Buster Keaton Was Not an Okie

by Jeff Martin

11/17/2012

Several months ago, I was in New York City for a few days, traveling alone and on a tight schedule. But there was one thing I promised myself not to miss. The Jewish Museum, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was hosting an exhibition focusing on the work and life of escape artist Harry Houdini. As I toured the galleries, just inches away from his handcuffs, straightjackets, and other props, I wondered, “Did Houdini ever pass through Oklahoma?”

This Land Bistro Mug now in stock.

In that spark of a moment, I promised to look into it when I got back to Tulsa. Houdini, as you’ll soon learn, actually did have a connection to our fair state. But what I assumed would be a lead role was quickly relegated to that of a supporting character, lending light to a much more compelling and surprising, well, half truth.

I catch myself thinking differently about everything these days. Each experience, every new finding, gets filtered through some sort of Oklahoma-shaped lens.

Perry, Oklahoma doesn’t get much in the way of press. The last real nationally newsworthy event involving Perry occurred April 19, 1995. A man driving a yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis was pulled over for speeding on Interstate 35. Hours earlier he had executed the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. But Timothy McVeigh is nobody’s poster child of civic pride. Still, in the 16 years since, nothing else has quite been able to surpass that dubious distinction. But part of Perry’s true legacy, its real claim to fame, has been all but lost on the people of Oklahoma.

On October 4, 1895, a century before the Oklahoma City bombing, Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas. His parents, Joe and Myra, had no real connection to the town of Piqua. But in the days before Dr. Spock and induced labor, babies were often born on the spot, be it in the back of a horse-drawn carriage or the home of a hospitable stranger. It was just two years prior, in 1893, that Joe met Myra while her family’s medicine show was traveling through the territory that would later become Oklahoma. But what is a medicine show, anyway?

Though they continued up to World War II, medicine shows reached the height of their popularity in the 19 century. The shows were usually made up of traveling horse and wagon teams selling “miracle cure” medications and other products. These “cures” came to be known as “snake oil,” a term now used to insinuate that a product’s claims are false. The charismatic leaders of these outfits would suggest to unwitting crowds that these elixirs had the ability to cure any disease, smooth wrinkles, remove stains, prolong life, or cure any number of common ailments. Between the business and hard selling, entertainment was provided to distract the rubes foolish enough to believe these ludicrous assertions. This often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, or storytelling.

Though the medicine show in this incarnation is a thing of the past, think about those late night infomercials. Same thing, new look.

Myra Edith Cutler (she never took the name Keaton) came from a long line of hucksters, showmen and irascible characters. Her father, Frank Cutler, co-owned the popular Cutler-Price Medicine Show. Though he was suspicious of this young drifter named Joe Keaton from (no kidding) Dog Walk, Indiana, Cutler hired him both to help behind the scenes, and to perform small parts from time to time. In a 1958 interview conducted by Columbia University, Buster recalls his father’s early days:

“He first heard about the gold rush in California, so he rode freight cars and bummed his way out to get into that. Not much luck. He got back home. About that time, Oklahoma opened up the Cherokee Strip, so he went into that, and he got himself 160 acres near Perry, Oklahoma. He became great friends with the man going alongside of him at the same time; that man was Will Rogers.”

When Keaton talks about the Cherokee Strip being “opened up,” he’s referring to a second Land Run, which occurred four years after the legendary run of 1889, on September 16, 1893. The “Cherokee Strip” in this case is actually the “Cherokee Outlet,” a 60-mile wide strip of land south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border. The real “Cherokee Strip” was a two-mile stretch that ran along the Outlet’s northern border, and came as a result of a surveying error.

According to the Cherokee Strip Museum in Perry, “By horse, train, wagon and on foot more than 100,000 land hungry pioneers raced for 40,000 homesteads and the valuable town lots available in the Cherokee Outlet Land Opening.” Eventually Joe Keaton acquired two city lots in Perry. But it appears at first glance that Buster, having either heard conflicting or perhaps even exaggerated versions of actual events, didn’t have the facts and chronology in order. He speaks of his father returning “a couple of years later” for another land run, what he refers to as “the day of the ‘Sooners.’” This reference indicates that Buster is talking about the Land Run of 1889 as if it happened after the Cherokee Strip Land Run. But what he is actually speaking of is the much lesser known land run of 1895. This was the final, and by all accounts the smallest land run in Oklahoma.

So it seems that Buster’s recollection is at least based in truth. However, what about that claim of his father’s friendship with Will Rogers during his initial land run experience? In the fall of 1893, Joe Keaton was 26 years old. Will Rogers, on the other hand, was about to turn fourteen. It seems highly unlikely that this young child could have been Joe’s “best friend” and “the man alongside him,” as Buster recalled. In his wonderful 1993 biography on Rogers, Ben Yagoda writes, “Will saved as mementos a business card upon which Joe Keaton, father of Buster and proprietor of a celebrated knockabout act, had scrawled, ‘Dear Carl, Give This Boy the Room you have—he’s my friend.” Maybe Buster never did the math. Perhaps he didn’t care about the “truth.” Coming from a long line of hucksters and Vaudevillians, what was truth anyway but a malleable tool?

NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON’T

After leaving the Cutler outfit and striking out on their own, Joe and Myra began working with a burgeoning magician-illusionist named Harry Houdini. A partnership was formed and the “Harry Houdini and Keaton Medicine Show Company” (also called “The Mohawk Indian Medicine Company”) was born. At the time of Buster’s birth, this was the family business. It was Houdini in fact who gave young Joseph the name “Buster.”

“I was 6 months old,” recalled Keaton, “in a little hotel we were living at in some town. I crawled out of the room, crawled to the head of the stairs, and fell down the whole flight of stairs. When I alit at the bottom and they saw that I was all right, I wasn’t hurt badly, they said, ‘It sure was a buster,’ and the old man said, ‘That’s a good name for him.’ I never lost the name.” The Keaton-Houdini partnership fizzled quickly. Within a year of Buster’s birth, the Keatons had ventured out into a new world, Vaudeville.

‘HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO THIS POOR BOY?’

When Buster was between roughly 7 and 14 years old, “The Three Keatons,” as they would come to be known, were the roughest “knockabout” act around. Joe would do humorous monologues, Myra would provide the music via saxophone, and Buster would be thrown around in all sorts of ill-advised, yet no doubt hilarious, acrobatic routines. In today’s world, parents often feel reluctant to slap a child’s bottom in public. A 1905 ad for The Three Keatons read: “Maybe you think you were handled roughly as a kid— watch the way they handle Buster!”

Life became even more nomadic, and young Buster had no real place to call home. He would visit his grandparents back in Perry during the summers, enjoying the peace and childhood adventures that life in the country could offer. After escaping the family act and Vaudeville circuit alive, Keaton headed to New York and met one Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Fatty gave Buster his entrée into films with 1917’s The Butcher Boy, in which Buster is smacked in the face with a sack of flour. He was hooked.

What followed is legendary. He wrote, directed and starred in more than two-dozen films including The General (1926), referred to by Orson Wells as the “greatest comedy ever made.” His amazing physical feats and deadpan delivery made him an icon fit to rival Chaplin. His “golden era” took place mostly in the silent era of the 1920s, but he continued acting and making films well into the ’50s and ’60s, appearing in such films as Around the World in 80 Days and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

IT GETS IN YOUR BLOOD

Although Buster was a Hollywood man and a longtime California resident, Perry never strayed too far from his mind. In 1957, Sidney Sheldon (later known as an acclaimed novelist), wrote and directed the feature biopic, The Buster Keaton Story, starring the nimble Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain) as Buster. As part of the promotion for the film’s release, the actual Buster embarked on a nationwide tour.

As part of this campaign to promote his own life story, Buster made a point to stop in Perry for a special “premiere.” The film was poorly received and lambasted for its inaccuracies. In her book Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, biographer Marion Meade writes, “In point of fact, The Buster Keaton Story embarrassed him. Reviewers roasted the picture.” “Apparently pure fiction,” decided the New York Herald Tribune. In the film, many details of Keaton’s life were altered or completely fabricated. For example, his family was never part of the circus and his father did not die performing in it.

In many ways this biographical embellishment made perfect sense. Buster Keaton was never a real person. He was a character, a performer. Buster Keaton wasn’t born, but created. Even his death in 1966 at age 70 seems quite inconsequential, because Buster Keaton lives on. Knowing this, it’s completely understandable why those quiet, simple memories in Perry meant so much to the man. As Meade points out, “All his life Keaton had dreamed of owning a home in the country. His most vivid memory was of visiting his grandparents in Oklahoma. He could remember little about the old people or the town of Perry, only the pleasurable feeling of the land and how he hated to leave.”

He died in Los Angeles.

Originally published online Aug. 24, 2011.