For a quarter of a century, people from around the world have gathered for the annual Buster Keaton Convention in Muskegon—where Keaton, a child vaudeville actor who became one of the biggest names in silent film, spent some of his happiest days in the early 1900s.
From Los Angeles filmmakers and Muskegon historians to newscasters from London and authors from Mississippi, among many others, the International Buster Keaton Society’s convention annually draws an eclectic group of Keaton devotees for the three-day event that is a celebration of one of the world’s most influential filmmakers and comedians.
This year, from Friday, Oct. 4 through Sunday, Oct. 6, the convention will celebrate its 25th anniversary with everything from Keaton film screenings and panel discussions to a “roaring twenties banquet” and local historian Ron Pesch’s walking tour of Muskegon, where attendees will get to explore many of Keaton’s childhood haunts. Convention events will be held in spaces throughout downtown and the city, including the Frauenthal Center, the Muskegon Museum of Art, and the Bluffton neighborhood.
“If anyone has even a tangential interest in Buster Keaton, this is three really full days of education, entertainment and appreciation,” said Convention Director Alek Lev, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and the vice president of the International Buster Keaton Society—also known as the “Damfinos.”
“There are people here who are super fans who know every single detail of his life, and there are folks who just like Buster Keaton or even just silent films,” Lev continued. “We have great presenters who’ve put a tremendous amount of thought and work into this. We have screenings literally no one has ever seen. This is a pure, good thing; it lets us just think about Buster and how he inspired us for three days.”
With both of his parents in vaudeville, Keaton—whose given name was Joseph and who, legend has it, landed the nickname of Buster from Harry Houdini—spent much of his childhood on the road. Born on Oct. 4, 1895 in the tiny town of Piqua, Kansas, Keaton and his family discovered Muskegon because of a vaudeville performance they had here—and they fell in love with the area.
In 1908, the Keaton family had a cottage built at the edge of the massive sand dune known as Pigeon Hill, and that same year, Buster Keaton’s father, Joe Keaton, established the Actors’ Colony—a thriving community of performers—in Muskegon’s Bluffton neighborhood. The colony would go on to operate in Muskegon through 1938.
From 1908 through 1917, Keaton and his family would spend every summer in Muskegon, and it was here that the burgeoning superstar learned what it was to feel at home. According to his widow, Eleanor Keaton, it was the actor’s “favorite place on Earth.”
“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908,” Keaton wrote in his autobiography.
One of this year’s convention highlights includes Keaton’s great-granddaughter, actress-singer-writer Keaton Talmadge, performing her one-woman show about motherhood, “Define: Unconditional—Adventures in ‘Because I said so,’” for attendees on the convention’s opening night, Friday, Oct. 4—which would have been Keaton’s 124th birthday. Additionally, Nina Roberts, the granddaughter of Joe Roberts—Keaton’s co-star who also lived in Muskegon—too will join the convention.
Additionally, the acclaimed Chicago theater organist Dennis Scott will once again provide live accompaniment for two Keaton silent films at 8pm on Saturday, Oct. 5 in the Frauenthal Theater. The Saturday night screenings—which are open to the public—will include “One Week,” a Keaton independent short film in which a newly married couple attempt to assemble a build-it-yourself house that has had its pieces misnumbered, and “The Cameraman,” the last major film made during the height of Keaton’s career. In “The Cameraman,” Keaton plays the titular figure who sets out to win over a local newsreel office secretary.
Much of this year’s convention is centered around its theme, “Next Stage,” an exploration of “what’s next” for those who love and study Keaton.
“What do we do now that we’re inspired by Buster Keaton?” said Lev, who has long been fascinated by “silent communication”—along with making his own silent films, he is also a sign language interpreter who has toured with the National Theater of the Deaf, performed with Deaf West Theater, and has interpreted for three presidents, two Broadway shows, and one Beatle.
“The theme is what’s next, the next stage,” Lev said. “So, we have a woman speaking about Buster Keaton as an editor, which is not a way he’s been looked at before; we have this amazing short video from Howest University in Belgium with students who rebuilt Buster Keaton clips as 3-D animation. It shows how Buster still inspires artists today; it’s really fantastic.”
Throughout the whirlwind weekend that is the convention, attendees not only get to learn about and celebrate a filmmaker whom they love—they get to do so with people who are just as passionate as they are in a place Keaton felt at home, Lev noted. In many ways, he explained it’s a chance for people to almost reach across time, touching the spaces Keaton once loved—and, even if just briefly, getting to step back from the chaos of life to appreciate the man whom writer and producer Werner Herzog called “one of the inventors of cinema.”
“You get to see where he lived; you’re communing for a second—this is as close as you’re going to get to Buster,” Lev said. “The first year I went, we got to play on a baseball field where Buster played. It’s surreal. Being in Muskegon is very special.”
The Buster Keaton Convention will be held from Friday, Oct. 4 through Sunday, Oct. 6. For more information about the convention, including how to register, please click here. For those interested in solely attending the Saturday night film screenings, tickets are $8 in advance and $10 the day of the event. Family tickets are available for $20. Tickets may be purchased at the Frauenthal Box Office (425 W. Western Ave.) or by clicking here.
To learn more about the Actors’ Colony and the Keatons’ history in Muskegon, you can go here.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photos courtesy of the International Buster Keaton Society.