on his head, resulting in another visit from the doctor and three stitches in the boy's scalp. Down but not out, Buster took another nap. This time he awoke to a howling wind. Curious, he went to the window, where he was immediately picked up by a raging Kansas twister that carried him for about a block before a local man could nab the flying youngster and deposit him in a storm cellar. The boy was indestructible.
Such tall tales were surely the work of Joe Keaton, a one-man PR firm, who churned out countless dispatches from the Keaton family front on his great Blickensderfer typewriter, sending them off to any newspaperman who would take the time to read them. From Joe, Buster learned the value of a good story; given a chance to set the record straight in his 1960 autobiography, he perpetuated many a family myth, including the one about his very bad day.
But if Buster developed an early taste for embellishment, perhaps it getting thrown through backdrops, into the orchestra pit, and off the stage. Buster would earn this punishment with his insolent tongue and repeated disruprions of Joe's stage sermon, which instructed the audience in the best ways to make their children mind. Buster would flatten Joe with a basketball; Joe would throw him to the wings; Myra would play the alto sax. Audiences squirmed, then laughed to see the impish boy reappear, unharmed. "The Three Keatons" had their gimmick.
To modern eyes, the act might seem to border on abuse, but Buster always denied such allegations. He was born a ham; such demonstrations came instinctually to him-and what boy doesn't enjoy playing rough? Furthermore, Buster was a natural acrobat who grew up surrounded by professionals. His innate talent, his elastic, durable young bones, and the boldness of being under four feet tall made him an early, quick study of the comedy pratfall. Before he knew it, Buster was cultivating a stage personality. Buster and Joe got the biggest laughs when the boy didn't react to his success or failure. Realizing there is nothing funny about a comedian who laughs at his own jokes, Joe instilled in his boy a deadpan expression, hissing "Face! Face!" under his breath if-amidst the hilarity-Buster began to crack a smile. Thus was born the impassive stone face, a Buster Keaton trademark that he would put to comedic effect for the rest of his life. He came to assert that it wasn't an act, that he was wholly incapable of laughter. To the public, this seemed true; Buster learned the discipline of comedy young, and he learned it well.
"The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged" was unique among his peers. The vaudeville stage saw countless cute and well-mannered "Little Lord Fauntleroys," but few irascible hellions. There was good reason for this. Few children could pull off what Buster did: the act was physically grueling, and he and Joe took some hard knocks. Once, Buster was thrown into a backdrop that happened to be hiding a brick wall; later, when Buster was about eight, Joe knocked him out for eighteen hours with a high kick. (With a showman's pride, Buster later remembered it as the only time the Keatons missed a performance due to an onstage injury.) Many vaudeville stages were rough-hewn affairs, and one day Joe-falling from a table-took a four-inch splinter to the head that speared his wig to his scalp. Audience members, too, could be at risk. The Keatons were playing to a packed Syracuse house when Myra's saxophone solo aroused the ire of a particularly vociferous critic. Joe immediately hoisted Buster by the handle under his overcoat and threw him-feet-first-at the heckler, breaking three of the offender's ribs and smashing two of the adjacent man's front teeth. Buster, naturally, was just fine.
After their historic Delaware engagement, The Three Keatons took a brief tour of the Midwest. By early spring they were back East, and on March 11, 1901, Buster made his triumphant New York debut at Proctor's 125th Street Theater. The family then signed on for a stint at Tony Pastor's, where it had all begun for Joe and Myra. But this time things were different: the act was held over after its initial run; the Keatons had to go on only twice a day; their weekly salary more than quadrupled, to about $225; the family was able to take an apartment on 21st Street. Under a good-sized picture of Buster, a page-two story in the New York Clipper proclaimed, "The tiny comedian is perfectly at ease in his work, natural, finished and artistic, and his specialties have proved a fetching addition to the favorite act of the Keatons that is known all over the land by its title, 'The Man With the Table.'" The kid was a hit.
Excerpted from Buster Keaton by EDWARD McPHERSON Copyright © 2004 by Edward McPherson.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Edward McPherson has contributed to such publications as the New York Times Magazine, New York Observer, I.D., Esopus, Absolute, and Talk. Originally from Texas, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Magical. Here is a novel which will delight first-time Keaton fans and Damfinos alike. The force in McPherson's writing lies in his ability to capture the adventure and excitement of the early days of film--a time when Keaton's reckless energy came under tight focus beneath the camera's lens. Through his delightful prose, McPherson illuminates the character and vivacity of these films, perfectly transforming the emotion which we feel as viewers into our imagination as readers. I am delighted to see that this accomplished writer's first foray into realm of the novel has proved such a towering success. I strongly encourage all readers to attend to this excellent text.
Keating's name will live on in the smart portrayal of Buster's life and career. I've always been an admirer of Keaton's movies but McPherson's witty explanation and scenario of Keaton's career brings his personality and achievements to life. It's a great read. I highly recommended it. Great Father's day gift.
As an avid film buff, this was an excellent read. I have seen many of Buster Keaton's films, but knew little about him personally. Mr. McPherson's witty prose takes the reader on a fun ride through the crazy life of a movie pioneer. Hopefully this book will enlighten a new generation to the genius of Buster Keaton. I highly recommend this book
Edward McPherson’s Tempest in a Flat Hat is the best Buster Keaton biography that is still in print. It is well researched and an easy read (a tough combo for any author). He does breeze through Buster’s later years, but there are other books that focus exclusively on Buster’s post MGM career. Highly recommended.